Educational History: Desiderius Erasmus (Gerrit Gerritszoon) 1455 to 1536

“It is an unscrupulous intellect that does not pay to antiquity it’s due reverence”


Erasmus was born an illegitimate child in Rotterdam on 27th October 1466 to Gerard of Gouda – a priest – and Margaret, daughter of a physician of Zevenbergen.  His ‘illegitimacy’ troubled him greatly through life and as late as 1516 he sought papal dispensation for the circumstances of his birth.

Desiderius Erasmus
Desiderius Erasmus


Erasmus was deeply interested in the aims and methods of education from a young age.  He came to be known as the ‘Prince of Humanists’ advocating a new curriculum and new methods of instruction which contrasted to the traditions of the ‘Schoolmen’.  The humanist curriculum put emphasis on the formation of character and not necessarily the acquisition of knowledge per se.


His philosophy of education is laid out in three works: On the Method of Study; The Method of True Theology and On the Education of Children.  These deal with issues as curriculum, teaching methods and educational objectives and argue for a renewed emphasis on history, language studies and moral philosophy.


David Crystal in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia suggests that Erasmus “did more than anyone else to advance the Revival of Learning”.  The first school he attended as a child was run by Peter Winckel at Gouda, before going to Catholic Choir School at Utrecht before then going to the school at Deventer at the age of 9.


Although one of his teachers encouragingly told him “well done Erasmus, the day will come when thou wilt reach the highest summit of erudition” he retrospectively disliked all the schools which he attended.  He was later in life to complain of the harsh discipline and poor teaching.  He was studious but had no love of sports.


In 1483 he entered the Augustinian monastery of Erasmus at Stein near Gouda, later being ordained a priest in 1492.  As a poor boy, the monastic life afforded him a community of peers and the opportunity to study.  He wrote prolifically from the age of around 18 starting with an Epitome of the Elegantine Linguae Latinae of Laurentius Valla (c. 1405 – 1457).  In 1486 he wrote a formal epistle, De Contemptu Mundi, detailing the attractions of monastic life.


In 1493 Erasmus was pleased to leave the monastery to work in the service of Henry Bishop of Cambrai and Chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece.  This provided him with the opportunity of studying at the University of Paris in the Faculty of Theology.  Here he studied the classics and started to learn Greek.  His studying of the classics helped shape his philosophical perspectives as it is evident that the humanists felt that their study led people to live righteous lives.  It is clear that he put stock in the learning of languages and interculturalism stating in 1501:


“Latin erudition, however ample, is crippled and imperfect without Greek.  We have in Latin at best some small streams and turbid pools, while they have the clearer springs and rivers flowing with gold”


In 1499, whilst tutoring William Blount (Lord Mountjoy), he accompanied him to England where he met John Colet (An educational pioneer) and Sir Thomas More (a man who insisted on giving his daughters the same classical education as his son) [Peter Ackroyd, The life of Thomas More, 1999, New York, Anchor books, page 119]. To highlight the impact John Colet, as an educator, had on Erasmus, we can draw on a letter he wrote to Robert Fisher in 1499:


“When I hear my Colet I think I am listening to Plato himself; who will not admire an whole world of learning Grocyn? What mind could be more penetrating than Linacre’s? When did Nature ever create a disposition more friendly than More’s ?…It is remarkable how thick springs up everywhere in this country the crop of classical studies”


He wrote the Adagia, completing it in 1500 and dedicating it to Mountjoy.  This work consisted of over 800 maxims written in Latin and provided his contemporaries the first accessible view of the classical past.  This book was so successful that there were 26 editions in his lifetime.


He was to leave Paris due to the plague, where he went to Orleans before then moving on to Louvain where he declined the Chair of Rhetoric in 1502.  He continued travelling, arriving back in Paris by 1505 editing Valla’s annotations on the New Testament.  In 1506 he travelled to Italy to work on the letters of St Jerome (c AD 342 – 420) – a learned Latin doctor whom Erasmus had much respect for.


In 1507 we know that he was corresponding with the great printer Aldus Manutius about creating a new edition of his translations of Euripides.  He was soon after given the chance to go to Venice to prepare an expanded collection of Adages.  Around a year later he moved to Padua and went on to Rome in 1509.

In Praise of Folly
In Praise of Folly

One of his great texts is ‘The Praise of Folly’ (Moriae Encomium).  It is suggested to have been composed in England over seven days whilst he was staying with his friend, Thomas More, and his four children at Bucklersbury. Even the title is a cleverly positioned pun on his friend “More”; the similarity to “Moria”, the Greek word for folly, was the first part of his humour in this text that is followed by a dedication to his friend.


Erasmus dismisses concerns about his text being irreverent and the ‘frivolity of the argument and the absurdity of the jokes’ by highlighting the place of humour in the great works such as those ascribed to Homer or Ovid.  Every profession is owed a bit of leisure and Erasmus believes that scholars are entitled to the same accordance.



Click to download In Praise of Folly


Erasmus aims to target vice in general rather than particular people.  He says “if anyone complains that he’s been harmed, its either his conscience that accuses him or his guilt”.  His intention is not to harm but to amuse, to “ridicule absurdities, not to catalogue sins”.  Despite it’s controversy, People Leo X was highly amused and the text was circulated throughout Europe.


He finishes the preface with “Farewell, most learned More, and defend your Folly faithfully…”. Thomas More was to respond with the equally Lucianic and impressive Utopia.  More and Erasmus had worked on Translating Lucian several years earlier, and this had served as a whet stone to their intellectual correspondence.


According to A.H.T. Levi [get source] “both have serious imaginative purposes, both explore seriously the compatibility and implications of the enlightened social and personal ideas that were the heritage of John Colet”.


He makes clear his love of humour and satire, and goes to great pains to ensure that no matter the content of his work, it need not be taken too seriously.  Levi writes that Erasmus “delights in the mixture of serious satire with banter, of vinegar with sweetness, of the trivial with the important and the light-hearted treatment of sacred and solemn subjects”


The time in which he wrote it was one where there was much difference amongst intellectuals and religious clerics.  Here Renaissance Humanism began butting heads with the Scholasticism that dominated the great European centres of learning and religion.


The Praise of Folly attacks national pride, professional conceit, and especially ecclesiastical abuses and the monastic orders.  The book ends with the contention that organized religion is a form of folly and that true faith comes from the heart, not the head.


The scholasticism of the time derived from thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and earlier of Aristotle.  In this tradition we see a complex system of thought attempting to define the nature and purpose of everything which is based upon Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics.


Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

The Renaissance humanists had turned their attention to the classical sources for their inspiration such as Virgil, Ovid, Livy, Cicero, and Terence.  These texts were believed to provide answers to modern questions and help people lead a virtuous moral life.  The Latin of the ancients was also admired, and vernacular languages shunned.


Erasmus tells us he wrote the first draft in a week in 1509.  It was revised for publication before 1511 and much was added after the first edition before 1522.  Many of the additions were made in 1514 and concerned his response to the scholastics and their abstruse, absurd arguments which had no moral or practical bearing on the true meaning of the work’s message.


A.H.T. Levi describes the work as “…an extremely intelligent and articulate response to what was perhaps the fundamental value shift in modern European history”


The Praise of Folly begins with a satirical and learned oratory in which the main character, Folly, praises herself.  Taking influence from Greek satirists, in particular Lucian, whom Erasmus and More had been translating, it is considered to be one of the most notable works of the Renaissance.


Folly explains that men protect themselves with “academic definitions, logical argumentation, inferential corollaries, explicit and implicit propositions” but are arrogant, confusing and misled.  They prefer their own discourses to the scriptures and mould the biblical text to fit their theses.  They speak in an obnoxious manner to strike awe into their listeners; they focus on minutiae and superfluities.


Folly describes how she is needed in relationships and how “flattery, jokes, yielding dispositions, mutual misunderstandings, dissimulations” all keep people together.  She describes how self love and flattery hold society together as a man must flatter himself a bit before he can be esteemed by others.  Flattery is self love when applied to another.  Folly understands how pure honesty can be dangerous and that flattery is helpful even virtuous.


Folly argues that philosophers are completely useless to other men, their families, and even themselves “because he knows nothing of everyday matters and exists on a completely different plane from that of common opinion and popular customs”.  They spend their time putting each other on their back or tearing apart each other’s conjectures.


She lists various academic and social classes of people who rely on folly for their accomplishments or who indulge in her offerings to gain fame and happiness.  This includes: doctors, lawyers, mystics, gamblers, hunters, philosophers, grammar teachers, businessmen, authors, poets, performers, lovers, doctors of theology, priests, monks, princes, courtiers, cardinals, bishops, and popes.  She winds up including every person or example as her domain by the end of the speech suggesting the fools are foolish through behaviour while the ‘wise’ and the philosophical are foolish precisely because they do not embrace her despite their foolishness.


Erasmus structures the text like a speech and early on, Folly, insists she will not use common oratorical tricks however ironically proceeds to use them.  He repeatedly ridicules the way public figures speak or manipulate language for their own benefit but gets Folly to epitomize this reinforcing her argument that every aspect of our lives is representative of folly.


In 1511 Erasmus published De Ratione Studii from Cambridge where he was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, also apologizing for commenting on the art of instruction as Quintilian (c. AD 35 – 100) had already said it.  His potion was one of relating subjects to each other, fixing the classics as the unifier: “There is… no discipline, no field of study, whether music, architecture, agriculture or war – which may not prove of use to the teacher in expounding the Poets and Orators of antiquity”


He argued that there were three conditions which determine individual progress in learning: “They are Nature, Training and Practice.  By Nature, I mean, partly innate capacity for being trained, partly, native bent towards excellence.  By training, I mean the skilled application of instruction and guidance.  By practice, the free exercise on our own part of that activity which has been implanted by Nature and is furthered by Training” De Ratione Studii 497A in Woodward (1904 page 151)


John Colet
John Colet

In 1611 Erasmus wrote De Copia (De Duplici Copia Verborum ac Rerum) [‘Of Abundance’] in Basle, a textbook written for St Paul’s School – which was being founded by Colet.  As a textbook it was a cornucopia of material for teaching purposes; over 100 editions appeared during the century and it became the standard work in grammar schools across Europe.


The textbook included an extended vocabulary arranged to provide alternative words to elaborate a statement, along with an array of demonstrations of how statements can be arranged.  He laid out principles of organising information and extracts which ranged over a landscape of topics including children’s manners, the misdemeanours of monks, the difficulties of marriage and the excesses of nobility.


Erasmus revised Lily’s textbook of Latin syntax which became the Latin Grammar text of Eton.  In 1514 Erasmus left England for Basle to work with the printing house of Johann Froben to publish his Letters of St Jerome – a project which had taken him over 20 years.  He worked to produce his New Testament before becoming counsellor to Charles I of Spain – later Charles V the Emperor.


In 1516 he wrote ‘The Education of the Christian Prince’ (Institutio principis Christiani) which was the year More published his Utopia.  In this period Erasmus was known to have been a supporter of Martin Luther who challenged the abuses of the Church but later Erasmus withdrew his support over Luther’s violent threats.


In the 1520s Erasmus move from Luvain to Basle to Freiburg, and in the 1530s he returned to Basle where he published prolifically and his reputation increased as a great thinker. In the mid 1520s he was deeply involved in advocating in a dialogue on Latinity that he called Ciceronianus (1528).  Here he argued that Latin should be the means of expression for modern living.


In 1529 he published one of his most important educational tracts called De Pueris Institutendis.  In it, a distinctive feature was a stress on the individuality of pupils: ‘The Master will be wise to observe such natural inclination, such individuality, in the early stages of a child’s life, since we learn most easily the things which conform to it.


More, unable to accept Erasmus’ advice to moderate his opposition to Henry VIII’s religious settlement, was beheaded in 1535.  Erasmus and More embodied the objection to the systematization in theology or philosophy which characterized the reaction against scholasticism.


Erasmus died at Basle on 12th July 1536.  Woodward remarked that he worked ‘till death itself wrested the pen from his hand’.  Erasmus was one of the earliest major European figures whose reputation was based on the printed word.  In 1559, all of Erasmus’ works were placed on the Papal Index of prohibited books.


Here is a presentation on the life and thought of Erasmus: