Desiderius Erasmus: it is a name you have probably heard before, but very few people know who the man was, and what his legacy is in modern-day Europe. Some 550 years after his birth, I decided to travel through Europe in the great thinker’s footsteps. In my search to uncover the legacy of the man who is often referred to as the ‘first European’, I spoke with people who, often unintentionally, embodied the story of Erasmus and modern-day Europe. In my first article, I’ll introduce you to Desiderius Erasmus and set out my route for the next few weeks.
About In Search of Erasmus: Over the next few weeks, you can join Job Zomerplaag in the footsteps of one of Europe’s greatest thinkers. After having lived and studied in Erasmus’ birthplace Rotterdam, he became fascinated by the man and his legacy. In 12 cities across 7 European countries, he collected stories of modern-day Europe with the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus as a travel guide.
1466, or 1467, or 1469 – the historians aren’t able to reach agreement – marks the start of a life with all the elements of a medieval adventure story. A story that begins in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, at the time an unassuming little town on the banks of the Maas river. Here, Desiderius Erasmus was born to an unmarried woman and a priest.
What no one could have suspected at the time is that this Rotterdam bastard son would grow to become one of the foremost thinkers of his age. Erasmus was a pacifist in times of war; a dreamer in times of despair. He didn’t shy away from controversial statements and consistently sought confrontations with his contemporaries. But more than anything, he was someone who held up a mirror to society’s face and encouraged people to think for themselves. Although a restless man who never stopped traveling throughout Europe, he always remained true to his home town of Rotterdam. Because regardless of where he was staying or living, he always called himself Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, of Rotterdam.
Erasmus was already famous in his own lifetime as a writer, philosopher, scholar, priest, theologian and humanist. He counted prominent scholars like Thomas More among his friends, acted as an adviser to emperors and kings and wrote thousands of letters and over one hundred books, in which he advocated freedom of speech, respect for others, knowledge and culture, tolerance and good education.
His book In Praise of Folly – a satirical work in which he calls for a reformation of the Roman Catholic Church – and his translation of the New Testament became bestsellers. In addition, as a thinker who immersed himself like no other in the study of antiquity, and who assigned a central role to being human in matters of faith, he was awarded the informal title of ‘Prince of the Humanists’.
Apart from faith, no other theme was as important to Erasmus as child-rearing and education. “People aren’t born, but formed,” is how he put it. As a religious man, Erasmus wrote about language, faith and education, which he saw as the foundations of an upstanding Christian life.
In addition, Erasmus represented seeing things in context and dialogue. Although he had an opinion about virtually every aspect of life, it remains difficult to systematically order his body of thought. His train of thought was full of contradictions, and his statements can often be interpreted in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, his thinking is distinguished by an unwavering faith in the concept of ad fontes: he believed that we need to go back to the source – the original argument.
Every once in a while, the persistent rumour resurfaces that Erasmus was supposedly born in Gouda. While there is broad agreement among historians that he was born in Rotterdam, this story does contain a grain of truth about his origins: as a toddler, Erasmus moves from Rotterdam to Gouda. In this town, which is world-famous for its cheese, he spends a large part of his youth. Rotterdam remains a distant memory from his early childhood: he will actually never return to his place of birth.
Two important locations for Erasmus’s development are the medieval cities ’s-Hertogenbosch (a Northern renaissance city near Eindhoven) and Deventer (a trade city located in the East of the Netherlands), where he was taught in the classical languages. After his parents passed away, he took vows as an Augustinian canon and enters the canonry of Steyn near Gouda. Around the age of 30, Erasmus embarked on his first adventure abroad, when he left for Paris to study Theology.
Erasmus’s ideas and works have helped form today’s society, and people over the centuries have consciously – and often also unconsciously – drawn inspiration from them.
In the years that followed, Erasmus traveled far and wide to arrange the publication of his books, visit friends or flee war or the plague. Travelling in Erasmus’s time was a dangerous, uncomfortable and slow undertaking: there was a constant threat of being waylaid by brigands or running out of food, and people mainly had to rely on horses, mules and barges. He wouldn’t have been able to travel more than 20 km a day – the distance between Rotterdam and Gouda. As a nomad of scholarship, Erasmus would visit an incredible number of towns and cities in his lifetime, without ever finding a home.
Erasmus for the masses
550 years after his birth, Desiderius Erasmus’s name lives on to this day – all over Europe. The European Union’s Erasmus programme supports millions of European students to go on exchange or do their internship abroad. In his birthplace Rotterdam, the Erasmus bridge connects the Kop van Zuid district with Rotterdam city centre, and millions of European students go on exchange in a programme named after him. In addition, Rotterdammers have turned his surname into a kind of brand: you can buy a kapsalon (a local fast food dish consisting of chips, shawarma and Gouda cheese) at Erasmus Eetcafé, gather pearls of wisdom at Erasmus University or Erasmiaans Gymnasium, or head over to Erasmus’ pharmacy or Erasmus Medical Centre when you’re feeling under the weather.
Still, Erasmus’s legacy extends beyond our modern-day use of his name and image. His ideas and works have helped form today’s society, and people over the centuries have consciously – and often also unconsciously – drawn inspiration from them.
That is why over the next few weeks, I hope you can join me on my search for traces of Erasmus in modern-day Europe. From the moment I moved to Rotterdam three years ago, hardly a day has gone by without my hearing or reading his name. But as a 21-year-old student, what could I still learn from the insights of this long-dead sage? I had no idea. But now – after travelling to 12 cities that were also visited by Erasmus, I have found the man behind the name. In dozens of fragments, actually, spread across the European mainland like a gauze of stories.
Allow me to take you on a tour of the pro-European academic bubble of Cambridge, the Parisian headquarters of t he far-right Front National, an Olympic village in Turin that has been squatted by refugees and the Roman flat of the 82-year-old ‘Mamma Erasmus’.
In the coming episodes of ‘In search of Erasmus’, you can join me on my trip in the spirit of Erasmus: thundering through national borders and social strata; occasionally seeking out controversy; but above all, hoping to find dialogue.