By Lady Isabelle de Foix


Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466--1536) was born in Rotterdam, the son of unwed parents, a priest and the daughter of a local physician. He started his schooling at Gouda at the age of four. Five years later he was sent to a school at Deventer, which was run by the Brethren of the Common Life, a loosely knit group of devout people who practiced what was called the "moderna devotio," or "modern devotion." This was an increased emphasis on an individual relationship between the individual believer and God and a stronger emphasis on the Bible as the primary source of Christian practices and beliefs. The practitioners of the moderna devotio displayed little interest in institutional practices of the Catholic Church, particularly the sacraments and monasticism. The moderna devotio had a lasting influence on Erasmus. So did the patron saint of the Brethren, St. Jerome, author of the Vulgate.

In 1484 Deventer was ravaged by the plague, which claimed both of his parents, as well as twenty of Erasmusí schoolmates. He went to Steyn and entered an Augustinian monastery. He took vows as a monk here 1487. He found life in the monastery stifling and uncongenial. He had inherited some books from his father, Latin classics and works by earlier humanists. His fellow monks were hostile to humanism. Nevertheless Erasmus wrote his first works in this monastery; they showed much of the brilliantly chatty, idiomatic Latin that he was to become famous for. In 1492 he was ordained a priest, and obtained permission to leave the monastery to enter the service of Henrick van Bergen as his Latin secretary. Van Bergen, an aristocratic bishop from Flanders, aspired to become a cardinal. In anticipation of his elevation to the cardinalate, Van Bergen had plans to go to Italy, which Erasmus wished to visit. The monastic vows he had taken were still in force; he was expected to return to the monastery after his service. Van Bergen never became a cardinal; this ruined any possibility of Erasmus accompanying him to Italy. At this point Erasmus, with the permission of his Order, went to Paris to study theology at the Sorbonne, the University of Parisí prestigious theology school.

In the late fifteenth century the University of Paris was rife with various kinds of academic disputes and student rowdiness, which often resulted in ugly confrontations between the students and the citizens of Paris. The universitiesí narrow focus on the teaching of professions--theology, law, and medicine--excluded humanism. The University stubbornly held onto Scholastic teaching methods and philosophy, which had seen their heyday in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Scholastics imparted all of their knowledge in the framework of a system of logic called dialectic, which had been originated by Aristotle. Following this system of logic, first a philosophical concept is stated. Then an argument against this very concept is stated. Ultimately, a compromise is reached between these two conflicting viewpoints. This rigid system made no room for the classical literature the scholars of the Renaissance promoted; they thought of it as dated cobweb--spinning. Erasmus gave up his dream of becoming a member of the theology faculty at Paris as soon as he realized how antagonistic the University was toward humanism. His destiny was intertwined with the destiny of northern European humanism, which can be rightfully called "Christian humanism." The northern European humanists took Petrarchís notion of finding and examining manuscripts in their original composition and applied this to a quest for "Christian truth" in the original texts of their religionís scriptures. The humanists of northern Europe took Christianity much more seriously than the Italian ones did. It was precisely this brand of humanism that became the heart and soul of Erasmusí plan for educational reform in Europe.

. At the University of Paris, Erasmus first lodged in a college. Colleges were basically hospices for poor scholars, and the college Erasmus lived in was called La College de Montaigu. Life in these colleges was strictly regimented, and the College de Montaigu was under the supervision of an ascetic cleric, Jan Standock, who expected the residents of the college to adopt to his lifestyle of extreme abstinence and austerity. He enforced the rules by chastising any student for minute infraction of these rules. The rooms were dirty, and the food was bad. Even worse, Standock imposed a Scholastic orthodoxy among the students. After only six months at the College, Erasmus took ill and went back to the Netherlands. He returned in 1496 to pursue his literary endeavors, attempting to support himself by teaching young aristocrats. No one in this period could make a living as an author. Only well-known authors were paid for their work, and there were no copyright laws. The author lucky enough to get his works published usually received several copies of his book and nothing more. Scholars were obliged to either find rich patrons or to get a benefice. Most, if not all, of Erasmusí students in Paris were also foreigners. One of Erasmusí students in Paris was a young English aristocrat, William Blunt, fourth Baron Mountjoy. In 1499 Mountjoy invited him to visit England. In England, Erasmus met two other men who would greatly influence his life and work. One of these was Sir Thomas More, who would become his best friend. The other was John Colet, a very learned theologian. Colet and Erasmus carried on many a friendly debate that facilitated Erasmusí growth as a scholar. Colet wished Erasmus to lecture on the Bible at Oxford; Erasmus did not think he could do this, so he refused. Colet was content to lecture on the Bible without studying it in its original Greek and Hebrew texts; Erasmus was not. His goal in life at this point had become the editing Jeromeís Vulgate, using the original Hebrew and Greek texts from the first century C.E. Like other humanists, he wanted to go to the textual core of the documents he was studying. He developed a feeling of scholarly and personal kinsmanship with Jerome. Both were adept at ancient languages; both dedicated themselves to work on the Bible; and neither one of them could stand criticism, no matter how much they themselves criticized others.

Erasmus returned to France in the summer of 1500. His English friends had given him twenty pounds, which was about $2,000 in modern currency. This was to give him some financial security amidst the uncertainty of life as a scholar. Unfortunately, a fourteenth-century statute forbade anyone to take either silver or gold out of England. More and Mountjoy had told him that he could get around this law by exchanging English money for foreign currency; they had been mistaken. The customs officials at Dover confiscated nearly all of the money, leaving Erasmus nearly penniless.

Erasmus was devastated and embittered by this trauma. He was left to suffer the lot of many a scholar, destitution. "The wound received in England begins to smart only now that it has become inveterate, and that the more as I cannot have my revenge in any way," he wrote to his old schoolmaster and friend, James Batt. He had to be careful about the way he controlled his emotions following the disaster; he could not afford to alienate any of his patrons in England. Ironically, this incident was the indirect cause of Erasmusí first major work. He wished to show the English people that he had no hard feelings toward them over the incident, since news of the disaster had spread around the country. He therefore resolved to write a book and dedicate it to Mountjoy.

The book, the Adagiorum Collectanea, was a collection of about 800 quotations from classical authors, which Erasmus rewrote for stylistic purposes. Aside from the dedication to Mountjoy, the book was meant as a tool for the teaching of Latin. Erasmusí greatness was in his incomparable mastery of the Latin language and extraordinary knowledge of the classics, the Church Fathers, and the Bible. No other humanist wrote in Latin in such a natural, spontaneous style; it was almost as if Latin was his first, rather than his second, language. Had he not been such a brilliant Latinist, he would have never become a successful writer. No other humanist reached as many people as did Erasmus. The book became very popular and made Erasmus famous as a scholar and educator. Needless to say, he benefited enormously by the printing press; in fact, he was the first European author to write strictly for the printing press. He later expanded the book to more than three thousand entries, and this was published by Aldus Manutius in 1508. Many of the expressions in modern speech are derived from this book. They include

A necessary evil, to leave no stone unturned, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, putting the cart before the horse, to have one foot in the grave, to call a spade a spade, to break the ice, to look a gift horse in the mouth, like father, like son...


In 1504 Erasmus left Paris, dodging an outbreak of the plague in the city. He went to Louvain, in what is now Belgium, where there was a prestigious university. One day in the summer in 1504, he discovered a manuscript that had been written by an Italian scholar, Lorenzo Valla (1406--1457). This work, "Adnotationes ad novum testamentum" ("Notes of the New Testament") had pointed out many linguistic errors in the text of the Vulgate and recommended that scholars submit the Vulgate to rigorous philological examination. He went to Switzerland to get Vallaís work published, and then, in 1505, he returned to England to write his own copy of the New Testament in Greek from documents he was able to borrow. While there he and Colet made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Their guide was offended when Colet commented that some of the money used to maintain the shrine could be better used in helping the poor in Canterbury. The guide then showed the two humanists some milk, which had allegedly come from the Virgin Maryís breasts, as well as bones, which had been Becketís. These were to be kissed reverently. Colet refused to kiss an ancient shoe that had belonged to Becket. The guide then produced a cloth that Becket had supposedly used as a handkerchief. The humanists winced and promptly left.

In London Erasmus met with good fortune. Henry VIIís Italian physician was sending his sons to study in northern Italian universities, and he offered Erasmus the job of being their chaperone. Erasmus grabbed the opportunity, and he and his charges set off for Bologna. While in Bologna Erasmus saw Pope Julius II enter the city in an ornate chariot after conquering it, a revival of an ancient Roman ceremony in which the conquering general rode through the streets followed by his captives. Erasmus was horrified. Was this Pope Julius, he asked, or Julius Caesar? He complained that the popeís continued bellicose policies were damaging Italian scholarship, and that the taxes imposed on the conquered cities were particularly burdensome to the poor. In Rome he was offered a Curial appointment but turned it down for fear that it would impede his freedom. He was also disappointed in the state of the Roman Curia because it had taken on the appearance of "pagan" Rome rather than the capital of the Roman Catholic Church, which was what he had expected to see. The cardinals lived in palaces reminiscent of those of the Roman magnates of antiquity, not like the Apostles. In 1508 he went to Venice to work with Aldus Manutius. Then in 1509 he received two letters from England. One was from Mountjoy, who was excited by the accession of Henry VIII. Englandís new King had received a thoroughly humanist education, and he himself wrote to Erasmus inviting him to England. Erasmus envisioned this humanist ruler as a patron, so he accepted the Kingís invitation. While he traveled, he reflected upon his experiences of contact with other human beings. He had seen strife, greed, cruelty, hypocrisy, and a myriad of other human failings. These reflections led to the spark of inspiration to write his best-known book, the deceptively light-hearted "Praise of Folly"

Arriving in England, he stayed with More. He later claimed that he had only needed seven days to write "Praise of Folly." Its Greek name, "Morias enkomion," was a pun on Moreís name; it meant both "Praise of Folly" and "Praise of More." In his introduction, or "prefatory letter, which was directly addressed to More, Erasmus wrote "...it was your own family name of More, which is as near to the Greek word for folly, moria, as you are far from it." The book was a paradox; while it was presented as a light-hearted satire, it was, in fact, both serious social commentary and an advocacy of Erasmusí educational ideas, which were a real threat to the prevalent Scholasticism taught by schoolmasters. More specifically, "Praise of Folly" exhibited Erasmusí desire to base Christianity on the Bible, which, of course, he believed was divine revelation, rather than human authorities like popes and councils. In the allegorical tradition of the Middle Ages, folly was represented as a goddess, Stultitia. To Erasmus, the word "morias" not only meant folly and stupidity, but also emotion and impulse as opposed to reason and deliberation. To illustrate this, Stultitia introduces her attendants, Flattery, Forgetfulness, Madness, Sensuality, Idleness, Pleasure, Revelry, and Sound Sleep. We owe our lives to her, Stultitia tells us, owes its existence to her; what man using his rational thinking faculty would enter upon the constraints of the married life? What woman would take a husband if she thought about the pain and risks of childbirth? They were motivated by her attendant, Madness. Isnít childhood, the most ignorant part of our lives, also the happiest? No relationship is possible without folly. And what about self-respect? "Remove me," says Stultitia, "and no one could put up with his neighbor, indeed, heíd stink in his own nostrils and find everything about himself loathsome and disgusting." The narrative gets more intense when Erasmus considers the schoolmaster, whom he considers the biggest fools of all. He refers to their schools as "torture chambers" They pride themselves on knowledge of useless nonsense. Stultitia claims that the man whose philosophy of education was very popular in the Middle Ages, the Roman educator Quintilian, wrote "a chapter on laughter that is longer than the Iliad". Likewise he attacks corruption in the Church. With Stultitiaís help, a man can stop worrying about his "perjury, lust, drunkenness, quarrels, killings, frauds, perfidy, and treachery" by giving up a coin for an indulgence or a particular favor from a saint. Deceit gives this fool peace of mind. The cardinals, supposedly the successors of the apostles, live and act like kings. They think their red hats and purple cloaks entitle them to this. They do not use their reason and therefore donít comprehend that they bear very little resemblance to Jesusí apostles, who were poor and most likely never even saw, much less wore, extravagant purple robes. The book ends with an affirmation of Platonism, which was derived from that of Marsilio Ficino. Like Ficino, Erasmus believed that souls were always moving toward God. Like Ficinoís greatest student, Pico della Mirandola, he believed that man had moral self-determination. Pico had written

Confined within no bounds, you shall fix the limits of your own nature according to the free choice in whose power I have placed you. We have made you neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom and honor you should be your own sculptor and maker, to fashion your form as you choose. You can fall away into the lower natures which are the animals. You can be reborn by the decision of your soul into the higher natures which are divine.


The use of "pagan" philosophers in Christian theology sparked a dispute over the possibility of salvation of non-Christians. The dispute had started with the Scholastics, who realized many of the pre-Christian philosophers had possessed very moral characters, but denied that they could be saved because of their lack of "grace" because grace was based on faith. To them, morality had to take the back seat in a Christian life; faith was too important for it to be otherwise. On the other hand, the northern European humanists seriously pondered the possibility of the salvation of the wise, moral writers of the Greek and Roman classics. Erasmus himself admitted that he could not resist praying to "Saint Socrates" after reading a letter Ficino had written on the "sanctity" of Socrates . . . This view of Erasmusí was in large part due to his emphasis on the importance of morality. After reading a work of Ciceroís in 1523, he claimed that reading Cicero had improved his own moral character. He went so far as to charge that many of the Church fathers had weaker moral characters than did Cicero.

In 1514 Erasmus went again to Basel, in Switzerland, with his manuscript of his new translation of the New Testament. The Greek text of the Gospels he used was a poor translation which had been done by a fourteenth-century scholar unknown to history. The rest of the texts also dated from the fourteenth century, with the exception of the Apocalypse, which dated from the eighth century C.E. Erasmus mistakenly believed that this text dated from the first century C.E. Furthermore, Erasmusí knowledge of Greek was incomplete. Alongside the Greek text in Erasmusí edition of the Bible there was a Latin translation as well as commentary. This translation was not the improvement on the Vulgate that Erasmus had hoped for, but he did open the door to later scholars who did textual analysis of the Vulgate.

By 1516 Erasmus was regarded as the greatest scholar in Europe. He was hailed as the "ornament of Europe." In 1515 Uldrich Zwingli, who was to lead the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland visited Erasmus. The following year Zwingli called him the "greatest philosopher and theologian." Another scholar wrote that "Ď Praise of Follyí is embraced as the highest wisdom." When rumor spread that one of his works was about to be banned by the Sorbonne, a Parisian printer quickly ran off 24,000 copies that sold like hotcakes. In that year the university at Louvain made him a member of their faculty. Erasmus had high hopes for the future of his plan for educational and Church reform.

Erasmus believed that corruption in the Church could be ended with his program of educational reform. First and foremost, harmony in the Church was necessary. As a neo-Platonist, Erasmus viewed the universe as a well-ordered, harmonious entity; nothing must be allowed to disturb this order. Without concord, he believed, the Holy Spirit could not communicate with the Church. The function of theology was that of a tool that helped people develop morally. The study of the classics enables scholars to teach using that familiar tool of medieval writers, allegory, which was part of the study of grammar in the late Middle Ages. Wisdom and knowledge, Erasmus believed, would improve from generation to generation through increasing knowledge of the original texts of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. To obtain this knowledge and wisdom, a knowledge of Greek, the language of the New Testament, was necessary. Needless to say, this reform program was conceived to evolve slowly over time. Just when he believed he was planting the seeds of this reform program, a development of monumental proportions buried it along with the rest of the Renaissance. This development was the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation is outside of the scope of this article, but its relationship to the Renaissance calls for an explanation. It ended the Renaissance because the Reformers rejected the notion of the dignity of human beings and returned to the early medieval emphasis on manís sinfulness. The humanists believed in free will; the Reformers were staunch determinists. This determinism became the Calvinist doctrine of "predestination", the teaching that God had planned everything that happened and people were helpless to change anything. The Reformers scorned reason as much as the humanists had respected it. Although many humanists supported the Reformation in its embryonic phase because they too were disgusted with corruption in the Church, many of them, including Erasmus, also became disgusted with the confrontationist, dogmatic nature of the Reformation. In truth, Erasmus did not understand the social, religious, or political nature of sixteenth-century Europe; he was the archetypical "ivory-tower academic." Martin Luther, a minerís son from the eastern German territories, did understand the society in which he lived. He did only what he needed to do to take on the most powerful institution in Europe and win his campaign for Church reform. This required a will of steel, the courage of a warrior, and convictions set in stone, and Luther had these character traits. The sixteenth century was to belong to the Reformers and their Catholic opponents, the Counter-Reformers.

Erasmus was blamed by many Catholics as the instigator of the dispute, because he had criticized corruption in the Church so relentlessly. Some of the beliefs of the moderna devotio, with its emphasis on a direct relationship between the individual and God without the intermediation of the Church and the desire to base Christian teachings on Biblical sources rather than the "sacred tradition" of the Catholic Church were indeed ideas embraced by Protestants and rejected by Catholics. In 1521 he was dismissed from his post at Louvain as an alleged heretic. Other condemnations came from Paris, Milan, and Spain. Meanwhile, he infuriated the Reformers for refusing to join them. He continued to hold to his "middle ground" of gradual Church reform, which irritated both Catholic authorities and the Reformers. Officially, he never left the Catholic Church, in part because of his neo-Platonic conviction that discord in the Church harmed its relationship to God, and because he never ceased to hold the medieval view of the Church as one corporate structure requiring unity to exist. Also, he never lost the Renaissance concept of the fundamental dignity of the human being; this, after all, was why their scholars were called "humanists". This cost him the respect he had from European scholars, most of whom took sides in the dispute. Nevertheless, he never strayed from his "middle way" of advocating gradual rather than revolutionary reform in the Church. His motto was "Cado nulli"--"I yield to no one". He continued to blast corruption in the Church as well as Lutherís intense and often bellicose methods of reform until his death in 1536.

Erasmusí educational ideas shaped education for four hundred years. The concept of being able to use knowledge and wisdom as a moral force and the necessity of much study to acquire this knowledge was part of his legacy. However, his most important educational accomplishment was to elevate academic standards to a new level. He was the greatest of the humanists.