By Johan Huizinga
Translated from the Dutch by F. Hopman
The section from the Letters of Erasmus was translated by Barbara Flower
London: Phaidon Press, Ltd., 1924
266 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2012

This is definitely one of the most exciting and touching books I have read in a long time, and this for at least three reasons:

  1. The author, Johan Huizinga, clearly loves Erasmus and has dedicated enormous effort to present him and his contribution to his own period and later times as well.
  2. On the other hand, Huizinga, more than virtually any other historian I can remember reading, is deeply involved with his subject. He gets frustrated with Erasmus, he bawls him out, he nearly genuflects before him at other times, but he always carefully asseses Erasmus that man as well as his work. I found this such an endearing treat to see Huizinga’s dedication to his subject.
  3. For myself I find a tremendous sympathy toward the man Erasmus at least as Huizinga sees him and a connection to my own life. I don’t mean to suggest in the slightest the same levels of scholarship, achievement and such, but in the inner spirit of the person whom Huizinga sees and what I see when I look into the mirror of my own inner being.

Erasmus was first and foremost a scholar of classical Latin. He was convinced that the very elegance of the ancient Latin (and Greek) needed to be rediscovered, and that the language itself would introduce a certain humane spirit into human life.

He was a monk and believer in the Catholic church, but was quite upset with the Vulgate Latin translation of the New Testament and wanted to return the biblical language to its elegant and more accurate original. However, that project was right in the face of the Vatican which wanted to control the New Testament and the “novelties” of the Vulgate translation as Erasmus saw it. This conflict, which dominated his life, was to put him into a position of being sort of odd-man-out when the Protestant Reformation came about.

Huizinga’s work keeps this platform in mind throughout his scholarly treatment of Erasmus’s life, showing how he ended up seeming to the Catholic Church to be siding with the Church against Luther and the Reformation, but on the other hand, seeming to Luther and most Reformation scholars as siding with them. Huizinga’s view is that Erasmus was in neither camp and tried to avoid taking a position. He did remain a somewhat loyal Roman Catholic in faith and public stance, but he did not condemn the Reformation and himself condemned many of what he saw to be errors and abuses which had crept into Catholicism.

Huizinga presents Erasmus as much as a Latinist and translator as a thinker. There are elements of both, but Huizinga believes it is Erasmus’s attitude toward classical Latin that is the driving force of his life and work.

The book takes us from Erasmus’s birth in 1466 until his death in 1536 when he was 69.

I will make a few comments chapter by chapter of the 21 chapters of Huizinga’s work, as much to remind myself of what was going on as to help and reader of these notes to understand Erasmus.

Chapter 1: Childhood and Early Youth: 1466-88

While Erasmus was born in what is today Holland, in 1466 it was not yet what we today recognize as a nation. The “low countries by the sea” were, in the main distanced from the rest of Europe and even Christianity was on the “outskirts” in such matters.

They did develop a sort of pious “good works” orientation toward their Catholicism and produced significant written material, most notably by Thomas a Kempis. Back in the 1950s when I was a Catholic seminarian it was that work of “a Kempis” as I called him, which was a constant companion of mine.

Erasmus was born “illegitimate” probably in Rotterdam in 1466, the son of a priest and a wealthy young woman, but Erasmus himself was uncertain of the story of his birth. After much badgering by relatives, he entered a monastery in about 1488. He would have been about 22 and it might be worth noting that Luther would have been 5 years old that year.

Chapter 2: In The Monastery – 1488-95

His father brought him Latin Literature from Italy and he owned, read and knew many classical authors. He tended to deprecate the level of knowledge in the monastery, yet seems to have located a decent number of scholarly friends with whom to correspond.

He was ordained in April 1492 by the Bishop of Utrecht. At age 25 he entered the service of the Bishop of Cambray and left the monastery – for good, as it turned out. He had been relatively coerced into the monastery and that form of communal life just didn’t suit him. He wasn’t satisfied with working for the bishop either and eventually persuaded him to send him to Paris to study.

Chapter 3: The University of Paris 1495-99

here was a spirit of reformation toward some of the clear abuses of the Catholic Church which was being discussed in Paris. He was interested in and sympathetic to these ideas.

While Erasmus’s intellectual understanding and connections developed in Paris, he suffered (as he did for almost all his life) from not having a reliable and decent support for his work. In this case, and many many more times in his life, he left where he was, and sought what appeared to be a better situation another place, this time in England.

Chapter 4: First Stay in England 1499-1500

By this time he was entrenched in the new humanism. This was a spirit of both a rebirth of classical learning, and a view of human existence as one that needed to have a spirit of kindness and gentility toward all.

In that first visit he made friends with two men who remained close to him the rest of their lives – John Colet and Thomas More.

After his time in London he returned to France motivated to devote less time to poetry and more to theology. While he was totally fluent in classical Latin, he now wanted to learn classical Greek.

Chapter 5: Erasmus As A Humanist

Erasmus played a major role in motivating many of the educated class to take classical learning seriously.

After 1496 he rarely visited Holland itself and never after 1501.

Chapter 6: Theological Aspirations

After his visit to England he had three major aims:

  1. Edit the works of St. Jerome
  2. Do a translation of the New Testament to correct the Vulgate.
  3. Learn Greek fluently

At the same time he had now developed a virtual terror of the plague and much of the rest of his life, in addition to constantly seeking a means of support, was also spent in trying to run away from any place that had plague.

While he didn’t like living in a monastery, he met Jean Vitrier who was warden of a Franciscan monastery and he went there, more to work that to be a monk. He needed the place, time and support for his intellectual work.

Chapter 7: Years of Trouble: Louvain, Paris, England 1502-06

In 1505 le left Paris for England.

Chapter 8: In Italy – 1506-1509

By this time he was becoming rather famous for his writings. He was very fortunate to be coming into his maturity as a thinker just as printing was really becoming more widespread and Erasmus was one of the early writers to benefit from it. While he was doing seemingly well in Italy, he had another chance to profit from a connection to England’s Henry VIII and he returned to England.

Chapter 9: The Praise of Folly – 1509

Folly is a woman and the main character of this work. The character gives public lectures and the crowds love her. She says:

“Without me, . . . the world cannot exist for a moment. For is not all that is done at all among mortals, full of folly; is it not performed by fools and for fools?”

Huizinga argues that Folly is:

“Folly . . . is world wisdom, resignation and lenient judgments.”

I thought one long analysis was particularly insightful:

“And the necessary driving power of all human action is 'Philauria', Folly's own sister: self-love. He who does not please himself effects little. Take away that condiment of life and the word of the orator cools, the poet is laughed at, the artist perishes with his art.

Folly in the garb of pride, of vanity, of vainglory, is the hidden spring of all that is considered high and great in this world. The state with its posts of honour, patriotism and national pride; the stateliness of ceremonies, the delusion of caste and nobility - what is it but folly? War, the most foolish thing of all, is the origin of all heroism. What prompted the Deciuses, what Curtius, to sacrifice themselves? Vainglory. It is this folly which produces states; through her, empires, religion, law-courts, exist.

This is bolder and more chilling than Machiavelli, more detached than Montaigne. But Erasmus will not have it credited to him: it is Folly who speaks. He purposely makes us tread the round of the circulus vitiosus, as in the old saw: A Cretan said, all Cretans are liars.”

It is important to note that cleverly this work is all not in Erasmus’s voice – it is the voice of Folly. Thus his own position can remain in doubt.

This book itself was very popular, but Huizinga points out that

“In later years he always spoke slightingly of his mora (The Praise of Folly). Even Erasmus spent much time in later life backing away from it, but it is his most lasting contribution.”

Chapter 10: Third Stay in England: 1509-1514

For two years, while living and working at More’s house, nothing by or about him survives.

When he does turn up in Paris he’s again fighting off poverty.

However, he was still continuing his preparations for a commentary on the works of St. Jerome. He also wrote a number of anti-war tracts.

Chapter 11: A Light of Theology 1514- 24

Erasmus thought his most important life’s work was to be his work on Jerome and his new version of the New Testament which was to correct errors in the Vulgate, and to express the thought in better Latin.

He wanted Froben in Basle to publish them, and was to become intimate friends with him for the rest of his life. He was, during this period, ordered to return back to his monastery, but refused. In 1517 the pope released him from his order. He was very well received and honored in Basel.

From 1517-1521 he was at Louvain where many of the theology professors did not at all approve of him and he was constantly watched by them. At the same time the work he was doing was the “culmination” of his career on Heizenga’s view. Erasmus carried on a huge correspondence and his fame was spreading.

The letters played an important role in intellectual communications at that time, and Huizinga points out they were sort of the equiliviant of what scholarly journals were in later times. He says:

“The semi-private, semi-public character of the letters often made them compromising. What one could say to a friend in confidence might possibly injure when many read it. Erasmus, who never was aware how injuriously he expressed himself, repeatedly gave rise to misunderstanding and estrangement. Manners, so to say, had not yet adapted themselves to the new art of printing, which increased the publicity of the written word a thousandfold. Only gradually under this new influence was the separation effected between the public word, intended for the press, and the private communication, which remains in writing and is read only by the recipient.”

I found Huizinga’s insight from 1924 fascinating and couldn’t help comparing it to today when computer communications have made modes of scholarly communication take on totally new forms.

Chapter 12: Erasmus’s Mind

Huizinga believes that what fascinated others about Erasmus was:

“He seemed to them the bearer of a new liberty of the mind, a new clearness, purity and simplicity of knowledge, a new harmony of healthy and right living. He was to them as the possessor of a newly discovered untold wealth which he had only to distribute.”

A couple pages later Huizinga writes:

“Erasmus conception of the Church was no longer purely Catholic. Of that glorious structure of medieval-Christian civilization with its mystic foundation, it struct hierarchic construction, it splendidly fitting symmetry he saw hardly anything but its load of outward details and ornament. Instead of the world which Thomas Aquinas and Dante had described according to their vision, Erasmus saw another world, full of charm and elevated feeling, and this he held up before his compatriots.”

Yet Huizinga never loses sight that Erasmus is rooted in the classical world:

“Life’s true joy is in virtue and piety. If they are Epicureans who live pleasantly, then none are truly Epicureans than they who live in holiness and piety.”

Huizinga concludes his analysis of Erasmus’s person by holding that the three major factors which describe him are:

  1. Philological work
  2. Deeply ethical man
  3. A man of strong aesthetic tendencies.

Chapter 13: Erasmus’s Mind (continued)

Erasmus is extremely skeptical of scholastic systems and advocates going back to scripture itself and a more simple life. The philosophy of Christ he calls “Renascentia.”

Yet, argues Huizinga, he doesn’t confront the world around him, as much as the world revealed in Latin.

Chapter 14: Erasmus’s Character

Huizinga focuses almost entirely on what he sees as contradictions in the nature of Erasmus’s life and his writings. He celebrates the latter and nitpicks a great deal at the former.

This was, for me, the least interesting and least convincing chapter of the book.

Chapter 15: At Louvain – 1517-18

This was a hotbed of Erasmus’s enemies and he didn’t want to be there.

“There is something pathetic in the man who desires nothing but quiet and liberty, and who through his own restlessness, and his inability not to concern himself about other people, never found a really fixed abode or true independence. Erasmus is one of those people who always seems to say: tomorrow, tomorrow!”

Huizinga sums up Erasmus:

“. . . his delicate aesthetic, hovering spirit, understood neither the profoundest depths of faith nor the hard necessities of human society.”

In 1520 3 important tracts of Luther entered the picture and began to weigh on Erasmus.

Chapter 16: First Years of the Reformation

March 28, 1519 Luther wrote to Erasmus:

“I speak with you [in the sense of agreement] so often, and you with me, Erasmus, our ornament and our hope; and we do not know each other as yet.” Erasmus stays cautiously neutral. In the summer of 1520 word comes to him that Luther has been condemned as a heretic. In April 1521 the Diet of Worms is held and it condemns Luther and order his works to be burned.

Luther had agreed to separate himself from Erasmus who was not supportive of him.

Chapter 17: Erasmus at Basel -- 1521-29

Huizinga, in writing about Erasmus as a politician could be speaking about so many of us who are in the university world:

“Erasmus had, in spite of certain innate moderation, a wholly non-political mind. He lived too much outside of practical reality, and thought too naively of the corrigibility of mankind, to realize the difficulties and necessities of government. His ideas about good administration were extremely primitive as is often the case with scholars of a strong ethical bias, very revolutionary at bottom, though he never dreamed of drawing the practical inferences.”

Oh me, I do see myself in that picture thought in these later years I’ve sort of come to the side of the simple hopelessness of politics.

The years at Basle were years of productive writing though some serious quarrels with people in Luther’s camp.

Chapter 18: Controversy with Luther and Growing Conservatism

There was no correspondence between the two at this time, but Luther promised in 1520 not to mention his name. Luther kept to that promise.

Erasmus tried not to get involved, but pressures rose. Henry VIII, the pope and others wanted him to take a stand. He finally tackles Luther’s thought, but mainly around the notion of free will, and decides to remain loyal to the Catholic Church, yet critical of it. In doing this he alienated many of both sides.

Chapter 19: At War With Humanists and Reformers – 1528-29

Basle was moving strongly toward reformation. They wanted Erasmus to stay, but he didn’t want to be used, so he moved to Freiburg.

Chapter 20: Last Years (died July 12, 1536)

By 1526 the whole controversy was becoming more noticeably violent. Erasmus was retreating away from the public issues and he ended up “ . . . remote from the great happenings of his time.”

The Vatican was preparing a grand council to “solve” the problems of the church. The pope invited Erasmus to participate but he was in the such bad health that he rarely left his room.

Chapter 20: Conclusion

“Looking back on the life of Erasmus the question still arises: why has he remained so great? For ostensibly his endeavours ended in failure. He withdraws in alarm from that tremendous struggle which he rightly calls a tragedy; the sixteenth century, bold and vehement, thunders past him, disdaining his ideal of moderation and tolerance. Latin literary erudition, which to him was the epitome of all true culture, has gone out as such, Erasmus, so far as regards the greater part of his writings, is among the great ones who are no longer read. He has become a name. But why does that name still sound so clear and articulate? Why does he keep regarding us, as if he still knew a little more than he has ever been willing to utter?”

In another place Huizinga speaks of “. . . the velvet softness of Erasmus.”

“He tried to remain in the fold of the Old Church. After having damaged it seriously, and renounced the Reformation. And to a certain extent even Humanism, after having furthered both with all his strength.”
“But in so far as people still believe in the ideal that moral education and general tolerance may make humanity happier, humanity owns much to Erasmus.”


The addition of nearly 100 pages of Erasmus’s letters was a good choice by the editors. His humanity comes though in the letters more clearly than in Huizinga’s treatment. Erasmus isn’t humble about WHO he is, or his “place” in the world. And he is very funny in his constant begging, and pleading with others to beg for him, constantly telling them how much need he is in.

The letters underscore Huizinga’s insistence that his work on Jerome and his desire to present a new translation of the New Testament was his central aim, and he also repeats to nearly all his conviction of the crucial importance of learning classical Latin and Greek as a path to understanding God.

There are also nice views of Erasmus’s great interest in printing and his place in its early development, especially with his translations.

Lastly I would note the very beautiful, detailed and personal letter he writes to a friend, replying to the question: What was Thomas More like. I was deeply touched by it and believe More would have loved it.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett