Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 AD)
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was one of Europe's most influential scholars. He was a man of great intellect who defined the humanist movement in Northern Europe.


erasmusThe Renaissance in Northern Europe
In Italy, Renaissance writers focused primarily upon discussing topics like the beauty and creativity of humankind; also, the Italians tended to have a more relaxed attitude towards morality (and they definitely expressed a love for liberty and freedom).

In Northern Europe, however, writers emphasized quite different themes: they paid basically equal attention to both Classical literature and scipture. In other words, Italian humanists focused their attention upon studying humankind while their Northern European counterparts used humanism as a means to gaining a better understanding of the nature of God.


Challenging the Catholic Church
For 1500 years the Catholic Church was reserved the right to be the only allowed to interpret the Bible. No religious doctrine was developed without the involvement or approval of the Church. If someone did try to interpret scripture for themselves like Jan Hus, religious authorities quickly stepped in and stamped it out. In other words, the Catholic Church had exclusive control over scripture and its application/interpretation. Reinforcing Rome's exclusive control was the fact no one (at least outside of Italy) could read Latin; therefore, worshippers had to rely upon an educated clergy to read and interpret the Bible for them. Interestingly, many parish priests couldn't even understand Latin themselves; they could read it but they couldn't understand what they were reading.

Three things happened during the Renaissance challenging the Church's exclusive control of scripture: firstly, the printing press increased public access to the Bible (previously only the wealthy could afford such a prized possession); secondly, Erasmus translated scripture from Latin in to Dutch so the people could read it for themselves; and thirdly, since people could read it for themselves they started interpreting it for themselves. Scholars like Erasmus tried to help establish the groundwork for a clearer understanding of the simple message of love proclaimed by Jesus in the gospels.

Writers like Erasmus helped give rise in Northern Europe to something called Christian Humanism. Christian humanism is essentially a philosophical union between Christ’s teachings and humanist principles like individual freedom and the importance of human happiness. Specifically, Erasmus stressed the humanity of Jesus and his social teachings like his command to love one another (over blind acceptance of Church doctrine).


His Life
In 1492, poverty forced Erasmus into monastery life. Although he was ordained as a Catholic priest he never actually worked as a priest. Instead, Erasmus appears to have impressed his superiors in the Church with his skill speaking Latin. He was sent to Paris, France, to study Classical literature where he was exposed to humanism.

In Paris Erasmus became a highly respected teacher; he gained the patronage of William Blunt (a former student). Erasmus spent the next few years traveling from city to city lecturing and corresponding with notable writers like Thomas More.

In the early 1500s, Erasmus was persuaded to teach at Cambridge (England) and lecture in theology. It was during this time that he wrote the book In Praise of Folly. This book presented a satirical look at the various abuses of the Church, e.g. Erasmus poked fun at the fact that many priests could not actually read (let alone read Latin). Another influential publication was his translation of the New Testament into Dutch in 1516 AD. His translation was a turning point in theology, in that, his translation shattered the Catholic Church's exclusive control over interpreting scripture.

On July 12, 1536, during preparations for a move to the Netherlands, Erasmus fell ill and died from an attack of dysentery. Though he remained loyal to the Church of Rome, he did not receive last rites, and there is no evidence that he asked for a priest. This seems to reflect his view that what mattered most was a believer's direct relationship with God.