Prince of the Humanists
By Matt McKeown
As much as the printing press itself, Erasmus revolutionized western scholarship.
The Renaissance is, through no fault of its own, a deceitful age. Its distinction from the Medieval period (itself a proverbial red-headed stepchild that can do no right in the popular mind) has been vastly exaggerated, yet it is hardly possible to say this without seeming to minimize its artistic and philosophical accomplishments. Desiderius Erasmus, one of the period’s most brilliant figures, serves as an exemplary antidote to these problems. A priest who fought superstition and a reformer who opposed Protestantism, Erasmus encapsulates much of what the Middle Ages had been and meant to those who lived in them, while also exemplifying what really was new about the Renaissance.
Erasmus was, first and foremost, a scholar. This was natural enough, given that he was a priest, but he went far beyond the basics of literacy in Latin, or even in Greek. After a rigorous childhood education and some years at the University of Paris, he traveled to England, where he spent some time teaching at Cambridge and Oxford. He also befriended a number of luminaries of the English Renaissance, including John Colet and St. Thomas More, who shared both his love of learning and his zeal for church reform; like More, Erasmus’ output included theological and spiritual works, some of them polemics (particularly against Martin Luther). Colet in particular inspired him to pursue a greater mastery of Greek, which in turn led to what was arguably Erasmus’ most important work: a new edition of the New Testament.
We here see one of the genuinely distinctive qualities of the Renaissance as compared with the Middle Ages. Textual criticism was not unknown before; centuries in which books had to be copied by hand were inevitably familiar with scribal errors. But after the invention of the printing press (whether it was a cause or a coincidence), an appetite for the most accurate texts possible seems to have risen all over Europe. In 1502, Cardinal Cisneros of Toledo commissioned a polyglot Bible, which may have been the first of its kind in over a millennium. Building on this work, Erasmus produced the Novum Instrumentum Omne, an edition of the New Testament in both Latin and Greek, with annotations that were arguably an early form of the critical apparatus now used in textual analysis. Though by no means beyond critique, Erasmus’ edition of the New Testament was a major step forward for all subsequent scholarship, both of the Bible itself and for manuscript criticism as a discipline.
Erasmus was also a proponent of ecclesiastical reform, a cause for which there was increasing support throughout the continent. This took different forms in different places; after 1517, various kinds of Protestantism became popular in much of northern Europe, while religious fervor elsewhere was led principally by Catholics. Erasmus’ sympathies lay with the latter, but he was not a thoughtless apologist for Catholicism by any means. His satirical piece In Praise of Folly was, under the cover of humor, a stern rebuke to corrupt and superstitious practices in the Church. Julius Excluded From Heaven was even more severe, posthumously lambasting Pope Julius II for everything from bribing his way into office to engaging in battle (military violence being strictly forbidden to all priests); he even comically depicts Julius as threatening to excommunicate St. Peter for refusing him entry into Paradise!
His legacy was a curious one—a devout Catholic, his writings were often included in anti-Catholic pamphlets; an advocate of reform, he was associated with the dissolute humanists of the Renaissance. His rhetorical gifts pointed back to Cicero, and, like his work on the New Testament, he helped to revive and redirect attention to ancient sources. The classical renewal movement of our own day echoes many of his interests, and to this day, he makes a lively read.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our others here at the Journal, like these author profiles of James Baldwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, this “Great Conversation” piece on the concept of honor, this post on Catholic education and the liberal arts, or this student essay on the work of Jules Verne. And don’t forget to take a listen to our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.
Matt McKeown is a staff editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore, enjoys whiskey, Medieval studies, and vintage horror, and owns a lovely phalaenopsis orchid that is not dead yet.