Who is he?

As one of the most learned men of his time, Erasmus was called the Prince of Humanists. He lived during the Renaissance, a period of great changes, characterised by the rethinking of most forms of thought and a renewed interest in the Ancient Greco-Roman world. He was born in Rotterdam (1469) and died in Basel (1536). When he was in his thirties, as a result of his intellectual popularity he was often a guest of kings, emperors or other important people of his era. Erasmus was a ‘homo viator’; he was always travelling and had a great influence on the scholars of his time. ‘In Praise of Folly’ was one of the most widely read works of the period. He wrote this work on his return journey from Italy as he made his way to England. In addition to the fact that this is a pamphlet aimed at the behaviour of the ruling classes and dignitaries of the church, the ‘Folly’ is first and foremost a gift to his friend Thomas More with whom he stayed in England. Friendship is one of the most appealing features of this much-loved humanist. He applied himself to defending and purifying Latin, the international and cultural lingua franca of the period. He supported the reform of Christian traditions and was a pioneer of a more human approach to the faith and the rejuvenation of the education system by publishing grammars, essays on the upbringing of children and by setting up of the ‘Trilingual College’ at Leuven / Louvain. Erasmus was, therefore, at one and the same time, one of the greatest neo-Latin writers, a committed theologian and a modernising / innovative teacher.

top of the page

The Traveller

The search for new Biblical sources, for patrons, for financial support and his own personal obligations resulted in the fact that lived or travelled through the most culturally developed parts of Europe. As a result he made contact with the most reputed scholars of the Renaissance and built up a network of friends, a community of thinkers.

Erasmus spent his youth and school years in the Netherlands in Rotterdam and Deventer. During this period, and also when he became a monk in the monastery of Steyn, he acquired a knowledge of Latin, the international language of his time. In this period his interest in fine literature, the basics of theology and his fascination for Italy grew. He left the monastery to study at the University of Paris in 1493 and gave lectures in Latin in order to make a living.

In 1499 in England he got to know Thomas More and John Colet and they became friends. The two scholars were to have a great influence on Erasmus. He often stayed at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both as student and as teacher during the reign of Henry VIII that well-known personality.

His journey to Italy, which lasted from 1506 until 1509, gave him the opportunity to visit ancient sites and to consult the collections of the sizeable libraries, as well as to polish up his Greek (an absolute necessity for better understanding ancient manuscripts) and to meet other scholars who helped him with his research. He enjoyed his stay with the printer Aldo Manuzio, but was especially disappointed with the extravagant behaviour of the Papal establishment, popular superstition and the war-mongering attitude of popes such as Julius II, the protector of Michelangelo. On his return his was appointed counsellor to the Emperor Charles V and he made his home in the Netherlands from 1516 until 1521, living in Antwerp, Bruges, Leuven / Louvain and Mechelen. He also spent some time in Anderlecht, which nowadays forms part of Brussels Region. During the latter years of his life he lived in Basel in Switzerland, where he slipped toward death after reaching the great age of 70. His friend John Colet had predicted that

Nomen Erasmi nunquam peribit
(The name of Erasmus will never perish)

top of the page

His Philosophy

The central ideas that he wanted to spread are:


Shocked by the many wars that took place during his life time – such as the many violent confrontations between the House of Valois (Francois I), the German states and the Spain of the Habsburgs (Charles V), England (Henry VIII) or the Turkish invasions (Suleiman the Magnificent) – he repeatedly attempted to persuade the rulers by means of his letters, books and discussions to end those wars and to bring peace tot heir lands.

Church Renewal

For Erasmus the principal purpose of the Church was the spreading of the Faith and, as a result, the Church must not be governed like a state. His point of view attracted a lot of criticism from traditional theologians who threatened him with prosecution by the Inquisition. In a certain way, his ideas and publications favoured the development of Protestantism. Although Erasmus was often very critical of the Church he never became a Protestant and died within the Catholic fold.


Erasmus believed that one should never judge others’ ideas. When he was confronted with other lifestyles (the tribes of North America, Moslems, reformers), the humanist worked out a concept of mankind that was characterised by independent belief and free will.

European Cultural Unity

He defined himself as a citizen of the world, not restricted to any one region, but at home in those European countries where humanism and culture flourished. The two European societies to which he claimed he belonged were the Republic of Letters and the Christian Church.

top of the page

His work

Erasmus was an eternal student who spread his message via his books and thousands of letters.

He was a master of redefining traditional thinking. Whereas learning was previously scholastic, he introduced a scientific and philological approach to the study of texts.

His correspondence (3000 letters are still extant out of a total of about 20000 that he wrote) stretched from Poland to Spain and was addressed both to kings and lowly officials. He said himself that he sometimes wrote more than 40 letters per day.

The Adages and Colloquia are pedagogical books that replaced the traditional grammars and schoolbooks.

His most important achievement in the eyes of his contemporaries was the translation of the New Testament from Greek into Latin that replaced the Vulgate, the thousand-year-old translation by St. Jerome. Translation of Greek and Latin authors demonstrated his ability to subtly reconstruct ancient texts.

His work is written entirely in Latin and Greek, but had already been translated into a number of vernacular languages (English, German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish etc.) during his lifetime.

top of the page