Have we lost our sense of how to behave in the current society? Desiderius Erasmus had to deal with a similar situation, in the 16th century. He wrote a book about rules of conduct for children. We can still learn a lot from it.

The question of how to behave in a society that is culturally diverse and invokes all kinds of unwanted behaviour on digital channels, is getting more and more confusing. The location of refugee camps, the New Year events in Cologne, hateful comments on social media, in parliament or just on the streets: it seems we are unsure about how we ought to behave in a society in which all kinds of certainties are lost. We seem to have forgotten what good manners are.

550th anniversary

This year we celebrate the 550th anniversary of Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, thus indicating he was born in Rotterdam. He was born here in 1466. Rotterdam was but a dwarf village lying in between its neighbouring cities Delft, Gouda and Dordrecht, but already contained all the ingredients a city needs.

Had his mother taken him for a walk through the little city at the Rotte, little Gerrit would have seen the Grote Kerk on his one side, and the market square on his other side. Taking little steps on the Hoogstraat to the east, the boy could have caught a glimpse of the activity at the lock gates of the Rotte.

And at the other bank of the river he would have seen the business in and around the city hall/guest house, the place where political and economic decisions about the city were made. It is no wonder that Erasmus later became a city man: his first impressions were formed by the city. Possible he used the extension “Roterodamus” mainly to express that he wasn’t from the countryside.


Erasmus lived as a travelling writer who profited fully from the art of printing that was developed in his age. One of his bestselling books was called the civilitate morum puerilium, a book about civilized manners for children.

The book was reprinted 130 times and was translated from Latin into German, French, Czech, Dutch, and several other languages. The word ‘civilitate’ shortly became fashionable in Europe. The sociologist Norbert Elias started his main work about the civilizing process with reference to this work by Erasmus. According to Elias, Erasmus’ civilitate served the need for clear rules of conduct in a time of big changes.

Around the year 1500, cities grew, people lived closer and closer together and they had to deal with each other more often. In his book, Elias describes this development of a society with courtly behaviour into a world in which people had to behave in a civilized (‘civilitate’) manner.

Don't greet while urinating

‘It is uncouth to sop your finger in a sauce’


In his etiquette for city children, Erasmus discusses all kinds of behaviour, in a candid and frank manner. He discusses the proper way to blow your nose, explains the table manners -‘do not be the first to take a meal that was just served’ and ‘it is uncouth to sop your finger in a sauce’ – and other rules for good behaviour.

‘It is indecent to greet someone while he is urinating’. Everything is mentioned explicitly: how to give a meaning look at each other, how to break wind, how to express emotions and how to dress.

At the basis of these directions for city life lays the principle that you have to take account of others. People have to develop a sense of shame: doing whatever you like, in an unrestrained manner, is not fitting anymore. Civilized behaviour expresses itself in the realization that you know your place, pay attention to your environment, and show consideration with others and what they think about you.

Being secretive

As a result of the newly established manners, all kinds of ‘impulsive’ behaviour disappeared from public life. The people in the 16th century saw their private space become smaller, and they had to become more secretive. The saying “do it at home but not in public” became current.

Especially boys and men had to learn to control their impulses. Erasmus wrote that a boy cannot do anything to a girl, unless she permits it. The world in which everyone, adults and children, men and women, treated each other in a very open and unrestrained way, disappeared in the transition period of 1500-1700.

No more mutilating for pleasure

Erasmus did not write a lot about violent behaviour in society, but he generally argued for a moderate and peaceful manner. The common behaviour of knights, ‘plundering, destroying churches, attacking pilgrims, repressing widows and orphans, and mutilating innocents with pleasure’, became unacceptable.

The life of civilians in the cities was also riddled with fights, hate and bullying. Lacking a strong, central authority at that time, people had to teach themselves manners. Erasmus described this exemplary behaviour in that little book that would become a standard work for two centuries. And perhaps our celebrating the birth of Erasmus inspires a new Erasmus in the city of Rotterdam. The time is certainly ripe for it.

A co-operation between Erasmus Magazine and Vers Beton

In 2016 Rotterdam celebrates the 550th birth date of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. In this series, Vers Beton explores the meaning of Erasmus’ thinking for the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Vers Beton is a journal for people in Rotterdam who like to reflect on their city.

This series has been made possible by a financial contribution by the city of Rotterdam.

This piece was published earlier in Dutch in the online magazine Vers Beton.

Translation: Melissa van Amerongen.