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Erasmus and Women

Some modern scholars consider Erasmus a liberal man favorable to the female cause. Others think he hated women. This illustrates the diverse points of view on women to be found in Erasmus’s writings. He does not hesitate to speak up for women, praising their role in society and in marriage. He thinks women should be educated as men are. An exceptional view, because in his days only boys receive a formal education. He defends the cause of married women who are treated badly. He opposes enforced marriages and he thinks that in bad marriages divorce should be allowed.

But Erasmus is also a man of his time: He ascribes many vices of character to women. They are guided by their emotions, he thinks, and therefore conceited, jealous, greedy, impudent, and garrulous. Erasmus’s model woman is one who lives in obedience of such Christian values as piety, modesty, sobriety, and chastity.

Erasmus never married. Somewhere he writes that he does not have the time for female company. He wants to spend every minute of his life on study.

Adam and Eve

Erasmus’s Colloquies counter the image of women being the weaker gender. Women live longer than men! Physically men may be stronger than women, but they are still weaker than camels! When one of the characters argues that men are more important because God created Adam before Eve, someone replies that this proves nothing, since Adam was created prior to Christ, too. Moreover, so the rebuttal continues, artisans usually create their best work at a later stage in their careers: that is, Eve was probably a better creation than Adam!

The following dialogue is part of Erasmus’s colloquy The Abbot and the Learned Lady (first published in 1524). The abbot Antronius is ridiculed by an educated and astute woman named Magdalia:

Magdalia: If you’re not careful, the net result will be that we’ll preside in the theological schools, preach in the churches, and wear your mitres.
Antronius: God forbid!
Magdalia: No, it will be up to you to forbid. But if you keep on as you’ve begun, geese may do the preaching sooner than put up with you tongue-tied pastors. The world’s a stage that’s topsy-turvy now, as you see. Everyone must play his part or—exit.
Antronius: How did I run across this woman? When you come calling on us, I’ll treat you more politely.
Magdalia: How?
Antronius: We’ll dance, drink as much as we please, hunt, play games, laugh.
Magdalia: For my part, I feel like laughing even now.

The entire colloquy constitutes a plea for a humanist education of women. At the same time it satirizes the decadence among clergymen. The abbot’s name, Antronius, hints at the proverbial "donkey from Antron" (Erasmus, Adages 2.5.68).


The colloquy The Young Man and the Harlot (1523) ridicules the powers that be while standing up for a young harlot called Lucretia—the namesake of a famous matron from early Roman history who symbolized chastity. Obviously her character is the material point, not her profession. The young man has just reprimanded her:

Lucretia: Where did you pick up this newfangled holiness? Generally you’re the wildest playboy of them all. Nobody used to come here more often or at more inconvenient times than you did. You’ve been in Rome, I hear.
Sophronius: I have.
Lucretia: But ordinarily people return from there worse than they went. How come it happened otherwise for you?
Sophronius: I’ll tell you: because I didn’t go to Rome for the same reason or in the same fashion. Others commonly go to Rome intending to return worse—and abundant opportunities for that purpose are at hand there. I set out with an honest man by whose urging I took a book along instead of a flask: the New Testament, translated by Erasmus.
Lucretia: Erasmus? He’s more than heretic, they say.
Sophronius: You don’t mean that man’s reputation has reached even this place?
Lucretia: No name is better known to us.
Sophronius: Have you seen him?
Lucretia: Never, but I’d like very much to see the person I’ve heard so many bad reports of.
Sophronius: From bad men, perhaps.
Lucretia: Oh, no, from reverend gentlemen.
Sophronius: Which ones?
Lucretia: I’m not free to tell.
Sophronius: Why?
Lucretia: Because if you blabbed about it and the news reached their ears, a sizable share of my income would be gone.
Sophronius: Have no fear: you’ll be telling it to a stone.
Lucretia: Let me whisper it.
Sophronius: Silly, why do you have to whisper when we’re alone? So God won’t overhear? [She tells him.] Good heavens, you’re a pious whore, I see; you give alms to the medicants.

Note how Erasmus—besides establishing himself as a star—turns everything upside down. He praises what others condemn. He scrutinizes the behavior of office holders (who visit the harlot!). Compare what he writes in The Handbook of the Christian Soldier: "Playing dice for one night may have cost you a fortune, while at the same time poverty drove an unhappy girl to sell herself." Here we see Erasmus the engaged compassionate Christian who is bothered by the unequal distribution of wealth in the world.


Erasmus ziet een mooie vrouw.jpg

A young Hans Holbein made this symbolic drawing. Erasmus does not take his eyes off women—neither in real life nor in his books. Thus at times he causes havoc in the egg basket of traditional views which leads to protests of the public represented here by the market woman.

Did Erasmus Malign Women?

Some Adages contain statements about women that are less than flattering. For example: “Women are the worst kind of plague” and “Women are lazy beings. They squander what men have gained through hard labor”. This has led some people to believe that Erasmus hated women. But one does well to remember that the Adages themselves are proverbs gathered from classical texts. For this reason they do not necessarily represent Erasmus’s views.

Double Standards

Erasmus did not share the general disdain for women which most of his contemporaries had. He opposes forced marriages. He speaks out for women’s rights in marriage. He pleads in favor of divorce in cases where a relationship has turned sour irreparably. He argues that husbands should treat their wives well, and respectfully. He condemns the double standards regarding sex which unfairly favor men over women. Since these double standards still exist even now, it seems fair to say that Erasmus was well ahead of his time in this respect. He also advocated extensive reading for girls and women. In his edition of the New Testament, for example, he writes that it is his express wish for “all women to read the Gospel and the letters of the Apostles.”


In the 16th century, talking about women the way Erasmus did certainly wasn’t easy. Nearly all his contemporaries held very different views in this matter. Folk lore and superstition routinely blamed women for all kinds of disasters: droughts, floods, bad crops, impotence. No prior era witnessed as many women burnt at the stake. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Erasmus suffered heavy criticisms for his views, especially from monks.