Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam in about 1466. At about the age of four he moved to Gouda. His father was Roger Gerard and his mother was a woman named Margarete. It is thought that the couple was unmarried. It is known that Roger became a priest. The boy was named Erasmus for the Saint. He later Latinized his name to Desiderius Erasmus. He received a sound education in Gouda, attending all of the best schools. His parents died of the plague in 1483.

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus

As a young, penurious man Erasmus entered an Augustinian monastery in Steyn. He was soon ordained as a priest, but because he was a noted scholar in 1492 he was made secretary to the Bishop at Cambrai who wished to have a traveling companion on a trip to Italy. Although the trip never occurred, the Bishop kept Erasmus on. In 1496 he sent him to Paris to further his studies.

The young priest actually spent little time at the University and much time travelling about Holland, France, and even England. While in England he met many humanist scholars including Sir Thomas More and Colet. Colet interested him in reconciling Christianity with Humanism. To this end, he was encouraged to make an in-depth study of the Bible in its original Greek. In the year 1500 he produced his first published work Adagia which was a useful collection of Greek and Latin proverbs. Two years later he published Enchiridion Militis Christiani. This book was critical of the way the church currently handled religious matters. It endeavored to describe what true piety and religion should look like.

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By this time he was gaining fame throughout the world of Humanist scholars. In 1506 he went to visit Italy. There he was treated with high regard and offered promotion in ecclesiastic office, which he refused. As Henry VIII had just been elevated to the throne in England, he decided to go there to seek an influential office. On the trip between Italy and England, he wrote his most famous work, "In Praise of Folly" which was a satire on the state society and especially of the Catholic Church.

The criticisms levelled at the church had not to do with theology, but rather with certain practices especially with regard to the way the church seemed to gather money and property. He saw it as the mission of the church to save and guide souls. Instead the Pope was more heavily involved in running the Papal states, and the bishops administering the lands which had been collected by the church over the centuries. He was also very much opposed to monastacism, which he saw largely as a waste of resources. He saw scholasticism as hair spliting philosophical nonsense. He advocated making scripture the final word in any theological argument. His beliefs, which he poured into his popular writings would have a lasting influence on the reformation leaders who would break away from the Catholic church. However, Erasmus never desired a splintering of the church. He always advocated that it remain whole and reform itself from within.

This meant that when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral in 1517, Erasmus supported Luther's arguments. However, when Luther began to call for a separate sect that would come to be the Lutheran church, Erasmus was against him. Because of his position as pro-reform and anti-protestant Erasmus ended up being villified by the adherents of both sides and only supported by the proponents of moderation.

Desiderius Erasmus spent five years in England, although he did not receive a lucrative post he did get patronage from wealthy individuals and spent a short stint as a professor of the Greek language at Cambridge.

In 1521 Erasmus moved to Basel where he had a significant number of supporters. He maintained a correspondence with Luther as well as the heirarchy of the church. He proposed a council of scholars to review Luther's beliefs, but no one would agree to the compromise. Finally, correspondence with the Protestants ceased. In 1524 Erasmus came down on the side of the Catholic Church and wrote a polemic in support of freewill and against the determinism that seemed an inevitable result of Protestant doctrine. This and other disagreements between Erasmus and Luther created severe animosity between the two theologians.

In 1529 he left Basel because it was taking a definitely extreme protestant drift. He moved to nearby Frieburg. After about 1533 Erasmus tried to pull back from religious controversy although he still advocated reform within the church as well as reunification with the new splinter groups called protestants.

Desiderius Erasmus died near Basel of dysentery in 1536.

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