Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

by Johan Huizinga, F. Hopman

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In this very readable biography, a noted scholar traces Erasmus's youth, his years as an itinerant scholar, sojourns in England, France, Switzerland, and Italy, friendship with Sir Thomas More, and disputes with Martin Luther. The author also probes Erasmus's mind and character and discusses his writings.


In this very readable biography, a noted scholar traces Erasmus's youth, his years as an itinerant scholar, sojourns in England, France, Switzerland, and Italy, friendship with Sir Thomas More, and disputes with Martin Luther. The author also probes Erasmus's mind and character and discusses his writings.

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Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

By Johan Huizinga


Copyright © 1957 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05421-6



The Low Countries in the fifteenth century — The Burgundian power — Connections with the German Empire and with France — The northern Netherlands outskirts in every sense — Movement of Devoao moderna: brethren of the Common Life and Windesheim monasteries — Erasmus's birth: 1466 — His relations and name — At school at Gouda, Deventer and Bois-le-Duc — He takes the vows: probably in 1488

When Erasmus was born Holland had for about twenty years formed part of the territory which the dukes of Burgundy had succeeded in uniting under their dominion — that complexity of lands, half French in population, like Burgundy, Artois, Hainault, Namur; half Dutch like Flanders, Brabant, Zealand, Holland. The appellation 'Holland' was, as yet, strictly limited to the county of that name (the present provinces of North and South Holland), with which Zealand, too, had long since been united. The remaining territories which, together with those last mentioned, make up the present kingdom of the Netherlands, had not yet been brought under Burgundian dominion, although the dukes had cast their eyes on them. In the bishopric of Utrecht, whose power extended to the regions on the far side of the river Ysel, Burgundian influence had already begun to make itself manifest. The projected conquest of Friesland was a political inheritance of the counts of Holland, who preceded the Burgundians. The duchy of Guelders, alone, still preserved its independence inviolate, being more closely connected with the neighbouring German territories, and consequently with the Empire itself.

All these lands — about this time they began to be regarded collectively under the name of 'Low Countries by the Sea' — had in most respects the character of outskirts. The authority of the German emperors had for some centuries been little more than imaginary. Holland and Zealand hardly shared the dawning sense of a national German union. They had too long looked to France in matters political. Since 1299 a French-speaking dynasty, that of Hainault, had ruled Holland. Even the house of Bavaria that succeeded it about the middle of the fourteenth century had not restored closer contact with the Empire, but had itself, on the contrary, early become Gallicized, attracted as it was by Paris and soon twined about by the tentacles of Burgundy to which it became linked by means of a double marriage.

The northern half of the Low Countries were 'outskirts' also in ecclesiastical and cultural matters. Brought over rather late to the cause of Christianity (the end of the eighth century), they had, as borderlands, remained united under a single bishop: the bishop of Utrecht. The meshes of ecclesiastical organization were wider here than elsewhere. They had no university. Paris remained, even after the designing policy of the Burgundian dukes had founded the university of Louvain in 1425, the centre of doctrine and science for the northern Netherlands. From the point of view of the wealthy towns of Flanders and Brabant, now the heart of the Burgundian possessions, Holland and Zealand formed a wretched little country of boatmen and peasants. Chivalry, which the dukes of Burgundy attempted to invest with new splendour, had but moderately thrived among the nobles of Holland. The Dutch had not enriched courtly literature, in which Flanders and Brabant zealously strove to follow the French example, by any contribution worth mentioning.

Whatever was coming up in Holland flowered unseen; it was not of a sort to attract the attention of Christendom. It was a brisk navigation and trade, mostly transit trade, by which the Hollanders already began to emulate the German Hansa, and which brought them into continual contact with France and Spain, England and Scotland, Scandinavia, North Germany and the Rhine from Cologne upward. It was herring fishery, a humble trade, but the source of great prosperity — a rising industry, shared by a number of small towns.

Not one of those towns in Holland and Zealand, neither Dordrecht nor Leyden, Haarlem, Middelburg, Amsterdam, could compare with Ghent, Bruges, Lille, Antwerp or Brussels in the south. It is true that in the towns of Holland also the highest products of the human mind germinated, but those towns themselves were still too small and too poor to be centres of art and science. The most eminent men were irresistibly drawn to one of the great foci of secular and ecclesiastical culture. Sluter, the great sculptor, went to Burgundy, took service with the dukes, and bequeathed no specimen of his art to the land of his birth. Dirk Bouts, the artist of Haarlem, removed to Louvain, where his best work is preserved; what was left at Haarlem has perished. At Haarlem, too, and earlier, perhaps, than anywhere else, obscure experiments were being made in that great art, craving to be brought forth, which was to change the world: the art of printing.

There was yet another characteristic spiritual phenomenon, which originated here and gave its peculiar stamp to life in these countries. It was a movement designed to give depth and fervour to religious life; started by a burgher of Deventer, Geert Groote, toward the end of the fourteenth century. It had embodied itself in two closely connected forms — the frater-houses, where the brethren of the Common Life lived together without altogether separating from the world, and the congregation of the monastery of Windesheim, of the order of the regular Augustinian canons. Originating in the regions on the banks of the Ysel, between the two small towns of Deventer and Zwolle, and so on the outskirts of the diocese of Utrecht, this movement soon spread, eastward to Westphalia, northward to Groningen and the Frisian country, westward to Holland proper. Fraterhouses were erected everywhere and monasteries of the Windesheim congregation were established or affiliated. The movement was spoken of as 'modern devotion', devotio moderna. It was rather a matter of sentiment and practice than of definite doctrine. The truly Catholic character of the movement had early been acknowledged by the church authorities. Sincerity and modesty, simplicity and industry, and, above all, constant ardour of religious emotion and thought, were its objects. Its energies were devoted to tending the sick and other works of charity, but especially to instruction and the art of writing. It is in this that it especially differed from the revival of the Franciscan and Dominican orders of about the same time, which turned to preaching. The Windesheimians and the Hieronymians (as the brethren of the Common Life were also called) exerted their crowning activities in the seclusion of the schoolroom and the silence of the writing cell. The schools of the brethren soon drew pupils from a wide area. In this way the foundations were laid, both here in the northern Netherlands and in lower Germany, for a generally diffused culture among the middle classes; a culture of a very narrow, strictly ecclesiastical nature, indeed, but which for that very reason was fit to permeate broad layers of the people.

What the Windesheimians themselves produced in die way of devotional literature is chiefly limited to edifying booklets and biographies of their own members; writings which were distinguished rather by their pious tenor and sincerity than by daring or novel thoughts.

But of them all, the greatest was that immortal work of Thomas a Kempis, Canon of Saint Agnietenberg, near Zwolle, the Imitatio Christi.

Foreigners visiting these regions north of the Scheldt and the Meuse laughed at the rude manners and the deep drinking of the inhabitants, but they also mentioned their sincere piety. These countries were already, what they have ever remained, somewhat contemplative and self-contained, better adapted for speculating on the world and for reproving it than for astonishing it with dazzling wit.

Rotterdam and Gouda, situated upward of twelve miles apart in the lowest region of Holland, an extremely watery region, were not among the first towns of the county. They were small country towns, ranking after Dordrecht, Haarlem, Leyden, and rapidly rising Amsterdam. They were not centres of culture. Erasmus was born at Rotterdam on 27 October, most probably in the year 1466. The illegitimacy of his birth has thrown a veil of mystery over his descent and kinship. It is possible that Erasmus himself learned the circumstances of his coming into the world only in his later years. Acutely sensitive to the taint in his origin, he did more to veil the secret than to reveal it. The picture which he painted of it in his ripe age was romantic and pathetic. He imagined that his father when a young man made love to a girl, a physician's daughter, in the hope of marrying her. The parents and brothers of the young fellow, indignant, tried to persuade him to take holy orders. The young man fled before the child was born. He went to Rome and made a living by copying. His relations sent him false tidings that his beloved had died; out of grief he became a priest and devoted himself to religion altogether. Returned to his native country he discovered the deceit. He abstained from all contact with her whom he now could no longer marry, but took great pains to give his son a liberal education. The mother continued to care for the child, till an early death took her from him. The father soon followed her to the grave. To Erasmus's recollection he was only twelve or thirteen years old when his mother died. It seems to be practically certain that her death did not occur before 1483, when, therefore, he was already seventeen years old. His sense of chronology was always remarkably ill developed.

Unfortunately it is beyond doubt that Erasmus himself knew, or had known, that not all particulars of this version were correct. In all probability his father was already a priest at the time of the relationship to which he owed his life; in any case it was not the impatience of a betrothed couple, but an irregular alliance of long standing, of which a brother, Peter, had been born three years before.

We can only vaguely discern the outlines of a numerous and commonplace middle-class family. The father had nine brothers, who were all married. The grandparents on his father's side and the uncles on his mother's side attained to a very great age. It is strange that a host of cousins — their progeny — has not boasted of a family connection with the great Erasmus. Their descendants have not even been traced. What were their names? The fact that in burgher circles family names had, as yet, become anything but fixed, makes it difficult to trace Erasmus's kinsmen. Usually people were called by their own and their father's name; but it also happened that the father's name became fixed and adhered to the following generation. Erasmus calls his father Gerard, his brother Peter Gerard, while a papal letter styles Erasmus himself Erasmus Rogerii. Possibly the father was called Roger Gerard or Gerards.

Although Erasmus and his brother were born at Rotterdam, there is much that points to the fact that his father's kin did not belong there, but at Gouda. At any rate they had near relatives at Gouda.

Erasmus was his Christian name. There is nothing strange in the choice, although it was rather unusual. St. Erasmus was one of the fourteen Holy Martyrs, whose worship so much engrossed the attention of the multitude in the fifteenth century. Perhaps the popular belief that the intercession of St. Erasmus conferred wealth, had some weight in choosing the name. Up to the time when he became better acquainted with Greek, he used the form Herasmus. Later on he regretted that he had not also given that name the more correct and melodious form Erasmius. On a few occasions he half jocularly called himself so, and his godchild, Johannes Froben's son, always used this form.

It was probably for similar aesthetic considerations that he soon altered the barbaric Rotterdammensis to Roterdamus, later Roterodamus, which he perhaps accentuated as a proparoxytone. Desiderius was an addition selected by himself, which he first used in 1496; it is possible that the study of his favourite author Jerome, among whose correspondents there is a Desiderius, suggested the name to him. When, therefore, the full form, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, first appears, in the second edition of the Adagia, published by Josse Badius at Paris in 1506, it is an indication that Erasmus, then forty years of age, had found himself.

Circumstances had not made it easy for him to find his way. Almost in his infancy, when hardly four years old, he thinks, he had been put to school at Gouda, together with his brother. He was nine years old when his father sent him to Deventer to continue his studies in the famous school of the chapter of St. Lebuin. His mother accompanied him. His stay at Deventer must have lasted, with an interval during which he was a choir boy in the minster at Utrecht, from 1475 to 1484. Erasmus's explicit declaration that he was fourteen years old when he left Deventer may be explained by assuming that in later years he confused his temporary absence from Deventer (when at Utrecht) with the definite end of his stay at Deventer. Reminiscences of his life there repeatedly crop up in Erasmus's writings. Those concerning the teaching he got inspired him with little gratitude; the school was still barbaric, then, he said; ancient medieval text-books were used there of whose silliness and cumbrousness we can hardly conceive. Some of the masters were of the brotherhood of the Common Life. One of them, Johannes Synthen, brought to his task a certain degree of understanding of classic antiquity in its purer form. Toward the end of Erasmus's residence Alexander Hegius was placed at the head of the school, a friend of the Frisian humanist, Rudolf Agricola, who on his return from Italy was gaped at by his compatriots as a prodigy. On festal days, when the rector made his oration before all the pupils, Erasmus heard Hegius; on one single occasion he listened to the celebrated Agricola himself, which left a deep impression on his mind.

His mother's death of the plague that ravaged the town brought Erasmus's school-time at Deventer to a sudden close. His father called him and his brother back to Gouda, only to die himself soon afterwards. He must have been a man of culture. For he knew Greek, had heard the famous humanists in Italy, had copied classic authors and left a library of some value.

Erasmus and his brother were now under the protection of three guardians whose care and intentions he afterwards placed in an unfavourable light. How far he exaggerated their treatment of him it is difficult to decide. That the guardians, among whom one Peter Winckel, schoolmaster at Gouda, occupied the principal place, had little sympathy with the new classicism, about which their ward already felt enthusiastic, need not be doubted. 'If you should write again so elegantly, please to add a commentary', the schoolmaster replied grumblingly to an epistle on which Erasmus, then fourteen years old, had expended much care. That the guardians sincerely considered it a work pleasing to God to persuade the youths to enter a monastery can no more be doubted than that this was for them the easiest way to get rid of their task. For Erasmus this pitiful business assumes the colour of a grossly selfish attempt to cloak dishonest administration; an altogether reprehensible abuse of power and authority. More than this: in later years it obscured for him the image of his own brother, with whom he had been on terms of cordial intimacy.

Winckel sent the two young fellows, twenty-one and eighteen years old, to school again, this time at Bois-le-Duc. There they lived in the Fraterhouse itself, to which the school was attached. There was nothing here of the glory that had shone about Deventer. The brethren, says Erasmus, knew of no other purpose than that of destroying all natural gifts, with blows, reprimands and severity, in order to fit the soul for the monastery. This, he thought, was just what his guardians were aiming at; although ripe for the university they were deliberately kept away from it. In this way more than two years were wasted.


Excerpted from Erasmus and the Age of Reformation by Johan Huizinga. Copyright © 1957 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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