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Friday, 9 January 2015

Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus (c1466-1536) was probably born in Rotterdam Holland, although there is no sufficient record confirming this.


Erasmus was his baptismal name, given after St. Erasmus of Formiae. Desiderius was a self-adopted additional name, which he used from 1496.

His parents were not legally married. His father, Gerard, was a Catholic priest and curate in Gouda.

His mother was Margaretha Rogerius, the daughter of a physician from Zevenbergen; she may have been Gerard's housekeeper.

Although he was born out of wedlock, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until their early deaths from the plague in 1483; but he felt his origin to be a stain, and threw a smoke screen around his youth.

In 1492 Erasmus  took vows as a canon regular at the canonry of Stein, in South Holland, and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood at about the age of 25.

Soon after his priestly ordination, Erasmus got his chance to leave the canonry when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters.

To allow Erasmus to accept the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, he was given a temporary dispensation from his religious vows on the grounds of poor health and love of Humanistic studies, though he remained a priest. Pope Leo X later made the dispensation permanent, a considerable privilege at the time.


In 1499 Erasmus was invited by William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy to accompany him  to England.

His time in England was fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the days of King Henry VIII: John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn.

At the University of Cambridge, Erasmus was the Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity and had the option of spending the rest of his life as an English professor. He stayed at Queens' College, Cambridge from 1510 to 1515.

Erasmus suffered from poor health and complained that Queens' could not supply him with enough decent wine (wine was the Renaissance medicine for gallstones, from which he suffered).

While in England, Erasmus was particularly impressed by the Bible teaching of John Colet who pursued a style more akin to the church fathers than the Scholastics. This prompted the Dutch academic to master the Greek language, which would enable him to study theology on a more profound level and to prepare a new edition of Jerome's Bible translation.


Erasmus succeeded in learning Greek by an intensive, day-and-night study of three years, despite a chronic shortage of money. He continuously begged his friends to send him books and money for teachers in his letters.

The first New Testament printed in Greek was part of the Complutensian Polyglot. This portion was printed in 1514. Word of the Complutensian project reached Desiderius Erasmus in Rotterdam, who produced his own printed edition of the Greek New Testament, Novum Instrumentum omne in 1516.

Novum Instrumentum omn was the first published New Testament in Greek. Although the first printed Greek New Testament was the Complutensian Polyglot (1514), it was the second to be published (1522).

The Dutch academic devoted the majority of his time to his translation of the New Testament, turning down many positions of honor and profit throughout the academic world so that he could concentrate on his project.

Five editions of Novum Instrumentum omne were published. The third edition (1522),  was used by William Tyndale for the first English New Testament (1526) and later by translators of the Geneva Bible and the King James Version.


Although Erasmus was a Catholic, he was critical of the Roman Catholic Church and wrote satires of them. He wished for a reform of worldly popes and ignorant monks and a revival of biblical studies according to the principals of the early Fathers of the Church.

Erasmus argued in favour of a faith directly inspired by the Gospels. He wrote “I believe firmly what I read in the holy Scriptures, and the Creed, called the Apostles, and I don’t trouble my head any farther: I leave the rest to be disputed and defined by the clergy, if they please; and if any Thing is in common use with Christians that is not repugnant to the holy Scriptures, I observe it for this Reason, that I may not offend other people.”

Erasmus lived against the backdrop of the growing European religious Reformation but kept his distance from Martin Luther and continued to recognise the authority of the pope. He emphasized a middle way, with a deep respect for traditional faith, piety and grace, and rejected Luther's emphasis on faith alone.


Hans Holbein painted Erasmus at least three times, and perhaps as many as seven. The Dutch academic used the Holbein portraits as gifts for his friends in England, such as William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger

Erasmus died suddenly from an attack of dysentery in Basel, Switzerland on July 12, 1536, and was buried in the Basel Minster, the former cathedral of the city.

A bronze statue of him was erected in Rotterdam in 1622, replacing an earlier work in stone.

Source Wikipedia

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