Review: Erasmus and the Age of the Reformation

Characteristics: (where 1 is bad, 3 is average, and 5 is superb)

  • Interestingness: 3
  • Subject Matter: ?
  • Organization: 3
  • Binding: 3

I mentioned recently that I had been reading a biography of Erasmus. I finished it just now. The printing I have is not available at Amazon proper, though you can get it through their resellers fairly cheaply. A more recent and much more expensive copy is available on Amazon, however.

Biographies of great men are very important. They can inspire us lesser mortals to do greater things; in the very least, if done well, they can inform us historically and we can be less ignorant of the history we have inherited.

I found this biography to be okay for inspiration though better for historical introduction. Erasmus did have some very good qualities; his cool-headedness in the midst of controversy is a great trait. His focus on getting back to the original languages and a focus on quality of style are good examples to follow. I think there is much to value in the Humanism that he fought for.

From a historical perspective, Erasmus is obviously a significant figure. Though he did clash with Luther, his work was often very much in line with the work of the reformers, and he most definitely influenced them and those in their movement. Of his most important works I am familiar with two, his Praise of Folly (I own but have not read it) and his work with the Greek New Testament. Though I cannot confirm how important the impact of his Praise of Folly was, his work with the Greek New Testament ultimately became (with minor changes) the Greek behind the King James Version; that is no insignificant thing.

The book takes you through his entire life. You see his weaknesses (the biographer does not hold back from critiquing) as well as his strengths, and get a good understanding of the major points in his life as well as the most impacting things about it.

I have one regret about and one critique of the book. I regret that more time was not spent on his work with the Greek New Testament. Much more space was given to his Praise of Folly and one other Latin work of his, though the only work he has done that still has its impact today (that I can discern) is his Greek New Testament. Of course it was written almost a hundred years ago; perhaps his Praise of Folly was read more often then.

The only thing I felt was seriously lacking from the book was more attention on his studies, both early on as well as how he disciplined himself in learning as an adult. We know he was a brilliant man, which is something that comes through very clearly in the book. But what the book does not explain is how he got there. It is good to show you a brilliant man so that you can try to find inspiration in what he did. But if you never know how he made the transition from random young man to brilliant, you are given a map with a destination but without directions. This book works well as a good general introduction to Erasmus of Rotterdam, his impact, and his works, but will not show you how to achieve what Erasmus achieved. Pity.


Brett (6/21/2008 9:28 AM)


Tell me, was Erasmus' primary concern the Latin New Testament? This is what I've gathered from an article here or there. 

Does this book go in to the details of which Greek mss he finally sent to the printer? I've also read how he was significantly limited in the availability of Gk mss, especially due to the time crunch of getting the NT out as fast as possible.

Eric (6/21/2008 10:27 AM)

I do not recall Huizinga saying that exactly, but better editions of Jerome, a better translation into Latin than Jerome's, and the importance of making the Greek text available were all quite important to him.


I don't remember this book saying anything substantive about the manuscripts used or the time crunch others say he was under. It definitely says nothing about his "competition" as some say with the Complutensian Polyglot. I don't doubt these things based on this book; it's just that Huizinga just does not seem to care enough about such things to comment on them significantly in this biography.