ERASMUS, Desiderius

(1467-1536)
Dutch scholar, writer, and humanist Desiderius Erasmus was the greatest clas­sicist of the Renaissance in northern Europe. Living amid violent social, eco­nomic, and religious upheavals, Erasmus responded to these controversies with moderation. As national and religious factions divided Europe, Erasmus sought peace and unity through his attempts to reconcile faith and reason and bring together Christianity and classical culture.
Erasmus was probably born in October 1467 in Gouda. From 1475 to 1483 he attended school at Deventer under the Brethren of the Common Life, whose devotio moderna emphasizing personal piety and charitable works influenced him. He became an Augustinian canon at the abbey of Steyn in 1486. In 1492 he was ordained a priest, but throughout life he received a dispensation enabling him to leave the cloister. After he was granted leave to become secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, in April 1492, he never returned to the monastery. With the bishop's patronage, he entered the University of Paris in 1495 and obtained a bachelor of arts in theology in 1498. His pupil, William Blount, Baron Mountjoy, became his patron, and Erasmus accompanied him to England in 1499.
The first of many visits to England doubtless marked a turning point in Eras­mus's life. He became friends with leading English humanists such as John Colet,* Thomas More,* Thomas Linacre,* and John Fisher.* Erasmus was greatly influenced by Colet, whose lectures on St. Paul stimulated his desire to pursue biblical and patristic studies. On another visit, Fisher persuaded Erasmus to lecture on Greek at Cambridge and gave him a chair of Greek and theology (1511-14). From these times on, Erasmus worked steadfastly toward two goals: reclaiming Latin and Greek literature from neglect and returning to early Chris­tian ideals through restoring and publishing the text of the New Testament and the works of the church fathers.
In 1500 he returned to Paris and published the first edition of Adagia (Ad­ages). Back in the Low Countries in 1503, he compiled Enchiridion militis christiani (The Handbook of the Christian soldier), his statement of the spirit of simple piety. By 1505 he returned to England, renewing contacts with More and Colet, gathering Greek manuscripts, and beginning his Novum instrumentum, an edition of the Greek text of the New Testament with a parallel Latin translation, which superseded the Vulgate and was printed in 1516. From England, Erasmus traveled to Italy, where he received a doctorate in divinity from the University of Turin. He also went to Venice and met the great printer Aldus Manutius. With Henry VIII's* accession in 1509, Erasmus returned to England, staying at More's Chelsea home, where he composed a masterpiece of humor, satire, and irony, Moriae encomium (Praise of Folly). In 1512 he published De duplici copia rerum ac verborum (On Abundance of Things and Words), a textbook intended to aid students in developing rhetorical skills that would affect every serious writer of the English Renaissance.
Erasmus moved to Basel in 1514, where Johann Froben, thereafter his pub­lisher, printed the complete Novum instrumentum. Because it underscored the Vulgate's deficiencies and was accompanied by commentary on the church's condition, it became a means of advancing the Protestant cause. An edition of Jerome was followed by editions of works by other church fathers—Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Basil, and Origen.
From 1517 to 1521 Erasmus was at the University of Louvain and learned of Martin Luther's* revolt against the church. Here he wrote the Colloquia (Colloquies), in which he satirized the church, society, and politics. By 1521 he returned to Basel where he lived and worked for several years at the printing house of his friend, Johann Froben.
Perhaps the Franciscans of Cologne devised the saying "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched." Although Erasmus shared many Reformers' ideas, he re­mained loyal to the church. Some Reformers, especially Luther, used his writ­ings (particularly the Colloquia) to support measures far more radical than Erasmus could sanction. In 1529 the brutality of the confrontations in Basel between opposing groups forced Erasmus to flee to Freiburg in Breisgau. He continued to write, hoping that his pleas for peace would end the violence. Erasmus returned to Basel in 1535 and died there on 12 July 1536, faithful to the church that would declare him a heretic at the Council of Trent in 1559.
Although Erasmus influenced both Catholics and Reformers, the Reformers really owe him the most. William Tyndale* used his Greek text and Latin trans­lation of the Bible for his English version. Erasmus's biblical paraphrases en­couraged private interpretation of the Bible, a characteristic of Protestant humanism during the English Renaissance. His idea of a simple personal imi­tation of Christ also had profound influence on religious writings throughout the century. It is virtually impossible not to see Erasmus's rhetorical theories and practices, in particular the notions of the copious use of a variety of words and devices, in the literary and polemical works composed during the English Re­naissance.
Bibliography
L. Halkin, Erasmus: A Critical Biography, trans. John Tonkin, 1993. J. McConica, Erasmus, 1991.
Al Geritz

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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