Erasmus Advances Humanism in England Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Erasmus was the leading Christian humanist of the Renaissance, concerned especially with the misinterpretation and misapplication of Christianity’s pious and moral principles by sovereigns and by church leadership. He believed in a return to learning, especially of Scripture and the ancient classics.

Summary of Event

After about 1500, Desiderius Erasmus was known throughout Europe as the Prince of Humanists. Humanism Through his hundreds of writings, by means of his correspondence to several hundred figures around Europe, and by personal example, Erasmus was a powerful influence on education during a period that saw the loosening of scholasticism’s hold on university and school curriculums and the introduction of Humanism into educational institutions. Education;Europe Humanism;England Erasmus, Desiderius More, Thomas Luther, Martin Colet, John More, Sir Thomas Luther, Martin Hooker, Richard Melanchthon, Philipp Luther, Martin;Erasmus and Erasmus, Desiderius

Desiderius Erasmus.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

A conspicuous example of Erasmus’s influence on education was to be found at Corpus Christi College Corpus Christi College , Oxford University (founded 1516-1517). Humanism was here understood as the emphasis on classical learning, together with the study of Greek, and in Erasmus and other Christian humanists, it was yoked with a study of Christian Scriptures and theology. Humanism;Christian

Desiderius Erasmus visited England six times between 1499 and 1517. He stayed six months on his first visit, becoming a friend for life with John Colet and Thomas More and meeting many English scholars. The second visit was from early autumn of 1505 to June of 1506, when he stayed at Cambridge University, thanks to Bishop John Fisher, then chancellor of the university. The third and longest visit was from August, 1509, to August, 1514, a period of active teaching of Greek and theology at Cambridge. Other visits to England were much shorter.

From 1499 until 1517 Erasmus continued to grow as a Humanist, as is manifested in his books. His first book was his Adagia (1500; Proverbs or Adages Proverbs or Adages (Erasmus) , 1622), dedicated to the tutor of King Henry VIII, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy. The Adagia provided the core for his later, much enlarged Adagia of 1508 and numerous subsequent editions. The work of 1500 provided just 818 adages or proverbs, yet it was a landmark, a rediscovery of Latin and (increasingly) Greek sources. Here, the classical world was for Erasmus an inexhaustible abundance of wisdom. In later editions after 1508, Erasmus increasingly stressed the continuity between the classical world and his own, as he did especially in the Colloquies familiaria (1518; The Colloquies of Erasmus Colloquies of Erasmus, The (Erasmus) , 1671), as well as Moriae encomium (1511; The Praise of Folly Praise of Folly, The (Erasmus) , 1549).

Friendship with Thomas More saw its fruition in The Praise of Folly, written while Erasmus stayed in More’s household; friendship with Colet saw its fruition in the founding of St. Paul’s School St. Paul’s School[Saint Pauls School] , with a Humanistic curriculum that stressed Greek; and St. Paul’s served as the model for new grammar schools established across England by King Henry VIII.

Guiding these educational reforms and innovations was Erasmus’s philosophia Christi, or philosophy Philosophy;of Christ[Christ] of Christ, which was both a program of learning and of perfecting human nature. Philosophy;Europe There was in Erasmus a basically nonspeculative interest in philosophy and theology, an emphasis on the practical with a strongly moralistic stress on the essential business of living in this world. It vigorously endorsed classical wisdom and learning, and it valued the role of rhetoric in arriving at and in teaching wisdom.

Erasmus’s vision was transmitted by the shining example of this Dutch Augustinian’s canon, who was in fact the preceptor of all Europe, and whose letters reached every quarter of continental Europe; his writings continued to occupy the center stage of European thought and letters throughout the sixteenth century and beyond, influencing writers such as François Rabelais, Michel de Montaigne, and Francis Bacon.

The Praise of Folly is a satiric masterpiece, for it is a mock expression of praise, an encomium turned upside down: a declamatio (declamation) put into the mouth of Folly itself—that is, a praising of folly by the woman Folly. The satire is biting, and leaders of the Church—theologians especially—are revealed as arrogant, self-righteous, and ignorant. In a well-known letter to theologian Martin Dorp that became, in effect, a part of the text of The Praise of Folly, Erasmus wrote,

In the “Folly” I had no other aim than I had in my other writings, but my method was different. In the “Enchiridion” I propounded the character of a Christian life in a straightforward way. . . . And in the “Folly,” under the appearance of a joke, my purpose is just the same as in “The Enchiridion.” I intended to admonish, not to sting; to help, not to hurt; to promote morality, not to hinder it.

There are several landmarks in the growth of Erasmus’s thought and spirituality. The publication of his Enchiridion militis Christiani (1503; The Manual of the Christian Knight Manual of the Christian Knight, The (Erasmus) , 1533) marked his coming of age as a Christian humanist and a pastoral theologian.

The full flowering of Erasmian scholarship can be seen in 1516, for that year saw Erasmus’s Greek-text edition of the New Testament, which opened the door to a century of scriptural scholarship and translation that culminated in Martin Luther’s German Bible and in the King James version of the Bible in 1611. Erasmus’s New Testament in Greek Bible;New Testament in Greek did nothing less than spark critical scholarship on the scriptural flaws of ecclesiastical writings. Also among Erasmus’s works is Institutio principis Christiani (1516; The Education of a Christian Prince Education of a Christian Prince, The (Erasmus) , 1936) and the completion of years of scholarly work on an edition of Saint Jerome. To that monumental achievement must be added the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, for not only did Erasmus play a major role in the publication of the work in the Low Countries, but the work also embraced the concepts of Erasmus’s The Manual of the Christian Knight and employed the rhetorical skills of his The Praise of Folly.

As well as Erasmus himself and the range of his writings, however, we also must look to several institutions that were inspired by him and embodied his Humanistic values. This was true on the Continent as well as in England, for the Collegium Trilingue in the University of Louvain (1517) owed an immense debt to the vision of Erasmus and to his guiding hand in the appointment of professors. The role of Erasmus in the conception and planning for St. Paul’s School in London is well known, but less known is his role in the planning for and endowment of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, by Bishop Richard Foxe in 1516. For a college firmly placed within a tradition-rich university there could be no question of abolishing the curricular emphasis on scholasticism; but the introduction of Greek at Corpus Christi had a profound effect for the study of literature and for the study of the Bible and theology. From this small foundation of twenty fellows and twenty students came splendid scholarship. Beginning mid-sixteenth century, there was an unbroken continuity of solid scholarship and deep spirituality, from John Jewel and his defense of English reform mid-century, to his student John Reynolds and his brilliant lectures on the rhetoric of Aristotle (and the concept of a newly revised translation of the Bible into English), to his student Richard Hooker and the magnificent structuring of reason for the foundation of the Anglican Church in his Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (Hooker) (1594-1597, 1648, 1662).

The impact of Erasmian ideas for Church (and educational) reform was great on major figures of both the Protestant Reformation Reformation;Erasmus and and the Counter-Reformation. Within the Roman Catholic Church there were widespread, often bitter, attacks on Erasmus, and, after 1516, much of his energy was spent in replying to Catholic critics; yet the Jesuit ratio studiorum drew on Erasmus’s educational writings, as did the educational teachings of the Lutheran reformer Philipp Melanchthon (who saw Erasmus as a humanist forerunner of the Reformation). Among the Reformers, however, there was increasing hostility to Erasmus after 1520 because he would not proclaim his support for Martin Luther; instead, in 1524 Erasmus wrote De libero arbitrio (On the Freedom of the Will On the Freedom of the Will (Erasmus) , 1961), among other works on faith. Doctrinal differences separated the two, and Luther was turned away by Erasmus’s wit and declared that Erasmus was as slippery as an eel. Like many other contemporaries, including a number who remained Roman Catholic, Luther had strongly disapproved of Erasmus’s satire in The Praise of Folly and Julius exclusus e coelis (1513-1514; The Julius Exclusus Julius Exclusus, The (Erasmus) , 1968), even while he approved of the main thrust of Erasmus’s call for reform.


Erasmus had opened the way for Luther, but Erasmus was never willing, or able, to break with the Church of Rome, as Luther was forced to do after the fateful condemnation of Martin Luther by Pope Leo X in 1520. By 1536, the year of Erasmus’s death, the split of Christendom into two camps had unalterably changed not only politics and religion but also Humanism and education.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Akkerman, F., et al., eds. Northern Humanism in European Context, 1469-1625. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1999. Contains a number of valuable studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erasmus, Desiderius. Collected Works of Erasmus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974-2003. An exhaustive series that offers scholarly translations of all of the works of Erasmus, with meticulous annotation.
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    xlink:type="simple">McConica, James K., Rev. English Humanists and Reformation Politics Under Henry VIII and Edward VI. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1965. A study of the influence of Erasmus upon English politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Margolin, Jean-Claude. Érasme—Précepteur de L’Europe. Paris: Julliard, 1995. A superb study of Erasmus as teacher, and one which provides a European perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoeck, R. J. Erasmus of Europe. 2 vols. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1990-1993. An intellectual biography that discusses individual works and puts them in context.
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    xlink:type="simple">Trapp, J. B. Erasmus, Colet, and More: The Early Tudor Humanists and Their Books. London: British Library, 1991. Detailed catalog and analysis of all books known to be written by, owned, read, printed, or referenced by Colet, More, and Erasmus. Shows not only the specific influences of the humanists but also their general literary milieu.

1486-1487: Pico della Mirandola Writes Oration on the Dignity of Man

1494: Sebastian Brant Publishes The Ship of Fools

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

1520-1522: Comunero Revolt

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

1550’s-c. 1600: Educational Reforms in Europe

1580-1595: Montaigne Publishes His Essays

Categories: History