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Item, under the title of Adrian VI., subsequently occupied the Papal chair.
His father and mother both died of the plague whilst Erasmus was still young. At the age of thirteen he was taken from Deventer by the three guardians to whose charge he had been committed, and sent to a purely ecclesiastical school, meant to prepare those intended only for a life in the cloister. Here he remained for three years, and after having for a considerable time resisted the suggestions of his masters that he should join their Order, he finally entered the novitiate of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine at Stein, near Gouda. Here he was professed at the age of nineteen, and after the usual interval was ordained priest.
Much obscurity and many apparent contradictions prevent us fully understanding Erasmus's early life, and in particular the portion spent by him in the cloister. One thing, however, would seem to be quite clear; he could never have had any vocation for the religious life. His whole subsequent history shows this unmistakeably; and the ill-judged zeal of those who practically forced him into a state for which he was constitutionally unfitted, and for which he had no aptitude or inclination, must, if we take his account of the facts as correct, be as strongly condemned by all right-thinking people as by himself. He, however, appears not to have understood that this may have been a special case, and not the usual lot of youths entering religion. One evident result of his experience is the bitter feeling created in his heart towards the religious Orders and the uncompromising hostility he ever after displayed towards them. In the celebrated letter he wrote to the papal secretary, Lambert Grunnius, which was intended for the information of the Pope himself, and which is supposed to describe his own case, Erasmus justly condemns in the strongest language the practice of enticing youths into the cloister before they were fully aware of what they were doing. If we are to believe the statements made in that letter, Erasmus did not think that his was by any means a singular case. Agents of the religious Orders, he declared, were ever hanging about the schools and colleges, endeavouring to entice the youthful students into their ranks by any and every method. But he is careful to add, "I do not condemn the religious Orders as such. I do not approve of those who make the plunge and then fly back to liberty as a licence for loose living, and desert improperly what they undertook foolishly. But dispositions vary; all things do not suit all characters, and no worse misfortune can befall a youth of intellect than to be buried under conditions from which he can never after extricate himself. The world thought well of my schoolmaster guardian because he was neither a liar nor a scamp nor a gambler, but he was coarse, avaricious and ignorant, he knew nothing beyond the confused lessons he taught to his classes. He imagined that in forcing a youth to become a monk he would be offering a sacrifice acceptable to God. He used to boast of the many victims which he destined to Dominic and Francis and Benedict."1
Without any taste for the routine of conventual life, and with his mind filled by an ardent love of letters, which there seemed in the narrow circle of his cloister no prospect of ever being able to gratify, the short period of Erasmus's stay at Stein must have been to him in the last degree uncongenial and irksome. Fortunately, however, for his own peace of mind and for the cause of general learning, a means was quickly found by which he was practically emancipated from the restraints he ought never to have undertaken. The Bishop of Cambray obtained permission to have him as secretary, and after keeping him a short time in this position he enabled him to proceed to the University of Paris. From this time Erasmus was practically released from the obligations of
1 Froude's translation.
conventual life; and in 1514, when some question had been raised about his return to the cloister, he readily obtained from the Pope a final release from a form of life for which obviously he was constitutionally unfitted, and the dress of which he had been permitted to lay aside seven years previously.
The generosity of his episcopal patron did not suffice to meet all Erasmus's wants. To add to his income he took pupils, and with one of them, Lord Mountjoy, he came to England in 1497. He spent, apparently, the next three years at Oxford, living in the house which his Order had at that University; whilst there he made the acquaintance of the most learned Englishmen of that time, and amongst others of Grocyn, Linacre, and Colet. He also at this time took up the study of the Greek language, with which previously he had but a slender acquaintance, and his ardour was so great that the following year, 1498, whilst at work on the Adagia, he could write, " I am giving my whole soul to the study of Greek; directly I get some money I shall buy Greek authors first, and then some clothes." From 1499 to 1506 he was continually moving about in various learned centres of France and Holland, his longest stay being at the University of Louvain.
In the April of 1506 he was again in England, first with Archbishop Warham and Sir Thomas More in London, and subsequently at Cambridge; but in a few months he was enabled to carry out the plan of visiting Italy which he had long contemplated. He engaged to escort the two sons of Sebastian Boyer, the English court physician, as far as Bologna, and by September he was already in Turin, where he took his doctor's degree in divinity. The winter of the same year he passed at Bologna, and reached Venice in the spring of 1507.
His main object in directing his steps to this last-named city was to pass the second and enlarged edition of his Adagia through the celebrated Aldine printing-press. Here he found gathered together, within reach of the press, a circle of illustrious scholars. Aldus himself, a man, as Erasmus recalled in a letter written in 1524, "approaching the age of seventy years, but in all matters relating to letters still in the prime of his youth," was his host. In 1508 Erasmus removed to Padua, and the following year passed on to Rome, where he was well received. His stay in the eternal city at this time was not prolonged, for a letter received from Lord Mountjoy announcing the death of Henry VII., and the good affection of his youthful successor to learning, determined him to turn his face once more towards England. He had left the country with keen regret, for, as he wrote to Dean Colet, " I can truly say that no place in the world has given me so many friends—true, learned, helpful and illustrious friends—as the single city of London," and he looked forward to his return with pleasurable expectation. For a brief period on his arrival again in this country Erasmus stayed in London at the house of Sir Thomas More, where, at his suggestion, he wrote the Encomium Moria, one of the works by which he is best known to the general reader, and the one, perhaps, the spirit of which has the most given rise to many mistaken notions as to the author's religious convictions.
From London, in 1510, he was invited by Bishop Fisher to come and teach at Cambridge, where by his influence he had been appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Regius Reader of Greek. "Unless I am much mistaken," Erasmus writes, "the Bishop of Rochester is a man without an equal at this time, both as to integrity of life, learning, or broad-minded sympathies. One only do I except, as a very Achilles, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Warham), who alone keeps me in London, though 1 confess not very unwillingly."1
In estimating the spirit which dictated the composition of the Marias, it is well to remember not only that it
1 Opera, ed. Leclerc, iii., col. 102.
represented almost as much the thought and genius of Sir Thomas More as of Erasmus himself, but that, at the very time it was taking definite shape in More's house at Chelsea, the author's two best friends were the two great and devout churchmen, Archbishop Warham and the saintly Bishop Fisher. Moreover, Sir Thomas More himself denies that to this work of Erasmus there can justly be affixed the note of irreverence or irreligion; he answers for the good intention of the author, and accepts his own share of responsibility for the publication of the book.
The period of Erasmus's stay at Cambridge did not extend beyond three years. The stipend attached to his professorships was not large, and Erasmus was still, apparently, in constant want of money. Archbishop Warham continued his friend, and by every means tried continually to interest others directly in the cause of learning and indirectly in the support of Erasmus, who is ever complaining that his means are wholly inadequate to supply his wants. The scholar, however, remained on the best of terms with all the chief English churchmen of the day, until, as he wrote to the Abbot of St. Bertin, " Erasmus has been almost transformed into an Englishman, with such overwhelming kindness do so many treat me, and above all, my special Maecenas, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He indeed is not only my patron, but that of all the learned, amongst whom I but hold a low place. Immortal gods! how pleasant, how ready, how fertile is the wit of that man! What dexterity does he not show in managing the most complicated business! What exceptional learning! What singular courtesy does he not extend to all! What gaiety and geniality at interviews! so that he never sends people away from him sad. Added to this, how great and how prompt is his liberality! He alone seems to be ignorant of his own great qualities, and the height of his dignity and fortune. No one can be more true and faithful to his friends; and, in a word, he