February 5, 2023
Forbidden City 2001

by Sofie Couwenbergh

Desiderius Erasmus was a scholar and a humanist born around October 27 1466 in Rotterdam. His birth name was actually Gerrit Gerritszoon (Gerard Gerardson), but he Latinized it at a later date.



Erasmus and his brother first went to a great school in Deventer, but when both their parents died of the plague his guardians sent them to a school at ‘s Hertogenbosch where the educational level was lower than the level they’d already reached at Deventer. Eventually the guardians insisted that the brothers would enter the Augustinian monastery at Steyn, near Gouda.

Although Erasmus had never felt any vocation, he agreed to be ordained a priest as this would probably give him better chances of leaving the monastery. He must have considered himself lucky when he shortly after got the chance to become the Latin secretary of Henry of Bergen, the bishop of Cambrai. This was somewhere around 1492.

Another four years later the bishop didn’t need Erasmus’s services anymore and the latter convinced the bishop to send him to the university of Paris to complete his studies. To earn money Erasmus started tutoring wealthy young students and one of them, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited him to come to England with him in 1499.

It’s there that Erasmus met Thomas More and the two became friends for life. An even more important encounter was the one with John Colet, who taught Erasmus how to reconcile his faith with humanism by replacing the scholastic method with a study of the Scriptures.

Erasmus was offered to lecture about the Old Testament at Oxford, but he felt like he couldn’t thoroughly do this without knowing Greek and so he returned to Paris. Not long after, however, the plague broke out and with a short stop in Orléans, Erasmus ended up in Louvain (now my hometown in Belgium, before part of Brabant in the Netherlands). There he studied Greek every day until he could read and write it.

For unclear reasons Erasmus left again for England in 1505. One year later he saw an opportunity to visit Italy as the tutor to the sons of the physician of Henry VIII. He was given a doctorate in Theology in Turin and also spent time in Bologna, Florence and Venice before moving to Padua, where he became tutor to the illegitimate sons of King James IV of Scotland. He even went to Rome, but refused to stay there and receive ecclesiastical promotion.

The reason for this is that Henry VIII had just inherited the throne in England and Erasmus was hoping that the new king, who had shown an interest in literature, would offer him a good position.

It was on his way back to England (1509) that Erasmus conceived what might be his most famous work: The Praise of Folly. This satirical work, which he completed in England while staying with Thomas More, criticizes the follies of the different classes of society, but especially of the Church.

Erasmus lived in England for five years, teaching at Cambridge and doing other academic work. However, when he realized that Henry VIII would not appoint him, he returned to Brabant.

There he was named honorary councilor to the then 16-year old archduke Charles, the future Charles V. He was also commissioned to write his Education of a Christian Prince (1516) and The complaint of peace (1517).

In 1517 he became a member of the faculty of theology in Louvain and took an interest in the newly founded Trilingual College, where Latin, Greek and Hebrew were taught. Erasmus believed that the education of theology had to be based on the study of languages. He expressed this in his Ratio vera Teologiae (1518).

This belief, in combination with his revised edition of the New Testament, based on the Vulgate, caused a lot of controversy among his fellow scholars in Louvain.

Erasmus had always been critical of the Church and when, around the same time, Luther gained attention, Erasmus was blamed for inspiring Luther and supporting the Reformation.

However, up until then Erasmus had never really taken side in the dispute between Luther and the old, catholic Church. He agreed with Luther on several points and also wanted reforms within the Church, but he did not feel for a separation and disputed other arguments Luther brought forward. Erasmus always claimed neutrality and was stuck in a position between Rome, to which he claimed fidelity, and Luther, who he entered in polemics with, but who he did not publicly wanted to take position against.

Seeking more neutral ground he left Brabant for the more humanist Basel in December 1521, where his preferred printer Johann Froben was located. This, however, didn’t keep him from being criticized for his ‘indecisiveness’ and distrusted for not defending the old Church. Many of his friends, amongst whom a lot of important men, as well as Emperor Charles V, urged him to take up his pen against Luther.

When he eventually did, in 1524, it turned into a polemic which resulted in a break between the two men. Although some Catholics believed that Erasmus had now rehabilitated himself, others still distrusted him as he still hadn’t fully taken the side of the Church. Erasmus still thought that reforms were needed and hoped that Catholics and Reformists could be reconciled.

However, as the Reformation became more dominant in Basel and Catholics weren’t welcome anymore, Erasmus and other humanists had to move to the Catholic university town of Freiburg im Breisgau. He only returned to Basel in 1835 to have his Ecclesiastes printed. One year later, while he was preparing to return to Brabant, he died of dysentery.

Erasmus Program


Everybody studying in Europe has heard of the Erasmus Program. It’s a student exchange program named after Erasmus because of his scholarship and perpetual travels through Europe. ERASMUS, an acronym for European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, allows students to go study abroad or gather work experience in companies all over Europe. Apart from that it supports university staff and training and funds co-operation projects between higher education institution across Europe.The program took off in 1987 and has since allowed more than 3 million students to study abroad.

Famous quotes by Erasmus

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”
“In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
“To know nothing is the happiest life.”

Further Reading


Author Bio
Sophie Cauwenbergh
Sofie is a Belgian language lover and travel aficionada who combines a full-time job with a never-ending wanderlust and an upcoming freelance business. She uses her weekends, vacation days and public holidays to travel the world and share her experiences with you on wonderfulwanderings.com. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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