Desiderius Erasmus (1467?–1536)
Erasmus was born in mysterious circumstances—his father was a priest who had seduced the daughter of a doctor of Zevenbergen called Geert—and his destiny continued to be exceptional. He was born in Rotterdam in 1467 and, a few decades later, was to win fame for his town, which in this latter part of the fifteenth century was only a little fishing village, by adding its name to his. The obscure son of Geert (which means ‘the desired one’ in Dutch) was thus to became famous as Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, known subsequently as the ‘Prince of Humanism’.
His celebrity raises more questions than it answers for the historian of ideas Erasmus was neither a leader of men nor a great philosopher. Unlike Luther, Zwingli or Calvin, he did not found a religion. He escaped all forms of persecution at a time of civil and international warfare and religious revolution, while his best friends perished on the field of battle or by the executioner’s axe, victims of their commitment to a cause. One such example was his best friend Thomas More, the author of Utopia, who was Chancellor of England before being beheaded in London in July 1535. Erasmus wrote all his works in Latin, the language of the élite of Europe at that time; he could thus count on only a few thousand readers. Apart from a small number of academics and students, who could claim today to be able to read Erasmus in the original? However this man, who spoke Dutch and German only to innkeepers and servants, wanted the most important books to be translated into modern languages so that, in his words, ‘the labourer at the plough and the weaver at the loom could pray to God in a language which they themselves could understand’.
Having been ordained a priest on 25 April 1492, he left Steyn to become the secretary of thebishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen. He went to Paris in 1495 where he was initially a resident at the austere Collège de Montaigu. Thereafter, he led an independent existence, giving Latin lessons to the sons of rich bourgeois and aristocratic English and German families, writing textbooks which later became teaching manuals, and which certain countries and schools—such as St. Paul’s School and Eton College in England—were to use for centuries. He had yet to publish anything, but had already established a reputation as an ‘orator’ and ‘poet’ in the humanist circles of Paris. In 1499—he was then, at least, 30—one of his pupils, the rich Lord William Mountjoy, took him to England. The course of his life then took a decisive turn thanks to the friendship and respect of some of the most influential figures of the time. He was the guest of the royal family, became the friend of John Colet, a theologian at Oxford and future Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, met Thomas More and, subsequently, grammarians, scholars and theologians of a reformist persuasion
Thomas More had been one of the first men Erasmus had met upon his arrival in England. Well Hall, the Eltham seat of the Ropers, was not far from Mountjoy's Greenwich manor; and More occasionally spent his weekends there. He was officially studying law at Lincoln's Inn, and unofficially, with the help of Grocyn, mastering Greek as fast as he could. All his spare time was now spent in translating Greek epigrams, when he was not trying his hand as a playwright. (In a letter to Holt the grammarian in 1501, he talks mysteriously of 'those parts which I put into the comedy on Solomon.') With his usual charm More set himself to render his young guest stay in England as agreeable as possible. One morning he had a surprise for him:
I was staying at lord Mountjoy's country house [writes Erasmus] when Thomas More came to see me, and took me out with him for a walk as far as the next village [Eltham], where all the king's children [Henry VII], except prince Arthur [who was accompanying his father] who was then the eldest son, were being educated. When we came into the hall, the attendants not only of the palace but also of Mounjoy's household were all assembled. In the midst stood prince Henry, then nine years old, and having already something of royalty in his demeanour, in which there was a certain dignity combined with singular courtesy. On his right was Margaret, about eleven years of age, afterwards married to James, king of Scots, and on his left played Mary, a child of four. Edmund was an infant in arms. More, with his companion Arnold, after paying his respects to the boy Henry, presented him with some writing. For my part, not having expected anything of the sort, I had nothing to offer, but promised that on another occasion I would in some way declare my duty towards him. Meanwhile I was angry with More for not having warned me, especially as the boy sent me a little note, while we were at dinner, to challenge something from my pen. I went home, and in the Muses' spite, from whom I had been so long divorced. finished the poem within three days.We know that Erasmus got the children's age wrong (Henry was 8 at the time), but also It has been suggested that this meeting was pre-arranged by More and John Skelton, the young prince's tutor. Here is a short extract from the poem Erasmus wrote for the prince translated from Latin:
Skilled in war,
Lover of peace,
Indulgent to others,
Strict to himself,
More sublime than Caesar,
More generous than Maecenas …
The father of the Age of Gold.
In 1498 Erasmus travels to England where he meets Thomas More, John Colet, and the future Henry VIII, who was 8 years old at the time.
H.L.Edwards, Skelton, London 1949