Desiderius Erasmus: A literary genius
Rotterdam is forever connected with Desiderius Erasmus. Up until today his name is present in the city. For example, they named a bridge, streets, squares and the university after him. So, Erasmus made quite an impression. But, what did he exactly do? Why is he, five hundred plus years after his birth, still famous? This article shines a light upon his work and his live.
From Rotterdam or not?
Although he is probably the most well known person from Rotterdam, nobody knows exactly where he was born. Nowadays, the city claims his birth house is next to the Laurenskerk. But, there is no evidence he was born in that house, or even in Rotterdam. He is missing from any register. Some people claim he was born in Gouda, as an illegitimate son of a priest. Others claim he was conceived in Gouda, but born in Rotterdam, where he stayed for the first three years of his live. Whatever the case may be, he certainly was born in 1466.
Church: drunk with power
In Erasmus’ days religion was very important in life. Therefore, the Christian church was the principal authority in Europe. In those days Christianity was not yet divided. There was one church: the Catholic church based in Rome. It had a lot of power since religion was of utmost importance and the Catholic church was the only allowed church. So, the church abused its power. One of the many things they did was selling indulgences. Priests sold them to the common people, who were then basically cleared of any previous sins. The church made huge profits from this. Other things were the lavish lifestyle of priests, uneducated monks and a lack of Bible studies.
The indulgences, along with other mismanagement, didn’t stay unnoticed. Some, highly educated men, worried about the course of the Church. Among them was our Desiderius Erasmus. He was truly a bookworm and studied for the first decades of his life. He became familiar with Latin, Greek, religious and humanistic studies during his education in the Low Countries (now the Netherlands). To enlarge his knowledge of the faith he studied in France and England, where he was inspired by great minds. In the meantime, Erasmus became a priest (1492), like it was no big deal. As a religious man he worried about the future of the Church. He decided to try and change the bad aspects of the Church the only way he knew: via the written word.
Critique with humor
Erasmus wrote many, many works. Too much to name all of them. One of his first important works was The Education of a Christian Prince (1504). In this piece he described how a ruler should develop his character through the study of the Bible and classical authors. His most well known work is Praise of the Folly (1509). It is a witty satire which even today is worth your time (although for the readability buy the newly translated editions). The book makes fun of every social group known, including the church, and criticized their lifestyle. A daring thing to do because the church wasn’t too keen on criticism. Maybe his most important work was a new Latin translation of the Bible and the first printed edition of the Greek text (1516). With this he made a first effort to bring the Bible to the common folk.
According to Erasmus everybody should be able to read the Bible. Education of the Bible and other classical texts were key. With education people could understand what the Bible said by themselves, so they weren’t dependent on the explanation of the church. Another thing Erasmus deemed important was ‘the philosophy of Christ’. This meant an emphasis on inner spirituality and personal morality instead of the focus on distracting things such as relics, pilgrimages, indulgences and expensive churches. Basically Erasmus wanted to go back to the roots of the religion with an emphasis on the believe in God.
Erasmus didn’t like everything the church did, but he always stayed a supporter of Rome. He wanted to reform the church and change the bad things. He never wanted a schism within the church. Nevertheless, this happened.
In 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther published 95 theses. In this he proclaimed against the abuses of the church, such as the plenary indulgences. At first the Pope debated with him, but Luther was too stubborn and extreme, according to the likings of the church. Luther was excommunicated (kicked out of the church). He and his followers started their own thing.
Soon, Luther was followed by others with new ideas (such as Calvin, who gained many supporters in the Low Countries). The Christian believe was torn apart. Precisely what Erasmus tried to avoid.
Man of the world
Erasmus travelled the rest of his live through Europe. Publishing many new books and ideas about religion, humanism and philosophy. His contemporaries considered Erasmus as one of the greatest thinkers ever. He never stayed long, if any at all, in the Low Countries and Rotterdam after his youth. But, he made his mark on history with his publications. He truly was one of the greatest and the city should be proud of him.