He’s one of the intellectual heroes of Humanism: Erasmus of Rotterdam, who paved the way for the Reformation while always being true to the Catholic faith. Yes, his admirers like to forget about the fact that, without the Church, the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest and his housekeeper would have never received the education he needed in order to become the man that went down in history.
Together with his older brother Peter, Erasmus attended the Latin school at Deventer which was owned by the chapter clergy of St Lebuin’s Church. When their parents died, there was no money left for education. The legal guardian thus sent older Peter to the Augustinians in Delft and Erasmus to the Augustinians in Gouda. In 1492, Erasmus was even ordained to the priesthood.
And like this, he might have lived the life of many other dutiful monastery inmates – well provided for but without highlights. However, the bishop of Cambrai was in need of a secretary and so he granted to this small but capable Augustinian the dispensation to live his life outside the monastery despite his ordination.
Erasmus enjoyed it. He flourished. First serving the bishop, then in Paris at the Sorbonne. There he met Thomas Morus, who took him to the English court – in a nutshell: the Augustinian monk sniffed the scent of the big wide world, and he liked it better than the stake air of his monastery cell.
A Soldier in the Service of Christ
Are you wondering whether Erasmus had a guilty conscience? We know from his Enchiridion militis christiani, a booklet that he completed around 1501 and which was printed for the first time in Antwerp in 1503, that he dealt with the question of whether a man outside the monastery could lead a Christian life. By the way, the book wasn’t very successful at the time.
There is a nice story about how Erasmus came up with the idea of writing the Enchiridion. Legend has it that he fulfilled the wish of a woman who was married to a soldier – according to others, it was a German gunsmith, an arms producer of the time. She wanted to persuade her husband to lead a Christian life.
Is that true? Si non è vero, è ben trovato, because the world of war is everywhere. The entire book is pervaded by the comparison of a true Christian with a soldier, who fights the evil in the service of Christ. Even the name “Enchiridion” is ambiguous. It can refer to both a little handbook and a dagger, which was the indispensable companion of every soldier back then.
Erasmus reassured all those who did not want to enter a monastery by stating that it is also possible to follow Christ in worldly life. The requirement for this is to internalise the virtues, i.e. to practice humility, charity, kindness and philanthropy in daily life. Then, he said, one could do without superstitious practices like worshipping relics. It’s all about the inner attitude, not about the outer form. Laymen are worth just as much as clerics, he claimed, an approach that Protestants later picked up enthusiastically.
The Basel Edition of 1518
Actually, Erasmus’ Enchiridion only became popular when the edition of 1518 was published. Basel printer Johann Froben was responsible for this edition, he was a close friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Erasmus later lived many years in his house. The actual text was preceded by a letter to Paul Volz, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Hügshofen near Schlettstadt (Sélestat), in which Erasmus programmatically summarised the ideas of his booklet. By the way, Paul Volz was also a priest and humanist, and, like Erasmus of Rotterdam, he was among those who criticised the Catholic church, but did not join the reformation of Luther, Zwingli or Calvin.
Above All Religious Denominations
Erasmus of Rotterdam placed the conscience of the individual at the centre of his thinking, and this individual was reluctant to endorse the new doctrine, not because it was new, but perhaps because it became dogmatic just as quickly as the Catholic Church had.
Thus, Erasmus fell between the stools. Yet his advantage was that he was such a brilliant author that he didn’t need to serve the powerful. He was able to make a living from his books. That was not to be taken for granted in those days, on the contrary. When he died, about 150 books had been published. And these alone – according to current estimates – accounted for 10% to 20% of the total book trade in Europe. The Enchiridion contributed to this success. During the first half of the 16th century alone, the work was printed about 85 times and is considered one of his most influential works.
Erasmus of Rotterdam died on 12 July 1536 in Basel without having received the last rites. His last words are said to have been “Lieve God – dear God”. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid of the purgatory. He probably lived according to the advice given in his Enchiridion militis christiani.
If you would like to browse through the book, here you can find the Mainz edition of 1522.