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Hardships of Travel

Erasmus was never in one place for long. He was always on the road searching for knowledge, visiting friends, checking out printers, counseling patrons. He did long for a permanent residence, but he was restless, too. Sometimes traveling was fleeing: from the plague, from personal attacks, from impending war. His travels always served a purpose. By contemporary standards the number of places he visited is impressive. In Erasmus’s days traveling was far from easy. Nowadays we have grown accustomed to the comforts of trains, planes, and automobiles. Early modern travelers used horses, ships, and their own feet. The risks we face—train delays, car collisions, and plane crashes—fade into insignificance when compared to the dangers which 16th-century travelers had to face when passing through desolate regions. They were forever under the threat of being robbed or getting lost, of starvation or bad weather. While the Romans had blessed Europe with an intricate system of paved roads, these roads had been maintained badly after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Traveling so much as fifteen miles a day was hard work. Roadside inns were few and far between.

Extraordinary Experiences

During the Middle Ages, travelers were mostly pilgrims. In the 15th century, pilgrimages were more popular than ever. Travel books also struck a chord. John Mandeville’s Travels (1357) became a bestseller which was translated into nine languages. Mandeville traveled from Western Europe to Southeast Asia. In his book he recounts his adventures which include the odd two-headed goat as well as people without eyes who had their mouths about their shoulders, and doglike ears. With such ‘factual’ tales at hand, why read novels?

Increasing Mobility

In Erasmus’s lifetime people began traveling more and more. The main cause of this increasing mobility was the fact that cities grew in size and importance. More and more people left the countryside, settling in town. The number of merchants, civil servants, priests, and scholars increased. These city folk felt the need to keep in touch with their peers in other towns. This stimulated travel. Another important factor were the journeys of discovery. The great explorers of the 15th century profoundly altered man’s view of the world. In 1496 Columbus discovered the ‘New World’. In 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1520 Fernao Magalhaes was the first to sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean rounding the tip of South-America.

Crossing Borders

In such times of numerous dangers and shifting frontiers Erasmus was traveling across Europe. This is how his friend Thomas More portrays him:

"Erasmus defies the rising seas, the stormy skies, and the torments of land travel. He passes through dark forests and wild woods, he crosses rough hill tops and steep mountains, along roads infested with robbers, windswept, mud-stained, worn out by his journey."

In his mind, too, Erasmus was crossing borders. Seeking to overcome the concept of nationality he had no wish to be a citizen of one particular town. In Erasmus’s days Europe was far from united politically, and forever changing. The political situation was totally different from today’s open borders and exchange of people and goods. Yet Erasmus considered himself to be a ‘world citizen’. Since he no doubt meant the Christian world, we might brand him the first European.

Trials and Tribulations

Erasmus’s travels were numerous. Yet he never wrote any accounts of his journeys. Only rarely do we find in his works references to his experiences on the road. In some letters he does mention some problems and fears. For instance, when in 1499 he left Paris to visit some old friends, his journey to the castle of Anna van Borselen, Lady of Veere, involved a series of miseries. In a letter to William Lord Mountjoy he mentions the weather. The icy cold reminds Erasmus of an ice age. We also find some references to Greek myth which serve a moral-allegorical purpose. On their journeys Hercules and Ulysses both fought and conquered evil. Their victories refer to the realm of the spiritual. Likewise Erasmus links fighting the physical elements (storm, snow, icy cold) to his own spiritual battles. If he can conquer the elements, he can win the other battle, too. In a letter addressed to Jacob Badt (Paris, February 1500) Erasmus writes that he was attacked and robbed. He remained unharmed, but he lost all his money. The event illustrates the dangerous circumstances to which all contemporary travelers exposed themselves. Although we know Erasmus to be a pacifist detesting violence, he always carried a dagger with him on the road.



Erasmus in Europe

Desiderius Erasmus is born in Rotterdam at his maternal grandmother’s home, situated between the Hoogstraat and St. Laurens Church. It is Wednesday, October 28, 1466.

In the town school of Gouda Erasmus’s schooldays begin (around 1470). In 1487 he enters the monastery of Stein near Gouda. But soon he realizes that he is not fitted for the monastic life. He is a free spirit who cannot live according to another’s rule. He leaves in 1494.

In 1478 his parents send Erasmus to the Latin school at Deventer. There he meets Rudolph Agricola. From 1483 the schoolmaster is Alexander Hegius, who acquaints Erasmus with the Greek and Latin literature of Antiquity. Erasmus leaves Deventer in 1484.

From 1495 to 1499, Erasmus is a student in Paris. Here he sees his first text (a letter) published in print. He makes a living by privately tutoring rich boys. In later years, Erasmus regularly returns to Paris.

Erasmus lives in England for three periods of time. His longest stay is at Cambridge (1509–1514). He is introduced into high society, becoming friends with Thomas More and meeting King Henry VIII. It is in England, in 1509, that he writes his famous Praise of Folly (printed in 1511).

From 1506 to 1509, Erasmus lives and travels in Italy. At Turin he receives his degree in theology. In Venice he works closely with the printer Aldus Manutius. It is Aldus who, in 1508, publishes Erasmus’s Thousands of Proverbs (Adagiorum chiliades). Erasmus also visits Rome.

In Basel Erasmus is at home. Here he lives some 12 years in all. Many of his books are printed here, the highlight being his edition and translation of the New Testament (1516). On July 12, 1536, Erasmus dies at Basel. He is buried in the old cathedral. His tombstone still remains.

In 1517 Erasmus moves to Louvain. He is now at his highest point. But then the Church is split into Catholics and Protestants. In Louvain Erasmus is put under pressure to take sides. He refuses and leaves for Basel in 1521.

From 1529 to 1535, Erasmus lives in Freiburg. He has left Basel where the Protestants were forcing him to side with them against the Catholics. The split in the Church is a severe blow to Erasmus. Still, in 1535 he returns to Basel where he dies in 1536.