(the pseudo-classical form of Geert Geert's), was born at Rotterdam, October 27, 1466 or 1467, of illegitimate birth. His father is the hero of Charles Reade's remarkable historical novel, The Cloister and the Hearth. Erasmus as a child studied at Gouda, Utrecht, and finally under Alexander Hegius at Deventer. When older he lived successively at Bois-le-Duc, the Augustinian College at Delft, and at the Collge Montaigu in Paris, of which latter residence he says in his Colloquia, From it I carried away nothing but a body infected by disease and a plentiful supply of vermin. About 1487 he was ordained priest by the Bishop of Utrecht. Being in great need of money he took pupils, and with one of these, Lord Mountjoy, he visited England in 1497, spending some time at Oxford and making the acquaintance of such distinguished Englishmen [p. 618] as Colet, Grocyn, Latimer, and Linacre, and afterwards of Warham and Sir Thomas More. From 1499 to 1506 he travelled extensively, visiting Paris, Orlans, St. Omer's, Louvain, and Brussels, where in 1504 he delivered a Latin oration before the Archduke Philip. In 1506 he again visited England, where he entered himself at Cambridge for the B.D. and D.D. degrees, the first of which he soon received. In the same year he travelled in Italy and received a papal dispensation allowing him to lay aside the priestly dress. In Venice he met the great scholars Mersurus, Alexander, Baptista Egnatius, and the others whose works were then issuing from the presses of Aldus. In Padua he became tutor to the natural son of James IV. of Scotland. Erasmus remained in Italy until 1509, received everywhere with marks of great distinction, having by this time won a reputation for brilliant scholarship, and in April of that year revisited England, where he became the guest of More at London, and by the influence of Bishop Fisher of Rochester was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Regius Reader of Greek in the University of Cambridge, at which seat of learning the study of Greek was then of recent introduction.
Erasmus had now, by his writings, his orations, and by the force of a most attractive personality, attained to a great reputation among the accomplished and learned men of Europe. Presents flowed in upon him, and from this time to the end of his life he lived in ease and opulence. Archbishop Warham sent him large sums of money and secured him a pension of a hundred crowns. A like pension was granted him by Lord Mountjoy. Offers of church preferment were made to him in many countries; the Duke of Bavaria offered him a chair in the new University of Ingolstadt with no duties attached; Louvain offered him a professorship with the degree of D.D.; the Austrian archduke Ferdinand promised him a pension of 400 florins if he would only take up his residence in Vienna; Pope Clement VII. sent him 200 florins; Pope Adrian VI. wished to give him a deanery; and King Francis I. joined with the Bishop of Bayeux in a vain effort to secure Erasmus for France. Presents of wine from his numerous admirers and of sweetmeats from the nuns of Cologne reached him continually.
In 1513 Erasmus left England, and being possessed of a restless disposition, aggravated by a nervous disorder, he travelled from place to place upon the Continent; and after several years of almost incessant journeying back and forth he made his home at Basle, to which he had first been attracted by the fame of its press and of the distinguished men whom he met there, among them Zwingli the reformer, Hans Holbein the artist, and the circle of admiring students who clustered about Erasmus, such as Beatus Rhenanus, his biographer, Sapidus, Oecolampadius, Beer, Myconius, and Glareanus.
In 1520 he settled permanently in Basle, and there became the general editor of Froben's press, which, during the eight years of Erasmus's association with it, took the lead of all the presses in Europe, both in the value of the works which issued from it and in the excellence of its typographical execution. In these works Erasmus had an important share as translator and editor, but his part can not be readily differentiated from those of his numerous associates. The prefaces and dedications were always of his composition. Besides the great labour of these duties he found time to write a large number of pamphlets, often polemic, and to carry on a correspondence that sometimes compelled him to write forty letters in a single day. I receive daily, he says, letters from remote parts, from kings, princes, prelates, and learned men, and even from persons of whose existence I was ignorant.
The religious disturbances in Switzerland, and the death of Froben, led him in 1529 to remove to Freiburg, where he resided for six years, returning in 1535 to Basle. The new pope, Paul III., nominated him to a deanery with an income of 1500 ducats and hinted at a cardinal's hat for him. An attack of dysentery, however, carried him off July 12, 1536, in his sixty-ninth year.
Erasmus was a man of a singularly refined and amiable characterwitty, judicious, and of great erudition, coupled with a gift of literary expression rare even in so elegant a scholar. Alone among the learned men of his time he exhibits a sweet reasonableness and a freedom from bigotry, either theological or philological, that is perhaps his most striking characteristic. While criticising, often with inimitable wit and satire, the theological warriors of his own Church, he exhibits little sympathy with the Protestant champions. The coarseness and vulgarity of Luther's controversial writings were especially offensive to him; and he disliked the unfavourable influence of religious polemics upon the development of literature. He stands, in fact, as the supreme type of cultivated common-sense applied to human affairs, and no man of letters has ever attained to anything approaching the influence wielded by Erasmus during his own century. . . . He owed his position to the wonderful range of his activity, to his astonishing productiveness, to the breadth and sanity of his views, and to the delightful qualities of wit, humour, and unfailing vivacity which distinguish all his work (Hume Brown). As a classicist, he stands between the strict humanists of the Latin Renaissance on the one hand and the Graecizing scholars who follow him. As Pattison puts it, he is a mean between Politian and Joseph Scaliger. He was, in fact, rather a great man of letters than a great scholar. He knew little or nothing of the true principles of text criticism, he was not scrupulously accurate, and his Greek learning was very imperfect. Judged by a comparison with the classic models, his Latin even is at times almost barbarous. But this is only a narrow view. The Latinity of Erasmus had qualities above those of mere correctness and purity. It was with him a living and a spoken tongue, rich, plastic, natural, and full of virile force, and not like the Latin of Bembo and Sadoletoa mere echo, a cold and lifeless imitation.
The personal appearance of Erasmus is thus described by his disciple, Beatus Rhenanus: In stature not tall, but not noticeably short; in figure well built and graceful; of an extremely delicate constitution, sensitive to the slightest change of climate, food, or drink. . . . His complexion was fair; light blue eyes and yellowish hair. Though his voice was weak, his enunciation was distinct; the expression of his face was cheerful; his manner and conversation were polished, affable, and even charming. [p. 619]
Of his numerous works, the following are of especial importance to the classical student: the Adagia or Adagiorum Chiliades, a manual of the wit and wisdom of the ancient world with a finely executed commentary (1st ed. Paris, 1500; enlarged eds. 1515 and 1536); an edition of the Greek Testament with a new Latin version and notes, the text of which became the starting-point of modern exegetical science (Basle, 1516; later editions in 1519, 1522, 1527, 1535); Ciceronianus, a satire on the pedantic imitations of Cicero by the Italian school of Latinists; and the Colloquia, his most famous work, of which the first edition appeared in 1519 and was afterwards greatly enlarged. It consists of a series of familiar dialogues in Latin on a great variety of topicssocial, religious, and politicaland marked by wit, fancy, and a brilliant audacity of treatment.
The first complete edition of the works of Erasmus appeared in 9 vols. at Basle in 1540; the standard edition is that of Le Clerc in 10 vols. (Lyons, 1703-06). To the Basle edition is prefixed a memoir of Erasmus by Beatus Rhenanus, and his life has been written at length by Knight (Cambridge, 1726); Jortin, 2 vols. (London, 1748); Burigny (Paris, 1752); Mller (Hamburg, 1828); Stichart (Leipzig, 1870); Drummond, 2 vols. (London, 1873); Feugre (Paris, 1874); Pennington (London, 1875); and Froude (London, 1894). See also Nisard in his tudes sur la Renaissance (Paris, 1855); Seebohm, Oxford Reformers (2d ed. London, 1869); Milman, Essays (London, 1870); and Pkel, Philolog. Schriftsteller lexicon (Leipzig, 1882). [figure in text: Erato.]