Category Archives: Renaissance

People of the Renaissance: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)

Of all the great writers of the sixteenth century Renaissance, Erasmus of Rotterdam was perhaps the most prolific. Born in the Burgundian Netherlands in 1466, Erasmus came to be known across Europe as one of the greatest minds of his time. Widely considered to be the father of Christian Humanism, Erasmus made close friendships and contacts with a variety of humanist intellectuals, clerics, and politicians in his day.

Now here in the United States, outside of academic circles Erasmus far less well known than he is in Europe. Here he is overshadowed by people like Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Leonardo, and Sir Thomas More. It was actually through Sir Thomas More that I came to know about Erasmus. More and Erasmus were widely considered to be best friends, and Erasmus stayed on a number of occasions for months at a time in the More house in London. For all of his intelligence and prowess as a speaker of Dutch, German, Latin, and Greek, Erasmus refused to learn English, and as such when More was out of the house at work, Erasmus would be left with More’s family who at first didn’t speak Latin. 

According a story told in John Guy’s book A Daughter’s Love, a link to which can be found in the description below, Erasmus was so annoyed waiting for Thomas More to come home from work that he wrote his book The Praise of Folly, in Latin the Moriae Encomium, whose title was a pun on the More family name. This book, written in a time of intense boredom became a best seller in its time and contributed to Erasmus’s fame across Europe.

Erasmus’s life corresponded to the invention and spread of the printing press across Europe from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in Strasbourg, in what is today France. Many of Erasmus’s books survive in their original sixteenth century printed editions, which can today be found in libraries and archives around the globe. Many are even available online as digitised PDFs that can be downloaded and read anywhere. Erasmus is especially famous for working with the Swiss printer Johann Froben, whose printshop in Basel produced some of the finest surviving early editions of Erasmus’s works.

One of Erasmus’s greatest accomplishments is his updated Latin translation of the New Testament, the second half of the Christian Bible. Being one of the greatest scholars of Ancient Greek in his day in Western Europe, Erasmus took some of the oldest and most genuine Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and brought them together into one solid Greek text, which Froben then printed side-by-side with Erasmus’s new Latin translation. Erasmus intended to help enrich the spiritual lives of Western Christians who, at the time of its publication in 1516, still used the Latin Vulgate Bible translated in the fifth century CE by St. Jerome. Yet his New Testament caused controversy in his day, and was one of the reasons that most of Erasmus’s works were banned by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation that began in the late-sixteenth century.

For all his talents, Erasmus was not known for being the most sociable man. He hated dancing, was a hypochondriac, and his letters are filled with his grumblings about this thing or that. Nevertheless, Erasmus took time to respond to those friends for whom he held affection, such as Sir Thomas More and his children, or to the English scholar John Colet.

Erasmus died in July 1536 in Basel after falling ill from dysentery. He was buried in Basel Minster, and while his body faded away, his memory lived on in the many scholars across Europe and in the Americas who he influenced. Today in 2018, the University of Toronto Press has published 86 volumes of Erasmus’s collected works, including the thousands of known letters that he wrote to correspondents as grand as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and as humble as Margaret Roper, the talented English humanist and daughter of Erasmus’s best friend Sir Thomas More.

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What was Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance Humanism was a philosophical tradition that came out of the reemergence of ancient Greek and Latin philosophy initially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Florence, that then spread out across Western Europe, impacting the philosophical, theological, and in some cases political outlook of intellectuals and scholars across Europe and in the overseas European colonies during the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century.

Humanism largely drew inspiration from the writings of Plato, a new turn in the long history of contention between Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy. Prior to the rise of Humanism, a number of Aristotelian philosophical traditions including Scholasticism were prevalent in Europe’s universities, based especially at the University of Paris. Humanism was as much a reaction to the complexities of Scholasticism as it was an attempt to renew the philosophical traditions of the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

Humanism in Italy largely drew on this pre-Christian Greek and Roman literary tradition, turning to ancient authors like Plato, Cicero, and Virgil for inspiration. Italian Humanism did not consider connecting and implementing Humanism in a religious setting to be quite as an imperative, instead seeing Humanism itself as a guide to good, virtuous living. Nevertheless, these same Humanist currents found their way into works of political realism like Machiavelli’s The Prince, which in a very humanist manner cites pre-Christian examples of good princes alongside their Christian counterparts.

In Northern Europe, Humanism took a different turn. There Humanism was most greatly impacted by the works of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who created a variant of Humanism distinct from that discussed in Italy, that has become known as Christian Humanism. Christian Humanism intended to merge the lessons of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy with the morals and teachings of pre-Reformation Christianity, what today is Roman Catholicism, in an effort to promote a new understanding of what made for a good, virtuous, life.

Erasmus’s Christian Humanism was particularly well received in England, where early English humanists like John Colet and William Grocyn introduced it to the centres of English learning at Oxford and Cambridge. They in turn taught a young Thomas More to read and write Greek. Today More is widely considered to be the most prolific English humanist of the sixteenth century. Through the letters of both Erasmus and More, as well as many other Humanists, we can see how they saw their own world, and what they wanted to accomplish with their new philosophical tradition, which today we call Renaissance Humanism.

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance is one of those terms that is commonly known but its meaning is not necessarily as ubiquitous. The word Renaissance comes from renaissance, which itself comes from the verb renaître, meaning to be “reborn”. Thus, Renaissance refers to a cultural rebirth. There have been many renaissances throughout history, from the artistic, literary, and musical powerhouse of the Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century, and the Carolingian Renaissance that saw the revival of ancient learning in the court of Charlemagne in Aachen, modern Germany, to the renaissance that my adopted city, Kansas City, is experiencing today.

]The Renaissance that I’m talking about was the originator of the term, the period between the late fourteenth century to the late sixteenth century in Western Europe. It was a time when the pre-Christian knowledge and writings of ancient Greece and Rome, long considered lost began to be reintroduced into Western and Central European society. These works came both from the Eastern Mediterranean, with the influx of Greek scholars into Italy, especially to Florence, after the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and from old monastic libraries, long locked away and forgotten.

During the Renaissance, scholars rediscovered and began to study and write about such classical authors as Lucretius, who proposed the existence of the atom in his work On the Nature of Thingsin the first century BCE. The Renaissance also saw the adaptation of the works of the Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose models have been used ever since.

While the Renaissance started in Italy and is most famous for the exploits of the Italian artists, writers, and musicians of the period, it spread northward across the Alps into the rest of Europe, changing the cultural landscape of France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the modern Netherlands and Belgium, Dernmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, as well as England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Some of the greatest Renaissance artists whose work is still admired today include Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo, Bruni, Holbein, and Drürer. The Renaissance also saw the creation of a number of great works of literature, from Machiavelli’s The Prince, to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, and Rabelais’sGargantua and Pantagruel.

The period saw great progress in Europe in the sciences as well, with the first modern works of natural history such as Gesner’s Gart der Gesundheit and Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body, an astoundingly accurate book on human anatomy. At the same time Tycho Brahe and Nicolas Copernicus making great advances in astronomy, determining the place of Earth in the Solar System and, in the case of Copernicus, coming to the conclusion through a though experiment that the Solar System was heliocentric, thus that everything revolved about the Sun, rather than geocentric as had previously been thought.

The Renaissance also saw the beginning of the European explorations to the far ends of the planet, with men like Columbus becoming the first European since Leif Eriksson to set foot in the Americas, and Magellan the commander of a fleet that became the first to circumnavigate the globe. On a less sunny side, the Renaissance coincided with the beginning of the European colonial conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of south and southeast Asia.

This is the period in history that I’ve chosen to study, I find the social changes during the Renaissance to be particularly fascinating. Today we can learn a great deal from the Renaissance as we undergo a similar period of change, in some ways turning away from the ideals and values first put in place by these “new thinkers” and through this “rebirth” of classical Greek and Roman culture over five hundred years ago now.