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Erasmus and Christian Humanism

Stewart MacDonald introduces the humanist scholar whose writings made him one of the most significant figures of 16th-century Europe.  

In exploring the lives and works of historical personalities there is a natural tendency for historians to accentuate those aspects of an individual's legacy which they deem to be important from their own particular perspective. Great figures like Erasmus of Rotterdam therefore face regular reappraisal, as the historical vantage point changes. Erasmus has been seen, for example, as an embodiment of Renaissance individualism and both as a precursor of Protestantism and as a champion of liberal Catholicism. Others have viewed him as a forerunner of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. In our own century he has been claimed as an apostle of religious toleration and even as a founding father of European integration. However, it is always important to evaluate historical figures, as far as possible, in the historical circumstances of their own day.

Erasmus and the Church

There is some uncertainty about Erasmus's early life, but it is likely that he was born in Rotterdam, in the Burgundian Netherlands, in 1469. He was the illegitimate son of a priest. During his schooling he came under the influence of the lay confraternity, the Brethren of the Common Life, who encouraged classical learning and pious living. In 1487 he became a monk of the Augustinian Canons. He was not well-suited to monastic life, however, and in 1493 was released in order to act as secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. The bishop subsequently gave him leave of absence to study theology at the University of Paris. In Paris he was exposed to the received theological system of the day, Scholasticism. This again, was not to his liking. After nearly four years of fruitless study he visited England in 1499. Much inspired by John Colet and Thomas More, he abandoned his career in the service of the Church and lived for the remainder of his life as a freelance scholar and writer, achieving considerable celebrity throughout Christendom.

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