Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

 A (Very) Short Biography

Born: October 27 or 28, 1466-1469, Rotterdam or Gouda, Netherlands

Died: July 12, 1536, Basel (or Basle), Switzerland

Desiderius Erasmus sought the truth in layers of language all his life, but his earliest years are shrouded in mystery. Conflicting records give his birth name as Gerard Gerardson[1] or Herasmus Gerritszoon, born in Gouda or Rotterdam.[2] Uncontested, however, is that he was baptized Herasmus (after St. Erasmus) sometime between 1466 and 1470. In 1497, he added Desiderius as a slight addition to his image (or bow to the literati of the day), since Desiderius is the Greek synonym for ‘beloved’ as Erasmus is the Latin version. In 1503 or 1504, seeking to distinguish himself, he signed his name ‘Erasmus of Rotterdam.’ Relying on words to give him the heritage that his birth did not, the full (and final) form of his name – Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus – was first seen in 1506 upon the publication of a new edition of the Adagia.[3]  

As a student, Erasmus was insatiable and took advantage of every educational avenue available to him. Determined to rise above the level of Latin being taught in the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life he attended, he endeavored to write with “control, clarity and true style” in his efforts to become a Classical scholar of the first rank.[4]  

Availing himself of the opportunity to study at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1495, Erasmus fell into step with the intellectual renaissance sweeping through Europe and embraced the humanistic desire to return to the source (ad fontes) to seek the purest form of God in words carefully chosen and beautifully written. Finding his aspiration as an independent scholar incompatible with his religious vows, Erasmus eschewed the monastic life for one devoted to literature.[5]  Agreeing at first temporarily then permanently, authorities in Rome granted Erasmus special dispensations to allow him to study and live independently of the monastery.[6]

An indefatigable scholar, Erasmus established a network of correspondents, patrons, supporters and sympathetic princes throughout Europe. One of the greatest humanist of his time, he was sought after as a teacher, a writer of satire and political persuasion, and a translator of original biblical scriptures in his capacity as a theologian as well as a self-educated linguist.[7]

The Catholic Church

            Orphaned and illegitimate, Erasmus did not have the money or connections to attend a university. Given few options by his guardians, in 1487 when Erasmus was 20 (+/-), he entered the monastery of the Augustinian Canons Regular at Steyn.  His first letters indicate he was happy there.[8] He was ordained as a Priest in April 1492 and began writing a treatise, De Contemptu Mundi – Concerning the Contempt of the World – in 1488 (not published until the 1520s) on the advantages of monasticism. It was not long, however, before the restrictions of monastic life began to wear on his intellectual pursuits and his physical health, and he started a new treatise entitled Liber Antibarbarians (begun in 1495, The Book Against the Barbarians was rewritten and published shortly after De Contemptu Mundi).  In Liber Antibarbarians, Erasmus discusses monasticism as an ideal, but does not rein in his disappointment concerning an education system he felt was not up to his standards, particularly regarding Latin, Classical studies, and the translations of the patristic fathers. Regardless of however poor it may have been, it was in the library at Steyn where Erasmus, immersing himself in the early writings of St. Jerome and St. Augustine, first became attracted to humanism. [9]/[10]

            Although Erasmus remained a monk until he died, the dichotomy evinced by these early treatises indicate one man emerging from the doctrine of the Catholic Church mired in the middle ages taking his first steps to embrace the intellectual enlightenment of the Renaissance of the 16th century. To Erasmus, the Renaissance held the possibility of correcting the excesses of the Catholic Church, stabilizing society through the magistrates, and making education available to everyone. Through his writing, traveling and discussions with the most important men in Europe, Erasmus hoped to influence their minds which would control their actions to gradually bring about the changes he envisioned.[11]

            When the Protestant Reformation began knocking (hammering) on his door, Erasmus found he was unable to run with the fox (regardless of the need for reformation, leaving the Church for a theology he did not believe in was “the way to madness”) or hunt with the hounds (there was much about the Catholic Church that he did not agree with and had written very eloquently and satirically [e.g., Praise of Folly] against many of its practices). Working within the confines of the reach of the Catholic Church, he continually sought a conciliatory middle ground between the Protestant reformers’ demands and the Church he would never leave.[12]

Despite his best efforts, he was not successful and as the Protestant Reformation moved across northern Europe, Erasmus spent much of the last years of his life (1530s) defending himself from anger and disparagement on the Protestant side, and frustration and disappointment from Rome.[13]

The New Testament

            Achieving a certain celebrity in the early 1500s for his humanist, sacred and educational texts, Erasmus had many options of where to research, write, teach, and serve. He traveled throughout Europe, including extended stays in Antwerp, Louvain and Brussels (Belgium), Turin and Rome (Italy), Paris (France), and Basel (Switzerland).[14] He made eight trips to England, spending time in the court of King Henry the VIII and teaching at Cambridge University, making “his mark on the finest minds of the century.”[15]

As result of his meetings in 1513-14 with Johann Froben, a preeminent publisher in Basel, Erasmus embarked on writing the New Testament in Greek. Published in 1516, this work, entitled Novum Instrumentum included not only Erasmus’ Greek translation, but also his annotations and the traditional Latin New Testament (the Vulgate). Due to errors in copying, printing and his own rush to publish, Erasmus continued his study of Greek, and sought the oldest substantiated documents he could find and rewrote, corrected and published several subsequent editions under the title Novum Testamentum.[16]

            Unlike many of his contemporaries, most of Erasmus’ publications were either in Greek or Classical Latin. Latin was the language of his humanistic colleagues as well as the educated Europeans for whom he wrote.[17] Regardless, he approved of Bible translations into what he termed as “vulgar tongues” noting in the first edition of the Greek translation:

“…I should like all women to read the Gospel and the Epistles of Paul. Would that they were translated into all languages so that not only Scotch and Irish, but Turks and Saracens might be able to read and know them.”

Elaborating this desire in Preface to the third (Greek) edition, he adds that he finds it “indecorous and ridiculous” that laymen and women should “parrot” their scripture readings and prayers in words that they do not understand. [18]

            Regardless of these statements, Erasmus did not translate scripture into any language other than Greek or Latin thereby making available to other theologians and scholars the best basis he could provide for their ‘vulgar’ translations.

            William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible, based on Erasmus’ Greek and Latin texts,[19] was widely read, but one of the most famous New Testament translations was made by a newly excommunicated German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther.[20]

[1] "Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus," The, accessed December 6, 2014,

[2] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation a History (New York: Penguin, 2003), 98.

[3] Albert Rabil, Erasmus and The New Testament: The Mind of a Christian Humanist (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1972), 2.

[4] R. J. Schoeck, Erasmus of Europe-The Making of a Humanist 1647-1500 (Savage, Maryland: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990), 86.

[5] Mary M. Schmelzer, “Desiderius Erasmus (circa October 1467-12 July 1536).” Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic WritersSecond Series. Ed. David A. Richardson. Vol. 136. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. 107-116. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 136. Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online. Web. 16 Sept. 2014, 109.

[6] Schoeck, Erasmus of Europe, 273.

[7] Schmelzer, “Desiderius Erasmus.”

[8] Schoeck, Erasmus of Europe, 99.

[9] Richard L. DeMolen, “Erasmus' Commitment to the Canons Regular of St. Augustine,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1973). URL:, accessed: 29/11/2014 15:43, p 438-39

[10] James D. Tracy, “Against the 'Barbarians': The Young Erasmus and His Humanist Contemporaries,” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp. 3-22, URL:; accessed: 29/11/2014 15:35. I look to the entirety of this article as evincing Erasmus’ state of mind as he was in the process of disengaging himself from the rigors and limitations of his life in the monastery at Steyn.  

[11] Will Durant, The Reformation – A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564; The Story of Civilization Part VI, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008, 429-429.

[12] Durant, The Reformation, 429, 430-431.

[13] Durant, The Reformation, 435-436.

[14] Schoeck, Erasmus of Europe, 272-274.

[15] Schmelzer, “Desiderius Erasmus,”113, 116.

[16] Charles Nauert,, "Desiderius Erasmus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), (Winter 2012 Edition). URL =; accessed 11/20/2014.

[17] Schmelzer, “Desiderius Erasmus,” 109.

[18] Preserved Smith, Erasmus, a Study of His Life, ideals and Place in History, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962, 184.

[19] Schmelzer, “Desiderius Erasmus,”116.

[20] Jeffrey Jaynes, “Martin Luther (10 November 1483-18 February 1546).” German Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 1280-1580. Ed. James N. Hardin and Max Reinhart. Vol. 179. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. 135-151. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 179. Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online. Web. 16 Sept. 2014, 142.

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