Some 550 years after the birth of Desiderius Erasmus, EM reporter and IBCoM student Job Zomerplaag travels through Europe in the great thinker’s footsteps. A search to uncover this Rotterdam-born world citizen’s legacy in our own times.
Over the next few weeks, you can join Job on his peregrinations in the new series ‘In search of Erasmus’: a tour of modern-day Europe with Erasmus as a guide. Today, we’ll be bringing Job’s first story: the prologue.
A mediaeval adventure story
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 mediaeval adventure story. A story that begins in an unassuming little town on the banks of the Maas. Here, Desiderius Erasmus is 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 is a pacifist in times of war; a dreamer in times of despair. He doesn’t shy away from controversial statements and consistently seeks confrontations with his contemporaries. But more than anything, he is someone who holds up a mirror to society’s face and encourages people to think for themselves. Although a restless man who never stops travelling throughout Europe, he always remains true to his home town of Rotterdam. Because regardless of where he is staying or living, he always calls himself Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Prince of the Humanists
Erasmus is already famous in his own lifetime as a writer, philosopher, scholar, priest, theologian and humanist. He counts prominent scholars like Thomas More among his friends, acts as an adviser to emperors and kings and writes thousands of letters and over one hundred books, in which he advocates 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 become bestsellers. In addition, as a thinker who immerses himself like no other in the study of antiquity, and who assigns a central role to being human in matters of faith, he is awarded the informal title of ‘Prince of the Humanists’.
Back to the source
Apart from faith, no other theme is as important to Erasmus as childrearing and education. “People aren’t born, but formed,” is how he puts it. As a religious man, that is why Erasmus writes about language, faith and education, which he sees as the foundations of an upstanding Christian life.
In addition, Erasmus represents seeing things in context and dialogue. Although he has an opinion about virtually every aspect of life, it remains difficult to systematically order his body of thought. His train of thought is 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 believes we need to go back to the source – the original argument.
The path of a wandering mind
Every once in a while, the persistent rumour resurfaces that Erasmus was supposedly born in Gouda. While untrue, this story does contain a grain of truth about his origins: as a toddler, Erasmus moves from Rotterdam to Gouda, where 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 ’s-Hertogenbosch and Deventer, where he is taught in the classical languages. After his parents pass away, he takes vows as an Augustinian canon and enters the canonry of Steyn near Gouda. Around the age of 30, Erasmus embarks on his first adventure abroad, when he leaves for Paris to study Theology.
In the years that follow, Erasmus travels 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 will visit an incredible number of towns and cities in his lifetime, without ever finding a home.
Erasmus for the masses
Desiderius Erasmus’s name lives on to this day – all over Rotterdam. The eponymous 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 mix of chips, shawarma and Gouda cheese) at Erasmus Eetcafé, gather pearls of wisdom at Erasmus University or Erasmiaans Gymnasium, or head over to Erasmusapotheek or Erasmus MC 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.
Search in jeans
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, hardly a day has gone by without my hearing or reading his name. But as a 20-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 the 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.