Undergirding the revolt in the 16th century was a single figure in the background, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), who himself remained a loyal son of the Catholic Church except possibly in his lifestyle, despite the refrain in his day that he “laid the egg” that reformers hatched. This Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, theologian and biblical translator and scholar is very much a man who speaks to our own troubled contemporary Christianity, just as he spoke to his.
From the beginning Erasmus, whose actual name was Geert Gerritszoon, was a misfit. He was born out of wedlock, the son of Gerard, a Catholic priest and curate in Gouda, and Margaretha Rutgers, who may have been Gerard’s housekeeper. He was baptized Erasmus after Saint Erasmus of Formiae, a favorite of Erasmus’ father; Desiderius (Latin for longing) was a self-adopted additional name he began using at the age of 30.
Despite his then-scandalous origins, his parents made sure he got the best education possible in monastic schools, in particular a school in Deventer where he was lucky enough to be among the first European students to study Greek well before university. His education there ended with the plague that broke out in 1483, which also took his mother, who had moved there to be with her son. In 1492, he took vows as a canon regular, meaning under a monastic rule, and was ordained a Catholic priest in Stein, Holland.
There he fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus. He wrote passionate letters in which he called the man “half my soul,” but his writings suggest that Servatius did not share his infatuation. Erasmus wrote, “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly.” There are also highly disputed claims of a possible affair a few years later with a young English nobleman whom he tutored; however, aside from that brief period there is no strong evidence he acted on his inclinations.
Erasmus left the canonry and was released from monastic vows when he was offered the job of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, thanks to his reputation as a man of letters skilled in Latin. In 1495, Bishop Henry allowed him to go study at the University of Paris, which had been the seat of scholasticism since Aquinas’ tenure there but was rapidly shifting toward Renaissance humanism.
From Paris, Erasmus gravitated toward various academic circles throughout his career, at the universities of Leuven, Cambridge and Basel, with a foray into Italy, where in 1506 he graduated as Doctor of Divinity at Turin University. Throughout his life, however, Erasmus sought to remain an independent scholar and made extensive efforts to avoid formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression.
The influence of Erasmus is mostly due to published works and his vast correspondence with a veritable who’s who of the Renaissance and Reformation, which was posthumously published. Scratch any of the reformers, and almost all of their principal opponents, and you will find his letters and writings smack in the middle, attempting to bridge differences with humor as peasants rose, popes fulminated and reformers raged.
The body of Erasmus’s work is vast and covered nine volumes when first published posthumously in 1540. Added to that is the equally hefty collection of his correspondence, published later.
The Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier, also rendered as Handbook of the Christian Knight), published in 1503, outlines a view of the Christian life. The spirit of his ideas is found in a quote that refers to his title: “We must forge a handy weapon, an enchiridion, a dagger, that you can always carry with you […] if you diligently train yourself in it, our sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ, will transfer you, rejoicing and victorious, from this garrison to the city of Jerusalem, where there is neither tumult nor war at all, but everlasting peace and perfect tranquility.”
The work I have personally read in its entirety is The Praise of Folly (in the original Moriae encomium), dedicated to Sir Thomas More, whose name the title puns. It is a satirical attack on overwrought piety in Europe and the clergy of the Western Church in particular, published in 1511. It could have been written in our time.
He also wrote Education of a Christian Prince in 1516, as advice to the then-young king Charles of Spain, who would become Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. It was written three years after Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici. Erasmus advised the prince to seek to be loved and obtain a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming an oppressor.
His major contribution at the time was a new Greek New Testament, first published in 1516, which he compared with the Latin version currently in use, correcting both. Luther was later to use Erasmus’ translation for his Bible.
At the time free will was a crucial question. Erasmus dealt with it in Of free will: Discourses or Comparisons, lampooning the Lutheran view and sharply criticizing tendencies toward predestination.
In later, less-well-known works, Erasmus criticized the clergy and advanced the idea that the Church is made up of all Christians, not just the clergy, who are merely servants of the Church. He criticized the Church’s riches and repeatedly argued that its purpose is to help people lead Christian lives and that priests should be pure and focus on the gospel, from the pope on down. Erasmus did remain loyal to the pope’s authority. He stressed and indeed invented a term that emphasized a middle way (Via Media) and held fast to traditional faith, piety and grace.
Erasmus kept some distance from Martin Luther and Henry VIII, although he corresponded with both in Latin, while also reaching popes and nurturing a lifelong friendship with Thomas More, the Catholic Englishman who notably opposed the establishment of the Church of England.
He criticized the clergy’s abuses and saw in them good cause for reform. He made a point of emphasizing that he was not attacking the Church itself or its doctrines, but was also not shy about cautioning the reformers about both the style and substance of their arguments. He favored satire written in scholarly Greek and Latin, just as popular knowledge of classical languages was declining. Thus he only reached a rarified top-rung readership, not regular people, and did not acquire followers.
This did not prevent him from becoming a key shadow figure who influenced more than a few leaders in the key developments of his time.