Erasmus of Rotterdam – Prince of the Humanists

Desiderius Erasmus Roterdamus by Hans Holbein the Younger

On October 27, 1466Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian Desiderius Erasmus Roterdamus, also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam was born. He was the dominant figure of the early-16th-century humanist movement.

Erasmus was given the best education possible during these years. Along with his older brother, he attended Latin schools where he also learned Greek. He became a priest and secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai before enrolling at the University of Paris. The school faced increasing influences of the Renaissance humanism, which also showed impact on Erasmus. In this period, Erasmus was also educated in Leuven, England, and Basel. Even though he liked not many of these places, England influenced him quite a bit. Erasmus was inspired by several Bible teaching classes, especially by those of John Colet. He came back to Paris, motivated to improve his Greek and to work on new Bible translations.  Even though he was offered several academic positions, Erasmus declined all of them to study independent from formal ties. This meant that he lived in poverty for most of his life and wrote letters to friends, asking for studying money. At Leuven, Erasmus received mostly criticism and left for Basel in order to being able to express himself completely free. He was admired from all over Europe for the writings he published in Basel and became friends with notable academics.

Slowly, Erasmus started writing about recent topics of literature and religion, while always intending to remain faithful to the Catholic Church. Soon, he became one of the most influential writers of this time and started corresponding with hundreds of intellectuals all over Europe. His interest in the New Testament grew and he began working on the Latin New Testament in 1512. Several editions followed, which kept improving and functioned as foundations for further translations, like Martin Luther‘s German translation of the Bible. The fourth edition in 1527 even contained parallel columns of Greek and Latin and dedicated it to Pope Leo X.

Shortly after the New Testament was published, Martin Luther’s movements began and the disagreements between Protestantism and the Catholic Church increased. Martin Luther then sent a letter to Erasmus titled “Free Will does not exists”. In it, the leader of the Protestant movement criticizes the Catholic Church even though he personally admired Erasmus’ early works. Still, Erasmus declined to support Luther and a long period of correspondence between them followed in which they discussed the morality and purpose of the church in general. Most crucial was presumably their discussion about free will and Luther even started claiming that Erasmus was not a Christian since Erasmus was convinced that every human has the freedom of choice.

After his death in 1536 Erasmus’ works have been translated and interpreted in various ways. He is remembered for his leading role for many years by the Catholic Church while Protestants recognized his works as the foundations of the Reformation.

At yovisto, you mayenjoy a video lecture on Erasmus of Rotterdam by Professor Peter Walter at the University of Freiburg (in German).

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