“Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”
“The desire to write grows with writing.”
“War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.”
Desiderius Erasmus was born on this day in Rotterdam, Holland in 1467 (or perhaps 1466). Today is the 545th (546th) anniversary of his birth.
He was the illegitimate son of Gerard (aka Roger) of Gouda and his housekeeper, Margaret Rogers. He was their second son. Gerard either was a Catholic priest at the time of Erasmus’ birth or he took vows soon after. Although his parents never married the boys weren’t neglected. Their father saw to it that they were well educated. He sent 9-year-old Erasmus and 12-year-old Pieter to “one of the best Latin grammar schools in the Netherlands near Deventer.” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] Margaret moved to the town to take care of the boys. At this semi-monastic school they and learned Latin, Greek and a humanist approach to literature and culture.
In 1483 the Black Plague hit the city. Margaret died and the boys went back to Gouda. Gerard soon fell ill too. At his death the brothers were left with a small inheritance in the hands of three guardians. At first they were sent to a grammar school. “The highest level of study there did not go up to the level the brothers had already completed at Deventer. Erasmus regarded this period as a total waste.” [Ibid] The boy’s options were limited.
“Since the two boys had only a small inheritance and, being born out-of-wedlock, were not eligible for an ordinary career as secular priests or for membership in many professions, entry into a monastery was their only realistic option.”[ibid]
It was an option neither of them wanted, but Pieter agreed, and after much pressure Erasmus finally gave in. He entered the Steyn monastery in 1487 as a novice.
“He felt no true religious vocation for such a step, and in later years characterized this act as the greatest misfortune of his life. … He was left free, however, to pursue his studies, and devoted himself mainly to the ancient classics, whose content and formal beauty he passionately admired.”[New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia]
Here he found kindred spirits who shared his love of classical literature. He wrote De Contemptu mundi (On Contempt of the World) while at Steyn (although it wasn’t published until 1521). Still he resented the limits on his activities and freedoms, and he felt thwarted by the limited intellect of some of the other monks (he wrote about that in Antibarbarorum liber (Book Against the Barbarians). None the less he agreed to be ordained as a priest in 1492.
Ordination should have turned the lock in the monastery, gate as it were, but Erasmus’ was already “identified as an intelligent and widely read monk with an outstanding Latin style.” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] and about a year after taking final vows he was plucked from the monastery to act as secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen. It was to be a temporary assignment, but some how he managed never to return.
Erasmus persuaded the bishop to send him to study theology at the University of Paris, in the Collège de Montaigu. He found Montaigu less than wonderful. The food was so bad it ruined his digestive system for life. The housing was filthy. And the students were expected to do menial labor along with their studies. He also “expressed hostility to the traditional scholastic theology based on questions, disputations, and reliance on Aristotle.” [Ibid] He found it, in a word, medieval. ” But Paris also had an active literary life and had been thoroughly exposed to the humanistic culture of Italy. The city and the court had a substantial circle of humanists.” [Ibid]
For the next two decades he travelled back and forth across Europe staying in Paris, Leuven (Belgium), England, Basel (Switzerland) and Italy but he consciously avoided any permanent alliances that would limit his intellectual freedom or literary expression. “…after his return from England in 1500, religion as well as the study of Greek became more prominent in his thought.”[Ibid] He was determined to master Greek so he could translate biblical texts and he focused a good deal of his attention on the writings of “St. Jerome, the most learned of the ancient Latin Fathers… ” [Ibid] He received the degree of Doctor of Divinity at Turin. He befriended printer/publisher Aldus Manutius and embraced the new technology of the printing press as a way to communicate.
In 1514 he went to Basel and met with publisher Johann Froben who became his publisher of choice for the rest of his life. He worked with Froben to publish Novum Instumentum (later Novum Testamentum which “included the first published edition of the Greek text of the New Testament, accompanied by a cautious revision of the traditional Latin New Testament and by Erasmus’ annotations explaining how in specific passages…” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] This ‘new testament’ was a marketing coup as much as it was a literary masterpiece. In Spain a bigger, better financed (and probably better researched — they had better Greek manuscripts) New Testament was sitting in a warehouse waiting the blessing of Cardinal-Archbishop of Toledo (the work’s sponsor.) Erasmus and Froben were under no such editorial control. The Spanish…
“Edition was made obsolete even before publication by Erasmus’ humanistic methods of textual criticism. The future of biblical studies belonged to the new philological and critical methods developed by Erasmus, not to the cautious and traditionalist approach of the Spanish scholars Their edition was obsolete [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
It didn’t hurt that he dedicated his Greek/Latin hybrid New Testament to Pope Leo X. in 1517 He published his research on St. Jerome (all seven volumes of it) ” confirming his status as the greatest scholar of his generation.” [Ibid] Erasmus and Froben also put out a new addition of the former’s Adages with additional proverbs.
The Adages became not only a handy tool for those who wrote in Latin but also a medium for expressing Erasmus’ opinions, and the book was another literary and financial success, frequently reprinted throughout the century. [Ibid]
In 1516 Erasmus petitioned the Pope Leo X for “relief from certain legal disabilities.”[Ibid]
1. the burden and consequences of his illegitimate birth
2. his membership in the monastery at Steyn
3. having to wear the robes of the Augustinian monks
Leo approved the petition. Erasmus moved to the University of Louvain in the Netherlands.Although his German Humanism was not a perfect match with the more conservative Louvian theology Erasmus seemed to have found a home.
But then there was that GERMAN, Martin Luther, who went and nailed his protest to the door of a church. “With remarkable rapidity, reform-minded young German humanists (and many older ones also) who had become admirers of Erasmus identified Luther’s ideas and reform program with those of Erasmus, regarding Luther and Erasmus as leaders of a single movement.” [Ibid] Erasmus HAD been a vocal critic regarding the follies and abuses of the clergy, but it was against his nature to take up a partisan position on the issue of Protestantism.
“The emergence of Luther caused serious problems for Erasmus across a broad front, including his situation in Louvain….Erasmus came under intense pressure to join in their denunciation of Luther, but he was unwilling to do so, claiming that he was so busy that he had read none, or almost none, of Luther’s publications. In reality, he had read at least some of Luther’s books with great interest and had concluded that while Luther took extreme positions on some questions and might have made some errors, there was much to be praised in his works.” [Ibid]
Unable to denounce Luther Erasmus moved from Louvian to Basel, back to his old friend the printer, Froben. He lived there for eight years until the city “reformed” in 1529. He felt morally obligated “to leave a city where open Catholic worship was suppressed. He moved to the near-by city of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, also a university town. ” [Ibid]
He died in 1536 …
“He did not have a priest available to administer last rites, and there is no evidence that he desired such ministrations, which he had always respected if done in the right spirit but never considered very important. He died during the night of 11–12 July. A whole host of ailments contributed to his end, but dysentery was the immediate cause.”[Ibid]