Erasmus 1469?-1536

An international humanist

Erasmus had a complicated relationship with the land of his birth. He liked to call himself Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, and yet repeatedly criticised the coarse manners and lack of taste of his fellow town-dwellers and country folk.

He was probably born in 1469 as the illegitimate son of a priest. This meant that a future as a monk was the obvious choice. After completing his training at a seminary of the Brethren of the Common Life, among other places, he joined the Augustinian monastery in Steyn near Gouda. Erasmus was taken with the monastery’s library and immersed himself in the world of classical antiquity through the writings of classical authors and Italian humanists. The latter, with their enormous learning and critical approach, brought ancient times closer than ever before.

Monastic life with its strict regime and duties was suffocating. Erasmus’ extraordinary knowledge of Latin gave him the opportunity to leave the monastery. He travelled as an independent scholar across large areas of Europe, living from the income from his writing and gifts from a growing multitude of admirers. Erasmus stayed in contact with friends, like-minded scholars and informants through an extensive correspondence network. In 1500 he wrote Adagia, one of the world’s first bestsellers, courtesy of the still new printing press. This collection of classical proverbs offered readers a speed course in the lifestyle and way of thinking of the humanists. In addition, Erasmus published books on etiquette, guides for heads of state, and dialogues and tracts that were aimed at educating lords and commoners to be good and responsible Christians.

Erasmus was the first to apply the humanist critical approach to Christian writings. He studied Greek specifically to read the writings of the early founders of the Church and the texts of the New Testament in the original language. This resulted in a series of new critical editions of early Christian writings, including a new edition of the New Testament in Greek with a new translation in Latin. With this Novum Instrumentum, Erasmus expressly distanced himself from the Vulgate (the official Church translation) and defended the right to adopt a critical approach to the Bible with the aim of strengthening the perception of faith. Erasmus hoped that one day everyone would be able to quote the Bible – the farmer behind his plough, the weaver at his loom and the traveller on his journey; he believed that even women should read the Bible. His ideal was the attainment of tranquil, austere devotion rooted in inner reflection.

In the polarisation that began in 1517 with the religious reforms of Martin Luther, Erasmus did not want to adopt a position – or did not dare to. He was not prepared to break away from the Catholic Church and hoped that the differences that had arisen could be resolved with sound reasoning. This caused him to be criticised by both sides. Erasmus died in the summer of 1536 at the home of the printer Froben, in Basel.


  • circa 3000 BC Megalithic tombs Early farmers  
  • 47 A.D.-circa 400 A.D. The Roman Limes On the frontiers of the Roman world  
  • 658 A.D.-739 A.D. Willibrord The spread of Christianity  
  • 742 A.D. – 814 A.D. Charlemagne Emperor of the Land of the Setting Sun  
  • circa 1100 Hebban olla vogala The Dutch language in writing  
  • 1254-1296 Floris V A Dutch count and disgruntled nobles  
  • 1356-circa 1450 The Hanseatic League Trading towns in the Low Countries  
  • 1469?-1536 Erasmus An international humanist  
  • 1500-1558 Charles V The Low Countries as an administrative unity  
  • 1566 The “Beeldenstorm” (iconoclastic outbreak) Religious conflict  
  • 1533-1584 William of Orange From rebel nobleman to “father of the country”  
  • 1588-1795 The Republic A unique political phenomenon  
  • 1602-1799 The Dutch East India Company (VOC) Overseas expansion  
  • 1612 The Beemster Polder The Netherlands and water  
  • 1613-1662 The canal ring Urban development in the seventeenth century  
  • 1583-1645 Hugo Grotius Pioneer of modern international law  
  • 1637 The Statenbijbel (authorised version of the Bible) The Book of Books  
  • 1606?-1669 Rembrandt The great painters  
  • 1662 Blaeu’s Atlas Major Mapping the world  
  • 1607-1676 Michiel de Ruyter Heroes of the sea and the wide reach of the Republic  
  • 1629-1695 Christiaan Huygens Science in the Golden Age  
  • 1632-1677 Spinoza In search of truth  
  • circa 1637-1863 Slavery Human trafficking and forced labour in the New World  
  • 17th and 18th centuries Country mansions Prosperous living  
  • 1744-1828 Eise Eisinga The Enlightenment in the Netherlands  
  • 1780-1795 The patriots Political conflict about modernising the Republic  
  • 1769-1821 Napoleon Bonaparte The French period  
  • 1772-1843 King William I The kingdom of the Netherlands and Belgium  
  • 1839 The first railway Acceleration  
  • 1848 The Constitution Fundamental rules and principles of government  
  • 1860 Max Havelaar Scandal in the East Indies  
  • 19th century Opposition to child labour Out of the workplace and back to school  
  • 1853-1890 Vincent van Gogh The modern artist  
  • 1854-1929 Aletta Jacobs The emancipation of women  
  • 1914-1918 The First World War War and neutrality  
  • 1917-1931 De Stijl Revolution in design  
  • 1929-1940 The crisis years Society in the depression  
  • 1940-1945 World War II Occupation and liberation  
  • 1929-1945 Anne Frank The persecution of the Jews  
  • 1945-1949 Indonesia A colony fights for freedom  
  • 1886-1988 Willem Drees The welfare state  
  • 1 February 1953 The great flood The danger of water  
  • since 1948 Television The rise of mass media  
  • since circa 1880 The port of Rotterdam Gateway to the world  
  • 1911-1995 Annie M.G. Schmidt Going against the grain of a bourgeois country  
  • since 1945 Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles Decolonisation in the West  
  • 1995 Srebrenica The dilemmas of peacekeeping  
  • since 1945 Diversity in the Netherlands The multicultural society  
  • 1959-2030? The natural gas deposit A finite treasure  
  • since 1945 Europe The Dutch and Europeans  
english version