On this day: Erasmus

On this day in 1536, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam died at Basel. He was 69 years old.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the printing of The Praise of Folly, the famous essay addressed to Thomas More, at whose estate at Bucklersbury Erasmus wrote it in one week in 1509. Among the targets of Erasmus's satire were theologians, philosophers, popes, cardinals, priests, authors, monks, common people, himself, those who have confidence in magical charms, and princes.

The essay, which is still funny, may be read online or on Kindle, free, in various versions. Fordham offers a modernized text. And in this version, at Google Books, the Hans Holbein drawings are included.


The Museum Rotterdam just closed an Erasmus exhibition, "500 Jaar Lof der Zotheid". (Lof der Zotheid = The Praise of Folly.) The crown pictured on the web page is one of nine made by the Swiss-Dutch artist Regula Maria Müller to illustrate the vices that produce the follies. The other crowns may be seen here.

Even though The Praise of Folly was a best seller in Spain as it was throughout Europe, the book that had the biggest influence was the Enchiridion. Its impact on Cervantes, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, John of Avila, and many others was profound.

Alonson Fernández, archdeacon of Alcor, and the translator of the Enchiridion, wrote to Erasmus in 1526: "At the emperor's court, in the cities, in the churches, in the convents, even in the inns and on the highways, everyone has the Enchiridion of Erasmus in Spanish".

--The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, by Henry Kamen, Yale University Press, 1997, page 84.

For a detailed description of what the Dutch humanist's most famous book meant to Spaniards, see Subversion and Liberation in the Writings of St. Teresa of Avila, by Antonio Pérez-Romero, Rodopi, 1996. From that:

"The Erasmus beloved of Spain is the advocate of the Pauline metaphor of the mystical body. Believers have to work to conform themselves to Christ, their minds mortifying their affections. But this is not really difficult, Erasmus maintains: on the contrary, it is an easy and pleasant task, if indeed the Spirit of Christ dwells in them". Page 39.

In spite of the good influence Erasmus had on so many, there were those in the Church who condemned his books and blamed him for the Reformation. As recently as the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, the disapproval is still evident in the article about Erasmus, written by Joseph Sauer, which has an imprimatur and a nihil obstat. From that:

"The literary works issued by Erasmus up to this time made him the intellectual father of the Reformation. What the Reformation destroyed in the organic life of the Church Erasmus had already openly or covertly subverted in a moral sense in his 'Praise of Folly', his 'Adagia', and 'Colloquia', by his pitiless sarcasm or by his cold scepticism. Like his teacher Lorenzo Valla, he regarded Scholasticism as the greatest perversion of the religious spirit; according to him this degeneration dated from the primitive Christological controversies, which caused the Church to lose its evangelical simplicity and become the victim of hair-splitting philosophy, which culminated in Scholasticism. With the latter there appeared in the Church that Pharisaism which based righteousness on good works and monastic sanctity, and on a ceremonialism beneath whose weight the Christian spirit was stifled."

Click here for some images of Desiderius Erasmus.

Click here for the Wikipedia article on Erasmus.


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