Heroes of Learning: In praise of Erasmus

Ah-the Renaissance! That multiple flowering of arts, letters and sciences which flourished in so many parts of Europe at once, and laid the grounds for so much subsequent progress. Ask the average person and they will run off a string of names-Della Francesca, Bracciolini, Copernicus, Palestrina……but for us one of the greatest names of all was Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)[1] For the Renaissance, especially the early part of it was a truly international phenomenon, and nothing illustrates that so well as the life of this awesome polymath.

Born in Rotterdam to poor parents, he at least received a good education and was ordained into the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, the only way up for a humble lad in those days. For all its faults, the system recognised his formidable intelligence. Dispensed from mundane parochial duties, he spent his life criss-crossing Europe in a series of teaching and research posts which included Oxford, Cambridge, Leuven, and Rome, to name but a few. And all the time in touch with the leading intellects of the day including Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Cisneros and John Colet. He knew that learning is international, multilingual and above all collaborative.

Above all he was a writer, quickly grasping the potential of the new printing technology. It is said that in the 1530s his works may have commanded 20% of all book sales in Europe. He pioneered self help books like Handbook of the Christian Knight; satire like In Praise of Folly as well as outpourings on subjects as diverse as Theology and raising children. Above all he will be remembered for his deep work on linguistics, producing important new translations of The Bible in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.

His best epitaph was by another polymath, Sir Kenneth Clark, who described Erasmus as

“Spokesman of northern civilisation and the greatest internationalist of his day” [2]

Today his achievements are commemorated by the Erasmus programme of the European Union, [3], whereby young people from many countries can travel and study to the highest levels across a whole continent, like their Renaissance forbears did long ago to such great effect. Perhaps someone in it now will be as illustrious as Erasmus one day!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erasmus

[2] Clark K Civilisation BBC 1969

[3] https://erasmusprogramme.com/

#renaissance #humanism #christianity #printing #technology

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