Erasmus (1467-1536)

Born in Rotterdam 28 October 1467 Desiderius, or Erasmus as he became known, was illegitimate, his parents never marrying. His father was a burgher named Gerard in Torgau; his mother Margaret  was the daughter of Peter, a physician  at Sevenbergen in Brabant. The father`s family refused to allow the couple to marry and Gerard went to Rome, where he became a monk ( he had been told that Margaret and child had died). Subsequently they got back together but by then he was bound by the church law not to marry. Their son was sent to school at the age of four and became a chorister at Utrecht, before going on to school at Daventer where a schoolmate was Adrianus Florentius, later to be Pope Adrian VI.  Both parents died when Erasmus was thirteen and he and his brother Peter, were sent by guardians to a monastic school which specialised in preparing for the church. In time he entered  the regular canons of the monastery of Stein, near Torgau in 1486. In 1492 he was ordained by the bishop of Utrecht.

As an Augustinian monk he was allowed to leave the cloister to become secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. He was able to travel and visited England first in 1496-1498 and on a later visit taught Greek as Lady Margaret Reader, at Cambridge. He led a disjointed life wandering around Europe and was often penniless desiring mainly to study and improve his mind. He went to Italy and gained a doctorate of divinity at Bononia and again at the university of Turin. He was well known and made many important contacts wherever he went, and was a favourite in Rome with cardinals and the pope (Leo X) although none were helpful to him financially. In 1510 he returned to England and was residing with Thomas More when he wrote Encomium Moriae ( Praise of Folly). Other very influential works followed, including his Enchiridion militis Christiani ( the Christian Soldier`s  Dagger, or manual), ; Colloquia (Dialogues) and Adagia (Proverbs) . He left over 3000 letters which give an invaluable record of the Renaissance. His contributions to the Reformation were in essence twofold, firstly his translation and publication of the Greek New Testament (into Latin); and second, his dissemination of  information, including his work, to a wide network of friends and influential contacts throughout Europe.

The young Erasmus arrived at Oxford University at a propitious time, coming into contact with John Colet. Said to be of a frail stature  but keen and quick witted  he soon became the pupil and friend of the staid theologian. This association so impressed the young man that it changed his whole life and with it history. A common interest in Greek and the opportunities it afforded to study the ancient authors worked in them, and Erasmus soon produced his satire "The Praise of Folly " (1510). A tongue in cheek commentary on the folly`s of the day attacked all classes and abuses, Theologians, monks, Popes, nobles, princes and kings - all came in for the keen satire. It was printed in 1512 and within a few months went through seven editions. Such was the demand that it eventually went to twenty seven editions during Erasmus`s lifetime. Printed in Latin it was circulated  in every university and country in Europe and the common talking point for everybody. It became a common saying  that

 "Erasmus injured the Pope more by joking  than Luther by scolding."

He was able, perhaps lucky, to defend himself against the threats of the Church by saying that the comments were ascribed to `Folly` and were to be taken as such. At Cambridge Erasmus became busily engaged in preparing a new text  of the Greek Testament, a work that would contribute more to the learned peoples of the day than any other. By the beginning of 1515 Erasmus was firmly established as the leading light of a literary circle in Europe, let alone the universities of England. He had a widespread range of contacts with whom he assiduously corresponded and exchanged ideas and manuscripts. But a cloud on the horizon was in the shape of Standish, Bishop of St Asaph, who had a deep and personal hatred of Erasmus for lampooning him. Standish was an antagonist of John Colet but turned his ire upon his friend Erasmus, an easier target, and sought to lay the usual charges of heresy. By attacking the scholar and attempting to discredit his work the clerics hoped to forestall the  literary vogue for translation, and the inevitable consequence it would bring - a translation of the Testament into the common tongue.

Wisely, Erasmus decided that he could no longer steer a middle course and stay neutral in the religious debate. He was especially critical of the monks and their dissolute ways; those of Louvain particularly resented his intervention with the church hierarchy to whom Erasmus regularly wrote.  Erasmus then went to Basle where he worked in the shop of the printer Frobenius and completed his New Testament and a work on St Jerome. From Basle he distributed the New Testament to his friends in the universities of London Oxford, and Cambridge. Appearing in 1516 and dedicated to his friend Pope Leo X, it contained parallel  columns of the Greek text and the Latin translation and gave a much purer translation. He had consulted some nine manuscripts and explained to the Pope that he had merely corrected errors that had crept in. The Testament was well received and endorsed by the Bishop of Basle. But there were still the malcontents who brought forth indignant cries that he had `changed` the holy word.  For years the only available version had been the Vulgate but Erasmus`s work brought home to the clerics and people alike that the Vulgate was, after all, only a second hand version of the Scriptures and not the sacred work of repute. A second volume was published in 1519; the two ran to three thousand three hundred copies.

Despite acceptance of the translated New Testament by the Pope, the inevitable clamour arose from the priests who saw that their authority would be undermined if the original Latin version was confuted. Their objections were such that they even used the confessional to warn young students against it. Some colleges forbid it. A great effort was made by the clerics to spread their objections among the poorer people, being unable to voice them to the educated and well of. The clerics of all ranks did their worst, accusing Erasmus of heresy, aggrieved that there was `no longer anything in common between the Holy Ghost and monks`.  An instance of his heresy they claimed was that he had changed  Matthew iv, 17 so that man was called to repent  instead of (as in the Vulgate) to do penance.

Erasmus said of the monks

" none barked more furiously  than those who never saw even the outside of the book."

and fuelled the flames of the clerical fears by declaring

"Perhaps it may be necessary to conceal the secrets of kings, but we must publish the mysteries  of Christ."

In Wittenberg another former monk (Martin Luther)  nailed his thoughts and criticisms of indulgences to the church door, and transformed the desire for reform from a supine intellectual debate into one of positive action.

Among those who were affected by his work were Thomas Bilney, and William Tyndale who used the third edition of Erasmus`s work to produce his own English New Testament.

Erasmus was as much interested in the establishment of literature and the sciences, as he was in religious debate. He was at odds with Luther for much of the time, but held him in such high regard despite their differences, that he repeatedly refused to write against him. He received many promises of substantial reward, including bishoprics, if he undertook such a task, but in the end he defended Luther . Importantly he made  his support to Frederick, Elector of Saxony, to whom he said that Luther had justly censured  many abuses and errors which, for the sake of the health of the church, required reform; that Luther`s doctrine  was right in the main, but it had not been delivered by him " with a proper temper and due moderation."

A prodigious author, Erasmus was the greatest scholar of his age and esteemed by most who came into contact with him, both Protestant and Catholic. It is important to remember that his criticisms and satire about the Folly of man et al, was well established, as was his reputation as an outstanding scholar, before the religious differences became an issue. His particular contribution to religion were his new editions  of works by Jerome, Cyprian, Hilary, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustin, Arnobius, Algerus and Origen; and the many translations from the Greek into Latin - not least the New Testament which filled a huge void in the understanding of the people when most needed. As to his own religion, it is said that he lived a Catholic but died a Protestant. Had he been able to establish a new religion he would have been moderate, latitudinarian as to creed, with few articles of faith and those with primitive simplicity.

18/07/2011

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