This short biography presents a complicated picture of Erasmus of Rotterdam, one of the most brilliant and influential men of the reformation era. A harsh critic of the church, Erasmus refused to join the revolt against priestly authority, and remained a thorn in the side of both Protestants and Catholics until the end of his days.
The scope of this series can be very accurately defined. It is not meant to be a history of the Christian Church, nor even of Christian theology. Nor is it intended to set out the influence exercised in the world by the Catholic Church in every department alike, social, for example, artistic, or even moral. But Christian men have thought about their Faith in itself; and about the world they live in, because of their Faith, and in relation to it. These volumes, therefore, aim at giving the reader pictures of eminent Catholic thinkers, and a sufficient statement of what they thought, and of the substantial contribution which they thus made to the history of ideas in the world, and to Christian civilization in particular.
The writers have aimed at allowing their subjects, as far as possible, to speak for themselves: only a necessary minimum of comment or criticism has been supplied. On the other hand, it has been wished that not bloodless schemes of thought, merely, nor abstract theories, should be made available to our readers; nor again, detached "lives" of men and isolated personalities. Therefore a preliminary and a concluding volume have been planned, in which, respectively, are set out the massive historical movement within which these men were born, developed, and exerted their influence; and, the continuous currents of thought which they necessarily created, deflected, accelerated or checked. It should be added that the respective authors have freely formed and expressed their own estimates of their subject-matter, and that the series as such is not responsible for these. Nor has it been intended that the method of treatment and its application should be absolutely homogeneous in all the volumes alike.
Thus these volumes are not meant, then, at all as propaganda or apologetic. They hope to supply an organic survey of Catholic thought and a live genealogy "of Catholic thinkers; so that, from a comprehensive view and continuous vital contact, each reader may draw such general conclusions as he is able; or enrich, substantiate, or correct, what he already possesses.
The object of this small book is to set out in a popular, and it is hoped accurate manner, the life, works, and influence of one of the most remarkable men of his own or of any other time. The subject is so wide and intricate that Erasmus, within the limits allowed by this series, must be treated in a more or less inadequate manner, and his many-sided genius and character does not easily lend itself to condensation.
I have chiefly made use of the following works, besides a few others, to which reference is made in the text:
- The Leiden edition of Erasmus's works, 1706.
- Erasmus, his life and Character shown in his correspondence and works. Drummond
- Oxford Reformers. Seebohm.
- Ulrich von Hunten. Strauss. Leipzig, 1871.
- Geschichte der Papste im Zeitalter der Renassance. L. Pastor.
- Life and Letters of Erasmus. J. A. Froude.
And, above all, up to 1520, the monumental edition of Erasmus's works and notes of his life by Mr. P. S. Allen, without which no writer on Erasmus could take many steps.
My aim throughout has been to portray Erasmus as he really was; to depict his influence, which was small, on his own times, but far greater in more modern days, and to illustrate his character so that it may be more easy to understand how so brilliant a man and so learned a scholar, who never ceased to be Catholic, fell out of favour not only with Protestants, as was inevitable, but with those Catholics whom, as Dr. K. Hartfelder so eloquently observes, he had never ceased to serve, and whose religion was our own.
OXFORD, May 1921.