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Life

Erasmus lived from ... well, from when? One thing is certain: he was born in the night between 27 and 28 October; the early morning of 28 October to be precise, but in which year? The pedestal of his statue in Rotterdam (erected in 1622) states 1467, some people assume 1469, but since the thorough reconstruction by Harry Vredeveld in 1993 most scholars have assumed 1466 as the year of Erasmus's birth. What is certain is that Erasmus died in 1536, in the night between 11 and 12 July, just after the final strike of midnight, so 12 July 1536.

Name

Erasmus was named after the Catholic Saint Erasmus of Formiae, who was popular in the 15th century generally and a personal favorite of Erasmus's father Gerard. His birthplace was undoubtedly Rotterdam despite a later rumor about Gouda being his place of birth, which is hardly serious. This sums up the entire relationship between Erasmus and Rotterdam. He lived there for four years, then left for Gouda, never to return to his native ground. After 1501 he never even returned to Holland, nor to the Low Countries after 1521. The fact that he added "Roterodamus" to his name at a later age refers to his origins. Erasmus experimented with his name. Before definitely deciding on Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus in 1506, he alternately calls himself by random combinations of Desyderius, Herasmus Roterdam, Rotterdammus, Rotterdammensis, Roterdamus. The first name Desiderius which he chose for himself is probably meant to be a Latin translation of his given name Erasmus (Greek: erao = Latin: desidero).

 

Houten-borstbeeld.jpg

Wooden plaque with Erasmus's image

Circular inscription: "Desiderius Erasmus Goudae Conceptus Roterodami Natus Ao 1467 28 die Octobr"

Gouda, Museum Catharina-Gasthuis

Birth defect

Neither in his books, nor in his letters does Erasmus ever mention Rotterdam. A well-known wooden bust states: "Goudae conceptus, Roterodami natus" (conceived in Gouda, born in Rotterdam). The accompanying year of 1467 is debatable. Erasmus was an illegitimate child, referred to in those days as a "defectus natalis" or birth defect. Although this obviously has no bearing on his thinking, Erasmus often worried about the circumstances of his birth, youth and age. His father is Gerard Rogerii, a priest in Gouda. His mother is Margaretha, daughter of a surgeon of Zevenbergen. Presumably, she spent her pregnancy in Rotterdam to hide the "incident". When Erasmus was born, his parents already had a three-year old son named Pieter. Throughout his life Erasmus was forced to bear the consequences of this illegitimate birth. His origins eventually compelled him to obtain his doctorate degree in theology at the university of Turin, following futile attempts at other universities. Not until around his fiftieth year (in 1517) will he be relieved from his birth's most serious social consequences by way of a papal indult. One example of such a consequence was that it was forbidden for illegitimate children to take examinations in theology. Erasmus has in a way been tampering with the story of his life, using a second name, possibly originating from his mother's side, during his correspondence with the pope. Doing so, he has mystified his early years and shrouded his year of birth in uncertainty.

About his origins Erasmus writes as follows: "I was born in Rotterdam. My mother was named Margaret, and a physician's daughter. She was from Zevenbergen. My father was named Gerard. He secretly had an affair with Margaret, in the expectation of marriage. My father had ten brothers; all were married. Gerard was the youngest save one. It seemed to all that from so large a number one should be consecrated to God. You know the feelings of the old. Gerard, seeing himself completely barred from marriage by the solid opposition of all, did what the desperate do; he secretly fled, and on his journey he sent his parents and brothers a letter inscribed with clasped hands and with the sentence: "Farewell, I shall never see you again." Meanwhile, his intended wife was left with child. I was raised at his grandmother's. Gerard went to Rome, and applied himself to liberal studies. When his parents learned that he was at Rome, they wrote to him that the girl he had sought to marry was dead. Believing this, out of grief he became a priest. When he returned home he discovered the deception. However, she never afterwards wished to marry, nor did he ever touch her again. He provied a liberal education for me."

According to Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, Erasmus "did more to veil the secret of his birth than to reveal it." In his oeuvre Erasmus more than once suggests that his geographical origins are unimportant. In October 1520 he writes for instance: "I do not think it makes much difference where a man is born, and it seems to me a mere empty boast if some city or people prides itself on having produced an individual who owes his eminence and fame to his own efforts and not to any support from his native country. Credit would more justly be due to the place that made him great than to his birthplace."

Character

"Whatever feathers we should choose to cover ourselves in, we are all of us people, no angels."

Who is the person behind Erasmus? Erasmus's most prominent traits of character undoubtedly are his unwearying zeal and perseverance. A lot can be learnt from the way in which, despite illness and lack of money, Erasmus never ceased to pursue his own fields of interest. In his correspondence Erasmus repeatedly refers to his illnesses. When dealing with his physical condition this is mostly in an undertone of complaint. In fact he suffered quite a few ailments and was scared stiff of the plague. Still, somewhere he writes (after divulging in complaint) that most illnesses exist mainly in the mind. His hypochondria is equally persistent as are his worries about money, which, admittedly, initially concern the need to survive, but develop into a yearning for possession. During his period of acute need for money – around 1500 – he writes a number of letters buttering up possible patrons. Here Erasmus proves himself a wheedler who nonetheless appears to be able to contradict himself in his letters to third parties, telling the exact opposite of what he wrote earlier to get himself in his possible patrons' good books. In the end Erasmus will die a relatively wealthy man.

Late-bloomer

Under all conditions Erasmus tries to find out for himself what is of importance. His powers of concentration are the main breeding-ground for his fruitful pen. Although Erasmus indeed allows concessions, these are not found in the works we now consider as his most prominent. When overlooking Erasmus's overall production you can only be surprised at its extent, certainly when realising that the better part of it was produced after 1500, so within roughly 35 years. To some extent a late-bloomer worrying others about whether he studied enough, he is to develop into one of the world's most prolific publicists so far. This is all the more striking considering the fact that he spent many hours on tutoring private pupils. On the other hand it must be realised that many a listener stood service to Erasmus by way of writing for him. Still it is true that he would rather have spent many teaching hours on reading and writing in the seclusion of his study.

Sensitive to other people's judgements

The question arises if Erasmus is a pleasant man to deal with at all times. His large correspondence reveals quite a few comments showing that Erasmus can indeed be very unreasonable. When one follows his views, obviously there is very little wrong. Yet, when opinions differ, Erasmus can prove to be very unfair, bordering on childish. In this respect Huizinga concludes in his biography that Erasmus's touchiness impeded grandness of character. Other people's opinions of him also matter a great deal to Erasmus. More than once he gives proof of his insistence on being right.

During practically all discussions Erasmus starts out by observing that he has been misunderstood. This is the ground for all positions he takes and responses he utters. When Erasmus puts something up it must be read very carefully of one wants to find out what he actually means. His wording is so clever that one can always say that things are not what they sound. Much to the fury of his enemies, each accusation is riposted as follows: "This is not as I put it." He circumvents his own viewpoints. As he can never be addressed directly he shirks the consequences of his own thinking. This clearly manifests itself when he can hide behind persons he once put forward himself, as he does in his Praise of Folly or his Conversations. It was not in vain that he added a direction for use to this last-named work.

 

Erasmus Holbein.jpg Erasmus according to Holbein: calm and serene. This image was never reality. Even in old age, Erasmus was easily incited and indeed quite restless.

Erasmian modesty

Erasmus is cocksure and priggish. While putting up a modest and humble appearance and never stopping criticising himself, he is a master in forcing his values and standards on others. The notion of "Erasmian modesty" or "reticence" (Erasmica modestia) is born already during his life. In its very essence this implies superiority in humility; a notion not only encompassing his priggishness but also his vanity. Erasmian modesty is a curious mixture of vanity and modesty. Obviously Erasmus did not coin this notion of "Erasmian modesty" himself; it stands out very prominently in a letter to Erasmus, written by English clergyman Edward Lee (c. 1482-1544) in February 1520. Like Erasmus, Lee is staying in Louvain at the time. He vehemently attacks Erasmus concerning the latter's publication of the New Testament. In his letter Lee mentions "Erasmian modesty" as if it were a generally accepted expression. The context in which Lee uses it is important if people wish to fathom the deeper meaning of this notion. Friends of Erasmus in Germany and England assaulted Lee and his criticism, calling him every name under the sun. Nor does Erasmus himself take it lightly either. And to make matters even worse, Lee himself is made ridiculous in Louvain in a satire attributed by some to Erasmus. In reality however it had been written by one of Erasmus's dedicated younger friends at the time. Lee had used the term "Erasmian modesty" as he had felt pressed hard indeed.

Erasmus's petty side

It is striking how much a few trusted friends try to withhold Erasmus from launching an overly vehement defence. In this respect Thomas More uses the term “Christian modesty” (christiana modestia). This admonition has little effect however and Erasmus persists in his uncommonly vehement attack. This controversy shows Erasmus’ petty side and provides more than enough reason to accuse him of “Erasmian modesty”. This becomes even stronger when realising that Erasmus himself more than once refers to his moderation and his modesty. Truly brilliant is Erasmus’ own description of his work as the possible subject of what would now be called a hype:

"Others have invented a new, famous kind of book. There has been group conspiracy  … about never being silent about Erasmus, anywhere. He is the subject of gossip during carousal, at fairs, during meetings, at the quack's, at games, barbers', brothels, during private and public lectures, scholastic debate, sacred sermons, secret discussions and private confessions, at book fairs, lodgings for the poor and residences for the rich, in royal palaces, in the presence of superstitious greybeards, moneybags, ignorant rabble and stupid old hags ..."

Naturally Erasmus is not purposely going for all this, on the contrary: this passage is found in a context in which Erasmus asserts that he wishes to prevent his work from being gossiped about in this way. Nevertheless this is never far from his mind and he manages to give it the perfect wording. Erasmian modesty?

Erasmus the Lonely

Then there is the matter of Erasmus's loneliness. In spite of having a great many friends, the man remains lonely at heart; which is what he wants. A ground for this is that contact with humans will upset him, perhaps because their opinions affect him too deeply. Erasmus is at his best during impersonal public addresses. More than the rest of his work, his more personal writings reveal insincere kindness or downright flattery, coquetry, suppression, reserve, spite and evasion.

Friends

Despite this loneliness, friendships are an important aspect of Erasmus's life, even though there sometimes appears to be a degree of levity in his dealings with friends. A well-known example is a friend in his youth, Willem Herman. Having just become an enthusiastic student of Greek himself, Erasmus now wants to convince his friend to spend considerable time studying Greek as well. It is for this reason especially that he travels to Haarlem, Willem Herman's residence at the time. When Willem's response is evasive, Erasmus slinks off disappointed, sighing that not only has he lost his money on travelling expenses, he has lost a friendship on top of this.

Erasmus almost permanently knows himself surrounded by a group of dedicated friends. Wherever he comes he knows how to win people over. Many a time he stays with people for prolonged periods, apparently without causing too many problems. Erasmus himself proves to be a good host to others as well, although it often concerns living-in staff here. Nevertheless, in 1534, by the end of his life, Erasmus has a person like the Portuguese humanist Damião de Goís (1502-1574) lodge with him in Freiburg for some time.

Erasmus has a disposition for zealotry in his younger years. This becomes most manifest in the letters he sends around his twentieth year to his slightly older friend Servatius Rogerus:

"You are ever on my lips and in my heart; you are my one hope, the half of my soul, the consolation of my life. When you are away nothing is pleasant to me, and when you are with me nothing is unpleasant. If I see you happy I forget my own grief, while if anything grievous happens to you I swear I suffer keener pain than you do yourself."

The contents of the letters to this person named Servaas have caused some people to assume the existence of more than just a friendship and to sense a homosexual nature in Erasmus. Although any form of certainty in this respect is lacking throughout, the fact remains that Erasmus was always surrounded by young people who stood service to him. Also the relation with Damião de Goís would fit this pattern, although this slightly more mature youth never entered Erasmus's service. Erasmus became increasingly closed with the years. Eventually he becomes wary of showing his vulnerable side.

Enemies

As Erasmus grows older his enemies increase in numbers, although he himself actively strives toward harmony in his relations. Erasmus is never really aware that the sharpness of his pen alienates him from people. Time and time again he stresses that he has been misunderstood again. When controversy within his immediate environment increasingly forces him to take sides, it is Erasmus's attitude that estranges him from many people he once considered friends.

Although he never met Luther in person, the question remains if a person like Luther could ever have belonged to Erasmus's circle of friends. In this respect the alienation between them is an unmistakable illustration. Eventually it will develop into mutual aversion. Obviously this fight will also have contributed to Erasmus's loneliness. Be it as it may, Erasmus is surprised time and time again to find that his refusal to take sides impedes closer relationships.

Although in later years Erasmus clearly went through his disappointments and tasted his bitterness, he never stops maintaining contact with trusted correspondents and continues writing on matters like concord within the church and preparation for death. In times like these his writings show resignation rather than bitterness.

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