c.1466-1536. The leading Christian humanist, who wished to reform the church through scholarship and instructions in the teachings of Christ. Born the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, he was educated by the Brethren of the Common Life* at Deventer (1475-84). When his father died, Erasmus transferred to another school and eventually became a monk. Later he secured the position of secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, thus escaping the secluded life. An opportunity arose for him to study at the Collège de Montaigu in Paris, and after this experience he visited England. Here he met ,* who influenced him to apply his humanistic interests to biblical scholarship and the revival of primitive Christianity. After a visit to Italy and another trip to England Erasmus settled in Basle (1514-29) where, except for some short excursions, he was to live and work for many years. When the reform in the city became too radical for him, he moved to Freiburg-im-Breisgau, but returned to Basle to die.
Erasmus was the first best-selling author in the history of printing. Some examples of his popularity include The Praise of Folly, which has appeared in more than 600 editions, and the Colloquies, more than 300 editions. Among his publications, in addition to these satirical works, are a critical edition of the NT based on Greek manuscripts; a paraphrase of the NT (except for the); editions of the Greek and Latin Fathers; Adages (a collection of sayings taken from the Greek and Latin classics); the Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Handbook or Weapon of a Christian Knight); and De Libero arbitrio (on the freedom of the will, an attack on Luther's ideas).
There are many interpretations of the career of Erasmus. Some say he was weak-a Lutheran at heart, but for fear of the church a conforming Catholic. Others have pictured him as a devotee of reason, a precursor of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.* Another interpretation makes him the forerunner of Luther. “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched,” it has been said. According to this view, Erasmus with his critical work, his emphasis on the original texts of Scripture, and on the teachings of Christ took the first step toward the Reformation. Luther, with his stress on Paul's presentation of the Gospel, took the second and left Erasmus behind.
There is truth in each of these positions, yet another view comes nearer to an understanding of the man. Erasmus had his own reform program, partly critical but for the most constructive. He believed it was necessary for reform to use the tools of scholarship and the materials provided by Christian antiquity. Philology, a critical sense, and diligent labor would enable the scholar to reveal the truth in the Bible and in the Church Fathers. The philosophy of Christ thus recovered when taught to the learned and to the simple would infuse new spiritual life into all Christendom. As he stated in his most famous lines, “I would to God that the plowman would sing a text of the Scripture at his plow and that the weaver would hum them to the tune of his shuttle . . . I wish that the traveler would expel the weariness of his journey with this pastime. And, to be brief, I wish that all communication of the Christian would be of the Scriptures” (Opera, V, 140). It is the tragedy of Erasmus that history passed him by, leaving him doggedly defending his position against Reformers and Counter-Reformers.
P.S. Allen, The Age of Erasmus (1914); J. Huizinga, Erasmus (1924); M.M. Phillips, Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance (1950); P. Smith, Erasmus (1962); W. Kaiser, Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare (1963); R. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (1969).