It has been six weeks since I returned from my tour. I’m cycling home from University along the banks of the Maas. The setting sun drapes the Rotterdam skyline in a golden hue. In the distance I can make out the Erasmusbrug; when I see the starting point of my journey, my mind wanders some 833 kilometres up the river to Basel, Erasmus’s final resting place. His name has become as familiar as that of a good friend – a fellow traveller who never left my side on my journeys.
Searching for Erasmus
Travelling in the footsteps of Erasmus: as far as I know, nobody has ever retraced the good man’s entire life journey in a single trip. I had decided beforehand that I didn’t want to take along more than a backpack with a camera and a notebook. But I knew that to really follow in Erasmus’s footsteps, I had to become caught up in his world. That’s why I prepared for my trip by speaking with professors, museum directors and documentary makers. And in the evenings, I worked through a stack of his books and biographies. Erasmus became an important part of my life – and sometimes even of my dreams.
I have written about the results of this quest in my travelogue, in which I talk about my experiences in twelve European cities. I went in search of squares and streets named after Erasmus, houses where he used to stay and Erasmus relics. My journey carried me to the strangest places and brought me in touch with a wide range of people – and for quite a few of them, the name Erasmus didn’t exactly ring a bell. I belong to a generation whose pocket money has always been paid in euros, and who grew up ‘apping’ and ‘facebooking’. I travelled through Europe to talk with my peers about how we see the future of our continent and share our thoughts on things like friendship, life and the boundlessness of our physical and online worlds.
However, I didn’t limit myself to young Europeans: for example, I also spoke with migrants about their dreams and about finding a home, and I visited the 82-year-old Sofia Corradi in her home. The spiritual mother of the Erasmus exchange programme taught me to be at peace with the idea that one can never know everything, while Cambridge professor Rex showed me how curiosity can lead to the most wonderful insights. In none of these encounters Erasmus ever seemed to be far off – in fact, these experiences were what made this journey even more interesting than I could have dreamt of beforehand.
But where can you actually find Erasmus in a world that occasionally prefers to forget the past rather than honour it? A copperplate engraving of his image – a copy of which is owned by Rotterdam’s public library – already gives a hint of where to look: “His writings will depict him even better.” But I didn’t settle for simply reading his books: I also found Erasmus while travelling past street signs and plaques on mediaeval facades. And I only stopped looking upon arriving at his tomb. Here I left behind the pen I had used to record my adventures, in front of the marble memorial stone. A final tribute to a man whose main weapon was a sharp pen, which he not only used to castigate people, but also to make them laugh – and get them thinking. And since this pen actually forms the key link between all my stories, I couldn’t have found Erasmus in a more fitting place.
Erasmus yields to no one
In my search for Erasmus in Europe, I have definitely found traces of his legacy. Although I believe that people regularly look for his ideas, I also think that he isn’t actually found enough. Public debate is still dominated by ‘Erasmian’ discussions relating to good governance, childrearing and education and faith. That is why it’s more important than ever to once again reflect on his body of thought, find out what he can tell us and translate his ideas to our own times. Allow Erasmus to get you thinking, and enter into dialogue about subjects like good education, a realistic form of pacifism, tolerance that does not exclude debate, the role of religion in our society, the power of satire and faith without fundamentalism.
And above all, allow yourself to be inspired by a man who did not necessarily want to be acclaimed as a hero or a saint, but saw himself as a citizen of the world, untrammelled on his mental and physical journeys: the bastard son who grew to become the Prince of the Humanists, he who claimed to yield to no one. And leave it that way for now.
Want to read more about Erasmus and Job Zomerplaag’s trip through Europe? Read the special.