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Erasmus, Desiderius (1469-1536)

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Source: Introduction to Erasmus in Praise of Folly, illustrated with many curious cuts, designed, drawn, and etched by Hans Holbein, with portrait, life of Erasmus, and his epistle to Sir Thomas More (London: Reeves & Turner, 1876).

THE LIFE of ERASMUS.

ERASMUS, so deservedly famous for his admirable writings, the vast extent of his learning, his great candour and moderation, and for being one of the chief restorers of the Latin tongue on this side the Alps, was born at Rotterdam, on the 28th of October, in the year 1467. The anonymous author of his life commonly printed with his Colloquies (of the London edition) is pleased to tell us that de anno quo natus est apud Batavos, non constat. And if he himself wrote the life which we find before the Elzevir edition, said to be Erasmo autore, he does not particularly mention the year in which he was born, but places it circa annum 67 supra millesimum quadringentesimum. Another Latin life, which is prefixed to the above-mentioned London edition, fixes it in the year 1465; as does his epitaph at Basil. But as the inscription on his statue at Rotterdam, the place of his nativity, may reasonably be supposed the most authentic, we have followed that.

His mother was the daughter of a physician at Sevenbergen in Holland, with whom his father contracted an acquaintance, and had correspondence with her on promise of marriage, and was actually contracted to her. His father’s name was Gerard; he was the youngest of ten brothers, without one sister coming between; for which reason his parents (according to the superstition of the times) designed to consecrate him to the church. His brothers liked the notion, because, as the church then governed all, they hoped, if he rose in his profession, to have a sure friend to advance their interest; but no importunities could prevail on Gerard to turn ecclesiastic. Finding himself continually pressed upon so disagreeable a subject, and not able longer to bear it, he was forced to fly from his native country, leaving a letter for his friends, in which he acquainted them with the reason of his departure, and that he should never trouble them any more. Thus he left her who was to be his wife big with child, and made the best of his way to Rome. Being an admirable master of the pen, he made a very genteel livelihood by transcribing most authors of note (for printing was not in use). He for some time lived at large, but afterwards applied close to study, made great progress in the Greek and Latin languages, and in the civil law; for Rome at that time was full of learned men. When his friends knew he was at Rome, they sent him word that the young gentlewoman whom he had courted for a wife was dead; upon which, in a melancholy fit, he took orders, and turned his thoughts wholly to the study of divinity. He returned to his own country, and found to his grief that he had been imposed upon; but it was too late to think of marriage, so he dropped all farther pretensions to his mistress; nor would she after this unlucky adventure be induced to marry.

The son took the name of Gerard after his father, which in German signifies amiable, and (after the fashion of the learned men of that age, who affected to give their names a Greek or Latin turn) his was turned into Erasmus, which in Greek has the same signification. He was chorister of the cathedral church of Utrecht till he was nine years old; after which he was sent to Deventer to be instructed by the famous Alexander Hegius, a Westphalian. Under so able a master he proved an extraordinary proficient; and it is remarkable that he had such a strength of memory as to be able to say all Terence and Horace by heart. He was now arrived to the thirteenth year of his age, and had been continually under the watchful eye of his mother, who died of the plague then raging at Deventer. The contagion daily increasing, and having swept away the family where he boarded, he was obliged to return home. His father Gerard was so concerned at her death that he grew melancholy, and died soon after: neither of his parents being much above forty when they died.

Erasmus had three guardians assigned him, the chief of whom was Peter Winkel, schoolmaster of Goude; and the fortune left him was amply sufficient for his support, if his executors had faithfully discharged their trust. Although he was fit for the university, his guardians were averse to sending him there, as they designed him for a monastic life, and therefore removed him to Bois-le-duc, where, he says, he lost near three years, living in a Franciscan convent. The professor of humanity in this convent, admiring his rising genius, daily importuned him to take the habit, and be of their order. Erasmus had no great inclination for the cloister; not that he had the least dislike to the severities of a pious life, but he could not reconcile himself to the monastic profession; he therefore urged his rawness of age, and desired farther to consider better of the matter. The plague spreading in those parts, and he having struggled a long time with a quartan ague, obliged him to return home.

His guardians employed those about him to use all manner of arguments to prevail on him to enter the order of monk; sometimes threatening, and at other times making use of flattery and fair speeches. When Winkel, his guardian, found him not to be moved from his resolution, he told him that he threw up his guardianship from that moment. Young Erasmus replied, that he took him at his word, since he was old enough now to look out for himself. When Winkel found that threats did not avail, he employed his brother, who was the other guardian, to see what he could effect by fair means. Thus he was surrounded by them and their agents on all sides. By mere accident, Erasmus went to visit a religious house belonging to the same order, in Emaus or Steyn, near Goude, where he met with one Cornelius, who had been his companion at Deventer; and though he had not himself taken the habit, he was perpetually preaching up the advantages of a religious life, as the convenience of noble libraries, the helps of learned conversation, retirement from the noise and folly of the world, and the like. Thus at last he was induced to pitch upon this convent. Upon his admission they fed him with great promises, to engage him to take the holy cloth; and though he found almost everything fall short of his expectation, yet his necessities, and the usage he was threatened with if he abandoned their order, prevailed with him, after his year of probation, to profess himself a member of their fraternity. Not long after this, he had the honour to be known to Henry a Bergis, bishop of Cambray, who having some hopes of obtaining a cardinal’s hat, wanted one perfectly master of Latin to solicit this affair for him; for this purpose Erasmus was taken into the bishop’s family, where he wore the habit of his order. The bishop not succeeding in his expectation at Rome, proved fickle and wavering in his affection; therefore Erasmus prevailed with him to send him to Paris, to prosecute his studies in that famous university, with the promise of an annual allowance, which was never paid him. He was admitted into Montague College, but indisposition obliged him to return to the bishop, by whom he was honourably entertained. Finding his health restored, he made a journey to Holland, intending to settle there, but was persuaded to go a second time to Paris; where, having no patron to support him, himself says, he rather made a shift to live, than could be said to study. He next visited England, where he was received with great respect; and as appears by several of his letters, he honoured it next to the place of his nativity. In a letter to Andrelinus, inviting him to England, he speaks highly of the beauty of the English ladies, and thus describes their innocent freedom: “When you come into a gentleman’s house you are allowed the favour to salute them, and the same when you take leave.” He was particularly acquainted with Sir Thomas More, Colet, dean of Saint Paul’s, Grocinus, Linacer, Latimer, and many others of the most eminent of that time; and passed some years at Cambridge. In his way for France he had the misfortune to be stripped of everything; but he did not revenge this injury by any unjust reflection on the country. Not meeting with the preferment he expected, he made a voyage to Italy, at that time little inferior to the Augustan age for learning. He took his doctor of divinity degree in the university of Turin; stayed about a year in Bologna; afterward went to Venice, and there published his book of Adages from the press of the famous Aldus. He removed to Padua, and last to Rome, where his fame had arrived long before him. Here he gained the friendship of all the considerable persons of the city, nor could have failed to have made his fortune, had he not been prevailed upon by the great promises of his friends in England to return thither on Henry VIIIth coming to the crown. He was taken into favour by Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, who gave him the living of Aldington, in Kent; but whether Erasmus was wanting in making his court to Wolsey, or whether the cardinal viewed him with a jealous eye, because he was a favourite of Warham, between whom and Wolsey there was perpetual clashing, we know not; however, being disappointed, Erasmus went to Flanders, and by the interest of Chancellor Sylvagius, was made counsellor to Charles of Austria, afterward Charles V., emperor of Germany. He resided several years at Basil; but on the mass being abolished in that city by the Reformation, he retired to Friberg in Alsace, where he lived seven years. Having been for a long time afflicted with the gout, he left Friberg, and returned to Basil. Here the gout soon left him, but he was seized by a dysentery, and after labouring a whole month under that disorder, died on the 22nd of July, 1536, in the house of Jerome Frobenius, son of John, the famous printer. He was honourably interred, and the city of Basil still pays the highest respect to the memory of so great a man.

Erasmus was the most facetious man, and the greatest critic of his age. He carried on a reformation in learning at the same time he advanced that of religion; and promoted a purity of style as well as simplicity of worship. This drew on him the hatred of the ecclesiastics, who were no less bigotted to their barbarisms in language and philosophy, than they were to their superstitious and gaudy ceremonies in religion; they murdered him in their dull treatises, libelled him in their wretched sermons, and in their last and most effectual efforts of malice, they joined some of their own execrable stuff to his compositions: of which he himself complains in a letter addressed to the divines of Louvain. He exposed with great freedom the vices and corruptions of his own church, yet never would be persuaded to leave her communion. The papal policy would never have suffered Erasmus to have taken so unbridled a range in the reproof and censure of her extravagancies, but under such circumstances, when the public attack of Luther imposed on her a prudential necessity of not disobliging her friends, that she might with more united strength oppose the common enemy; and patiently bore what at any other time she would have resented. Perhaps no man has obliged the public with a greater number of useful volumes than our author; though several have been attributed to him which he never wrote. His book of Colloquies has passed through more editions than any of his others: Moreri tells us a bookseller in Paris sold twenty thousand at one impression.

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Last modified April 13, 2016