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Desiderius Erasmus was born at Rot-
terdam on the 27th of October, 1467. His
father, Gerhard de Praet, belonged to a re-
spectable family at Gouda, a small town of
south Holland, not far from Rotterdam : his
mother, Margaret, was the daughter of a phy-
sician at Sevenberg in Brabant. Gerhard's
parents were resolved that he should become
a monk. Meanwhile he was secretly betrothed
to Margaret. His family succeeded in pre-
venting their marriage, but not their union.
After the birth of a son — the elder and only
brother of Erasmus — Gerhard fled to Rome.

^ 235644

• -• •


A false rumour of Margaret's death there in-
duced him, in his despair, to enter the priest-
hood. On returning to Holland, he found
Margaret living at Gouda with his two boys.
He was true to the irrevocable vows which
parted him from her. After a few years, during
which the supervision of their children's educa-
tion had been a common solace, she died, while
still young ; and Gerhard, broken-hearted, soon
followed her to the grave.

The boy afterwards so famous had been given
his father's Christian name, Gerhard, meaning
* beloved.' Desiderius is barbarous Latin for
that, and Erasmus is barbarous Greek for it. If
the great scholar devised those appellations for
himself, it must have been at an early age.
Afterwards, when he stood godfather to the son
of his friend Froben the printer, he gave the boy
the correct form of his own second name, — viz.,
Erasmius. The combination, Desiderius Eras-
mus, is probably due to the fact that he had
been known as Gerhard Gerhardson. It was a


singular fortune for a master of literary style
to be designated by two words which mean
the same thing, and are both incorrect.

He was sent to school at Gouda when he
was four years old. Here it was perceived that
he had a fine voice; and so he was taken to
Utrecht, and placed in the Cathedral choir.
But he had no gift for music. At nine years of
age he was removed from Utrecht to a good
school at Deventer. His precocious genius soon
showed itself, and his future eminence was pre-
dicted by the famous Rudolph Agricola — one of
the first men who brought the new learning
across the Alps.

Erasmus was only thirteen when he lost both
parents, and was left to the care of three guard-
ians. They wished him to become a monk : it
was the simplest way to dispose of a ward. The
boy loathed the idea ; he knew his father's
story; and now it seemed as if the same shadow
was to fall on his own life also. However, the
guardians sent him to a monastic seminary at



Hertogenbosch, where the brethren undertook
to prepare youth for the cloister. The
three years which he spent there — i.e., from
thirteen to sixteen — were wholly wasted and
miserable : he learned nothing, and his health,
never strong, was injured by cruel severities.
'The plan of these men,' he said afterwards,
' when they see a boy of high and lively spirit, is
to break and humble it by stripes, by threats, by
reproaches, and various other means.' The
struggle with the monks and his guardians was
a long one ; when menaces failed, they tried
blandishments, — especially they promised him a
paradise of literary leisure. At last he gave in.
When he was about eighteen, he took the vows
of a Canon Regular of the order of St Augustine.
Looking back afterwards on the arts by which
he had been won, he asks, ' What is kidnapping,
if this is not .? '

The next five years — till he was twenty-three
— were spent in his monastery at Stein, near
Gouda. The general life of the place was odious


to him; but he found one friend, named William
Hermann. They used to read the Latin classics
together — secretly, for such studies were viewed
with some suspicion. It was then that he laid the
basis of his Latin style, and became thoroughly
familiar with some of the best Latin authors.

In 1 49 1 he left the monastery, having been
invited by the Bishop of Cambray, Henry de
Bergis, to reside with him as his secretary. Soon
afterwards he took orders ; and the Bishop
subsequently enabled him to enter the Uni-
versity of Paris, for the purpose of studying
theology. He was then, perhaps, about twenty-
seven years of age.

At this point we may attempt, — aided by
Holbein, and by tradition — to form some idea
of his personal appearance. Erasmus was a
rather small man, slight, but well-built ; he had,
as became a Teuton, blue eyes, yellowish or
light brown hair, and a fair complexion. The
face is a remarkable one. It has two chief
characteristics, — quiet, watchful sagacity, — and


humour, half playful, half sarcastic. The eyes
are calm, critical, steadily observant, with a
half-latent twinkle in them ; the nose is straight,
rather long, and pointed ; the rippling curves of
the large mouth indicate a certain energetic
vivacity of temperament, and tenacity of purpose ;
while the pose of the head suggests vigilant
caution, almost timidity. As we continue to
study the features, they speak more and more
clearly of insight and refinement ; of a worldly
yet very gentle shrewdness ; of cheerful self-
mastery ; and of a mind which has its weapons
ready at every instant. But there is no sug-
gestion of enthusiasm, — unless it be the lite-
rary enthusiasm of a student. It is difficult to
imagine those cool eyes kindled by any glow
of passion, or that genial serenity broken by a
spiritual struggle. This man, we feel, would be
an intellectual champion of truth and reason;
his wit might be as the spear of Ithuriel, and
his satire as the sword of Gideon ; but he has
not the face of a hero or a martyr.


On entering the University of Paris, Erasmus
took up his residence at the Montaigu College. It
was on the south side of the Seine, not far from
the Sorbonne, and is said to have stood on the
site now occupied by the Library of St. Gene-
vieve. The Rector of the College was a man of
estimable character; but he believed in extreme
privation — which he had himself endured in
youth — as the best school for students of theo-
logy. Erasmus has described the life there.
The work imposed on the students was exces-
sively severe. They were also half starved ;
meat was proscribed altogether; eggs, usually
the reverse of fresh, formed the staple of
food; the inmates had to fetch their drinking
water from a polluted well. When wine was
allowed, it was such as implied by the
nickname 'Vinegar College' (a Latin pun on
Montaigu). Many of the sleeping-rooms were
on a ground-floor where the plaster was moul-
dering on the damp walls, and in such a neigh-
bourhood that the air breathed by the sleepers —


when they could sleep — was pestilential. One
year's experience of this place — these are the
words of Erasmus — doomed many youths of
the brightest gifts and promise either to
death, or to blindness, or to madness, or to
leprosy; 'some of these/ he says, 'I knew
myself, — and assuredly every one of us ran
the danger.' Similar testimony is given by
his younger contemporary, Rabelais: — 'The
unhappy creatures at that College are treated
worse than galley-slaves among the Moors
and Tartars, or than murderers in a criminal

No wonder Erasmus, a delicate man at the
best, soon fell ill; indeed, his constitution was
permanently impaired. He went back to the
Bishop at Cambray. Then, after a short visit
to Holland, he returned to Paris — but not to
the Montaigu College. He rented a one-room
lodging, and resolved to support himself during
his University course by taking private pupils.
It was a hard struggle that he went through


then ; but better days were at hand. He had
already become known in Paris as a scholar of
brilliant promise, and especially as an admirable
Latinist. Latin was then the general language,
not only of learning, but of polite intercourse
between persons of different nationalities ; and
to speak Latin with fluent grace — an art in
which Erasmus was already pre-eminent — was
the best passport to cultivated society in Paris,
whose University attracted students from all
countries. Then he had a bright and nimble
fancy, a keen sense of humour, a frank manner,
and also rare tact ; in short, he was a delightful
companion, without ever seeking to dominate
his company. One of his pupils was a young
Englishman, William Blunt, Lord Mountjoy,
who was studying at Paris. Mountjoy settled
an annual pension of a hundred crowns on
Erasmus, and presently persuaded him to visit

This was in 1498. Erasmus was now thirty-
one. For eighteen years — ever since he left the


school at Deventer — his life had been a hard
one. The coarse rigours of Hertogenbosch,
the midnight oil of Stein, the miseries of the
Montaigu College, the later battle with poverty
in Paris — all these had left their marks on that
slight form, and that keen, calm face. Men
who met him in England must have found it
difficult to believe that he was so young. The
sallow cheeks, the sunken eyes, the bent shoul-
ders, the worn air of the whole man seemed to
speak of a more advanced age. But neither
then, nor at any later time, was he other than
youthful in buoyant vivacity of spirit, in restless
activity of mind, in untiring capacity for work.

And now a new world opened before him.
In England he was not only an honoured guest,
but, for the first time, perhaps, since he left
school, he found himself among men from whom
he had something to learn. He went to Oxford,
with a letter of introduction to Richard Charnock,
Prior of a house of his own order, the Canons
Regular of St Augustine, and was hospitably


received by him in the College of St Mary the
Virgin. At that time the scholastic theology
and philosophy still held the field in both the
English Universities — as everywhere else, north
of the Alps. But at Oxford there were a few
eminent men who had studied the new learning
in Italy, and had brought the love for it home
with them. Erasmus was just too late to see
William Selling of All Souls College, who died
in 1495, — one of the first Englishmen who
endeavoured to introduce Greek studies in
this country. And he was too early to meet
William Lilly, who was still abroad then. But
he met some other scholars, who were among
the earliest teachers or advocates of Greek at
Oxford, — William Grocyn, William Latimer, and
Thomas Linacre;— the last-named, who became
Founder of the Royal College of Physicians,
had studied at Florence under Politian and
Chalcondyles. Erasmus speaks with especial
praise of Grocyn's comprehensive learning, and
of Linacre's finished taste. It is certain that



his intercourse with the Oxford Hellenists must
have been both instructive and stimulating to
him ; we can see, too, that it strengthened his
desire to visit Italy. On the other hand, his
letters show that when he left Oxford in
1500, he had not advanced far in the study
of Greek. The years from 1500 to 1505,
during which he worked intensely hard at
Greek by himself in Paris, were those in which
his knowledge of that language was chiefly
built up.

The two Oxonians with whom Erasmus
formed the closest friendship were John Colet
and Thomas More. Colet was just a year his
senior, and was then lecturing on St Paul's
Epistles in what was quite a new way, — en-
deavouring to bring out their meaning histori-
cally and practically. He was not a Greek
scholar ; but it was he who, more than anyone
else, encouraged Erasmus to print the New
Testament in the original tongue. Thomas
More, who was then a youth of twenty, had


left Oxford, and was reading law in London,
where Erasmus first met him. The story that
they met at dinner, and that, before an introduc-
tion, each recognised the other by his wit, is
perhaps apocryphal. At any rate, it expresses
the truth that such perfectly congenial minds
would be drawn to each other at once.

In the winter of 1499 Erasmus visited Lord
Mountjoy at Greenwich. It would seem, too,
that he had a glimpse of Henry VII.'s Court.
He writes that he has become * a better horse-
man, and a tolerable courtier.' In January,
1 500, just before Erasmus left England, Thomas
More went down from London to Greenwich, to
say farewell, — bringing with him another young
lawyer named Arnold. More proposed a walk,
and took his friends to call at a large house in
the neighbouring village of Eltham. They were
shown into a hall where some children were at
play : it was, in fact, the royal nursery. The
eldest, a boy of nine years old, was the future
Henry VIII.; he was not then Prince of Wales,


but Duke of York, his brother Arthur being
still alive. The tutor in charge of the children
was John Skelton, the poet. Three days after-
wards, in fulfilment of a promise, Erasmus sent
the little Prince a Latin poem ; it is in praise of
England, and of Henry VII. There is no
doubt that the praise of England came from his
heart : his letters show that.

At the end of January, 1500, he sailed from
Dover for France. A serious mishap befell him
just before he went on board. He carried with
him a considerable sum of money, contributed
by friends for the purpose of enabling him to
visit Italy. The custom-house officers at Dover
deprived him of nearly the whole, on plea of a
law forbidding the exportation of gold coin of
the realm above a certain amount. His friends
at court afterwards tried to recover it for him, —
but in vain. On reaching Paris, he fell ill.
When he recovered, he set hard to work. The
next five years were spent chiefly at Paris, with
occasional visits to Orleans or the Netherlands.


They form a quiet yet memorable period of his
life. In 1 500 he published his first collection of
proverbial sayings from the classics, — Wx^Adagia^ ^
— which, in its enlarged form, afterwards brought
him so much fame. And during these years his
incessant labour at Greek gradually qualified
him for yet greater tasks. He had no teacher in
Paris ; and, though not absolutely in want, he
had difficulty in buying all the books that he

Towards the end of 1505 Erasmus paid a
second visit to England, — staying only about
six months. On this occasion he visited Cam-
bridge. The Grace Book of our University
shows that permission was given to Desiderius
Erasmus to take the degrees of B.D. and D.D.
by accumulation. It would seem, however, that
he took the degree of B.D. only ; so Dr John
Caius says, and he must be right, if it is true
that in the doctor's diploma which Erasmus
received at Turin in 1506 he was described as a
bachelor of theology. Had he possessed the


higher degree, it would have been mentioned in
the Turin document. During this second visit
he saw a good deal of More and other old
acquaintances. Grocyn took him to Lambeth,
and introduced him to Warham, Archbishop of
Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, —
who, in the sequel, was one of his best friends.

He had now become able to realise the
dream of his youth — to visit Italy. It was
arranged that he should accompany the two
sons of Dr Baptista Boyer, chief physician to
Henry VII., who were going to Genoa ; a royal
courier was to escort them as far as Bologna.
The party left Dover in the spring of 1 506, and
were tossed about for four days in the Channel.
After a rest at Paris, they set out on horse-
back for Turin. Erasmus has vividly described
the squalid German inns, which he contrasts
with those of France. Another discomfort of
the journey was that the tutor and the courier
quarrelled a good deal. At Turin — his com-
panions having left him — he stayed several


weeks, and received from the University the
degree of Doctor in Theology.

The stay of Erasmus in Italy lasted three
years — from the summer of 1506 to that of 1509.
It is well to remember what was the general
state of things in Italy at that time, — for the
impressions which Erasmus received there had
a strong and lasting effect upon his mind. In
literature the humanistic revival had now passed
its zenith, and was declining into that frivolous
pedantry which Erasmus afterwards satirised in
the ' Ciceronian.' Architecture, sculpture and
painting were indeed active ; Bramante, Michael
Angelo and Raphael were at work. But the
fact which chiefly arrested the attention of
Erasmus was that Italian soil was the common
ground on which the princes of Europe were
prosecuting their intricate ambitions, and that
the Pope had unsheathed the sword in pursuit
of temporal advantage. Julius II. was already
an elderly man, but full of military ardour.
Venice seemed to be his ulterior object ; mean-
J. 2


while, in the autumn of 1506, he had reduced
Perugia and Bologna. Erasmus was in Bologna
when the Pope entered in November, and the
late roses of that strangely mild autumn were
strewn in his path by the shouting multitudes
who hailed him as a warrior equal to his Ro-
man namesake of old, the conqueror of Gaul.
Erasmus was at Rome, too, in the following
March, when the Pope celebrated his triumph
with a martial pomp which no Caesar could
have surpassed. Then came the revolt of Genoa
from France, — the futile war of Maximilian,
' Emperor Elect,' against Venice, — and lastly
the iniquitous League of Cambray, by which
Maximilian, the Pope, Louis XIL and Ferdinand
of Spain banded themselves together for the
spoliation of the Venetian Republic. Such
things as these sank deep into the heart of
Erasmus. ' When princes purpose to exhaust
a commonwealth' — he wrote afterwards — 'they
speak of a just war ; when they unite for that
object, they call it peace.'


But there was a bright side also to his years
in Italy ; in many places he enjoyed intercourse
with learned men ; and he formed some enduring
friendships. At Venice he spent several months
with Aldu^ in 1508, and saw an enlarged
edition of the Adagia through his famous
press. The kind of reputation which he had
now won may be seen from his own account
of his visit to Cardinal Grimani at Rome, in
1509 : it is a characteristic little story, and ought
to be told in his own words. ' There was no
one to be seen in the courtyard of the Cardinal's
palace,' he says, 'or in the entrance-hall... I
went upstairs alone. I passed through the first,
the second, the third room ; — still no one to be
seen, and not a door shut ; I could not help
wondering at the solitude. Coming to the last
room, I there found only one person, — a Greek,
I thought, — a physician, — with his head shaved,
standing at the open door. I asked him if I
could see the Cardinal ; he replied that he was
in an inner room, with some visitors. As I said

2 — 2


no more, he asked me my business. I replied,

*■ I wished to pay my respects to him, if it had

been convenient, but as he is engaged, I will

call again.' I was just going away, but paused

at a window to look at the view; the Greek

came back to me, and asked if I wished to leave

any message. ' You need not disturb him,' I

said, — ' I will call again soon.' Then he asked

my name, and I told him. The instant he heard

it, before I could stop him, he hurried into the

inner room, and quickly returning, begged me

not to go — I should be admitted directly. The

Cardinal received me, not as a man of his high

degree might have received one of my humble

condition, but like an equal : a chair was placed

for me, and we conversed for more than two

hours. He would not even allow me to be

uncovered, — a wonderful condescension in a

man of his rank.' Grimani pressed Erasmus to

stay permanently at Rome. But he replied that

he had just received a summons to England,

which left him no choice.


In the April of that year, 1509, the little
boy whom Erasmus had seen in the nursery at
Eltham had become Henry VIII.; and in May,
Mountjoy had written to his old tutor, urging-
him to return. Erasmus reached England early
in the summer of 15 10. Soon afterwards, in
More's house at Bucklersbury, he rapidly wrote
his famous satire, the E?zcomium Moriae, or
j ' Praise of Folly,' in which Folly celebrates her
^own praises as the great source of human
pleasures. He had been meditating this piece
on the long journey from Rome ; it is a kaleido-
scope of his experiences in Italy, and of earlier
memories. As to the title, Moria, the Greek
word for ' folly,' was a playful allusion, of course,
to the name of his wise and witty host. This
' Praise of Folly ' is a satire, not only in the ^
modern but in the original sense of that word, —
a medley. All classes, all callings, are sportively
viewed on the weak side. But in relation to the
author's own life and times, the most important I
topics are the various abuses in the Church, the '


pedantries of the schoolmen, and the selfish wars
of kings. If this eloquent Folly, as Erasmus
presents her, most often wears the mocking smile
of Lucian or Voltaire, there are moments also
when she wields the terrible lash of Juvenal
or of Swift. The popularity of the satire,
throughout Europe, was boundless. The mask
of jest which it wore was its safeguard ; how
undignified, how absurd it would have been
for a Pope or a King to care what was said by
Folly ! And, just for that reason, the Encomium
Moriae must be reckoned among the forces
which prepared the Reformation.

Where was Erasmus to settle now t That
V was the great question for him. He decided it
by going to Cambridge, on the invitation of
Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, who was then
Chancellor of the University. Rooms were
assigned to him in Queens' College, of which
Fisher had been President a few years before.
In that beautiful old cloister at Queens', where
the spirit of the fifteenth century seems to


linger, an entrance at the south-east corner
gives access to a small court which is known
as the court of Erasmus. His lodgings were in
a square turret of red brick at the south-east
angle of the court. His study was probably a
good-sized room which is now used as a lecture-
room ; on the floor above this was his bedroom,
with an adjoining attic for his servant. From
the south windows of these rooms — looking on
the modern Silver Street — he had a wide view
over what was then open country, interspersed
with cornfields ; the windings of the river could
be seen as far as the Trumpington woods. The
walk on the west side of the Cam, which is
called the walk of Erasmus, was not laid out till
1684: in his time it was open ground, with
probably no trees upon it. His first letter from
Cambridge is dated Dec. 15 10, and this date
must be right, or nearly so. He says himself
that he taught Greek here before he lectured on
theology ; and also that, after his arrival, the
commencement of his Greek teaching was


delayed by ill-health. Now he was elected to
the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity in
15 1 1, and in those days the election was ordered
to take place on the last day of term before the
Long Vacation. His residence, then, can hardly
have begun later than the early part of 15 11.

It is interesting to think of him — now a man
of forty-four, but prematurely old in appearance
— moving about the narrow streets or quiet
courts of that medieval Cambridge which was just
about to become the modern — a transformation
due, in no small measure, to the influence of his
own labours. Eleven of our Colleges existed.
Peterhouse was in the third century of its life ;

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