Erasmus and Christian Humanism

By MacDonald, Stewart | History Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Erasmus and Christian Humanism

MacDonald, Stewart, History Review

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.

Erasmus was hardly unique in finding his needs largely unsatisfied within the Church. During the later Middle Ages there was a rising tide of disenchantment both inside and outside the Church. A popular anticlericalism was certainly widespread. But critics of the Church often sought a positive reorientation of Christian life away from the `external' rites of the Church and towards an inner faith, emphasising the individual's direct relationship with God and the importance of a pious and moral Christian life. Such movements of Church reform and religious renewal assumed various forms. Some embraced a mystical theology centred on prayer and contemplation. In the universities the followers of nominalism cultivated reason and inner faith. The adherents of lay devotion (the devitio moderna) formed lay confraternities and dedicated themselves to lives of faith and piety. (The Brethren of the Common Life was a notable example.) There is also evidence of a widespread desire to seek spiritual regeneration through the experience of the `Word of God' in the Bible, and through revivalist preaching. Erasmus can be regarded as a part of this wave of religious revival which preceded, and contributed to, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations in the sixteenth century.


Erasmus's great achievement was to harness the vitality of a current intellectual fashion, namely humanism, to the cause of religious renewal. Humanism was a diverse intellectual movement - indeed to describe it as a movement undoubtedly exaggerates its coherence. It is commonly asserted that the essential nature of humanism was a desire to revive the thought and literature of classical Greece and Rome. This is partly true. But the humanists were not only interested in promoting classical learning, but in reinterpreting and re-evaluating it. In doing so they sought, as best as they could, to ascertain the original meaning of classical texts, and this involved locating them within their historical context. …

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