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Erasmus, Desiderius (1469-1536)

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Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) was a Christian, humanist scholar; the first editor of the New Testament; a classicist; and a leading voice in the theological debates of the early Reformation in northern Europe. He contended with the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), emphasizing the importance of free will in human actions against Luther's belief in the absolute bondage of the will to sin. In addition, Erasmus sought middle ground in the conflict between Luther and Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) and tried to reconcile the two.

Erasmus, a Dutchman, was educated at Gouda, Deventer, and Utrecht, Holland. At Deventer, he studied with a branch of the Brethren of the Common Life under the tutelage of the humanist Alexander Hegius (1433-1498). When his family forced him to enter a monastery, Erasmus chose to join the Augustinians at St. Gregory's at Steyn, near Gouda. He was ordained a priest in 1492 but grew increasingly dissatisfied with monastic life, especially with the resistance he encountered to his study of classical literature.

Leaving the monastery, Erasmus traveled and studied throughout Europe. His studies in Paris persuaded him that Scholasticism was an arid tradition in its intellectual twilight, and his contact there with groups involved in the new humanist movement convinced him of the importance of a classical education for the molding of a good character. During his visits to England he became well acquainted with Thomas More (1478-1535, a good friend), John Fisher (1459-1535), and John Colet (1467-1519), who inspired him to study the Bible directly rather than rely on the interpretations of others. His travels to Italy widened his humanist contacts but also exposed him to some whose humanism had led them to doubt the immortality of the soul and other central tenets of Catholic orthodoxy.

Erasmus maintained in The Education of a Christian Prince that the works of the classical authors and the Christian church fathers were better resources for the total development of the individual than either Scholastic logic or the popular new chivalric literature. One of his most lasting contributions was to lay the groundwork for the critical study of history and biblical works. He published the first complete edition of the New Testament in Greek and a revised edition of the New Testament in Latin. Similarly, his work republishing and correcting the works of the church fathers related directly to his educational aims. The elegance and rich Christian content of these works made them important instructional materials for the humanist educational program, and they were also helpful in directing the moral and spiritual development of the individual that Erasmus and his fellow humanists sought. It was through his correcting of textual errors in these works and his call for a return to patristic theology that his program of reform began to emerge.

Despite the fact that little escaped his critical judgment, Erasmus was a consistent supporter of a unified Catholic church. Initially, he and Luther agreed on the necessity of reforming church and clerical practices, opposed the sale of indulgences, and were highly critical of ecclesiastical and political corruption, especially in the Vatican. The pope, by behaving as a politician and secular prince, neglected his ecclesiastical duties and made his office a prime target for the proponents of reform: "As if the church had any enemies more pestilential than impious pontiffs who by their silence allow Christ to be forgotten, who enchain Him by mercenary rules, adulterate His teachings by forced interpretations, and crucify Him afresh by their scandalous life!"1 Indeed, Erasmus praised Luther, saying that he saw someone with the potential to be "a great trumpet for proclaiming the gospel truth"2 who had a "rare" ability to "blow the spark of gospel teaching into flame" and "expound the mysteries of Scripture in the classical manner"3 in contrast to current Church practices. Yet, the two ultimately clashed over Luther's defiance of traditional authority and his theological denial of the human capacity for self-improvement. Disagreement on this last issue sparked the famous and insightful debate between the two men that is reflected in Luther's essay On the Bondage of the Will and Erasmus's On Free Will.

Despite his theological differences with Luther, Erasmus's commitment to reform and to the unity of the church led him to urge church authorities to compromise with Luther. Only a few men were brave enough to take on the role of compromiser; Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was another. His moderate position brought Erasmus into disfavor with both Protestants and Catholics and led to a neglect of his work in the centuries of division that followed his death.



[1] Erasmus, In Priase of Folly (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 100.

[2] Desiderius Erasmus, The Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 8 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), letter 1139, p. 42.

[3] Ibid., letter 1167, p. 112. See also letter 1144 (to Pope Leo X), p. 50.


Works by the Author

The Collected Works of Erasmus. University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Colloquies of Erasmus. Translated by Nathan Bailey. London: Reeves and Turner, 1878.

The Whole Familiar Colloquies of Desiderius Erasmus. Translated by Nathan Bailey. London: Hamilton, Adams, & Company, 1877.

The Praise of Folly. Translated by Hoyt Hudson. Princeton: University Press, 1951.

The Praise of Folly. Translated by Leonard F. Dean. Chicago: Packard and Company, 1945.

Moriae Encomium or The Praise of Folly. Translated by Harry Carter. New York: Heritage Press, 1940.

The Manual of the Christian Knight. London: Methuen and Company.

The Education of a Christian Prince. Translated by Lester K. Born. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

The Complaint of Peace. Translated by Thomas Paynell. New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1946.

José Chapiro. Erasmus and Our Struggle for Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1950.

Ten Colloquies of Erasmus. Translated by Craig R. Thompson. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957.

Works about Erasmus

Adams, Robert P. The Better Part of Valor. Seattle, 1962.

Bainton, Roland H. Erasmus of Christendom. New York, Scribner, 1969.

Dickens, A.G. and Whitney R.D. Jones. Erasmus the Reformer. London, Reed Books, 1995.

Ferguson, Wallace K. "The Attitude of Erasmus toward Toleration,"pp. 171-81 in Persecution and Liberty. Essays in Honor of G.L. Burr. New York, 1931.

Halkin, Léon-E. Erasmus: A Critical Biography, trans. John Tonkin. Oxford, Blackwell, 1994.

Jardine, L. Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print. Princeton University Press, 1993.

Kaiser, Walter. Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1963.

McConica, James. Erasmus. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Olin, John C. Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Desiderius Erasmus. Selected Writings. New York, 1987.

Olin, John C. ed. Luther, Erasmus, and the Reformation. New York, 1969.

Philipps, Margaret Mann. Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance. London, English Universities Press, 1949.

Philipps, Margaret Mann. The 'Adage's of Erasmus: A Study with Translations. Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Tracy, James D. The Politics of Erasmus: A Pacifist Intellectual and his Political Milieu. University of Toronto Press, 1978.


The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

Last modified April 13, 2016