Desiderius Erasmus (1466? - 1536)
Desiderius Erasmus, known more often to the world simply as Erasmus, was a Dutch
writer, scholar, humanist and a chief interpreter of the Renaissance in northern
Europe. He is also often referred to as the father of the Reformation.
Erasmus was born on 27th October, probably in 1466, into a time of significant
change in Europe. A major influence in his life, beginning in his late teens,
was a brotherhood started by Gerard Groote (1340-84) called 'the Brethren of
Common Life', which promoted ways of combining religion and learning. Groote
wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible, and began to translate it into
the vernacular. He was a mystic to whom the visible church mattered less than
a close union with God. Many religious leaders were influenced by this brotherhood,
including both Erasmus and Luther.
After a short monastic life in his early twenties Erasmus left because he believed
one needed to live a religious life in the middle of 'temptation' rather than
lock oneself away as if it didn't exist. He was a prolific writer with a great
sense of humour, which he could use to write satires about life and was therefore
able to touch on subjects which were taboo and censured (although the church
Council of Trent did list his books as forbidden at some point). His was a war
with the pen against ignorance and superstition, and he caused many people to
think in fresh ways.
Erasmus had very strong religious beliefs that he adhered to firmly against
great odds. He saw that the Catholic church was full of many vices and believed
the cure for this was education. If people were educated, including common people,
the greater wisdom would automatically cause reform within the church. He was
seen as a part of the Reformation movement yet he was strongly against the separation
of the church that the Reformation caused. He ended up at bitter odds with Luther,
and was strongly criticised by the reformers who had believed he would be one
of their leading lights. At the same time the Catholics criticised him for his
strong views on reforming the church from within.
This battle of opposites caused great division and separation through Europe
that still goes on today. Whilst both parties tried to persuade him to side
with them because of his great influence throughout Europe, Erasmus refused
to budge from what he firmly believed in. Similar to his great friend Thomas
More, who shared many of his beliefs and who was beheaded for them, Erasmus
would not submit to pressure that would make him untrue to himself.
Often during his life he expounded the right of people to think for themselves.
He was a strong advocate of reasoning, tolerance and pacifism in an age that
did not support these qualities. He believed that learning would make those
who governed the church rule more justly and religiously, that it would make
everyone, including the ordinary man and woman, bring the Catholic church back
to being a spiritual affair. He was a Renaissance man who, whilst having to
fight for his beliefs, retained his sense of humour, a deep humanity, his belief
in reform from within, and his own personal religion.
Marion Verweij, The Netherlands