Hans Holbein the Younger, Erasmus, 1523 | London,  The National Gallery

Meaning & Religion
c. 1469 - 1536
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Erasmus was one of the most influential European thinkers of the 16th century. He wrote on the upbringing of children and education and sharply criticised the church and those in power. His writings helped to shape the philosophical and religious thinking of his time.

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Erasmus was born in Rotterdam – that Holland town belonged at the time to the Burgundian Netherlands – but travelled through Europe all his life. Thanks to his exceptional knowledge of Greek and Latin literature he was able to bring antiquity back to life. His most ambitious achievement was the edition of the New Testament published in 1516. That section of the Bible had originally been written in Greek, but for a thousand years the church had used a not always reliable Latin translation. Erasmus published the Greek source text and produced a new Latin translation with a commentary. That translation undermined traditional interpretations of the Bible. In Leuven Erasmus was the driving force behind the Collegium Trilingue or Three-Language College. There students could study the three Biblical languages – Hebrew, Greek and Latin – together.

Reconstructie Drietalencollege.

University Library KU Leuven, visualisation Timothy de Paepe

Reconstruction of the Three-Language College in Leuven. The institution was a breeding ground for humanists like Gemma Frisius, Andreas Vesalius, Gerard Mercator and Rembert Dodoens.

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Erasmus was a figurehead of humanism. That is an intellectual movement which in the 15th and 16th century spread across Europe from Italy. The humanists encouraged critical thinking. They argued for a philosophy and ethics that put man at the centre of things (hence: humanism). That opened the door for innovation in many subject areas, such as language study, mathematics, anatomy, cartography, botany, medicine…

The humanists found their inspiration in the Classical Latin and Greek texts, which they studied, admired and imitated. They purged the ancient texts of mistakes and deliberate changes that had gradually crept in. In this way they laid the foundations of philology, the scholarly study of language and literature.

The humanists also studied the history and philosophy of antiquity. They felt that people from the upper classes needed that knowledge to play their leading role in society. Reform of education was therefore important. For example, at school one should master Latin by using the language actively and not learn grammatical rules off by heart without understanding them.

North of the Alps humanists like Erasmus also studied the Bible and the church fathersChristian writers and teachers from the 2nd to the 7th centuries who have authority within the Catholic church as proclaimers of the truth. . It was intended to lead to a purer Christianity, closer to the Gospel, stripped of abuse, hollow rituals and contrived theological arguments.

Focal points

Maarten Luther door Aldegrever.

Bruges, Musea Brugge, Prentenkabinet Van Hoorebeke

Portrait of Martin Luther by Henrich Aldegrever, 1540.

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Many humanists, like Erasmus, wanted to reform Christianity, but did not break with the official church. Martin Luther did. This German monk and professor of theology stood at the cradle of Protestantism. That movement caused a schism within Western Christianity.

31 October 1517 counts as the birth date of Protestantism. Luther provoked a debate by nailing 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. In them he criticised the trade in indulgences. With indulgences Christians could ‘buy off’ their punishment in purgatoryaccording to Catholic belief the place where Christians find themselves for a certain time after their deaths, if their soul, because of their sins, is not yet pure. . Indulgences were an important source of income for the church, but according to Luther a corrupt practice. He felt that faith and divine gracethe help God gives the believer to reach heaven. were sufficient for one to deserve eternal life. Worship of saints and most sacramentsparticular rituals used by Christians to strengthen their bond with God. (except for baptism and the eucharist) were redundant. To bring the faithful into direct contact with God’s word he translated Erasmus’s bible into German.

Luther’s ideas soon reached the Low Countries, but the church condemned his works as heresy. Charles V also persecuted the Lutherans. Even conciliatory figures like Erasmus finally turned against Luther’s teachings. Protestants who persisted in their faith paid with their lives. In 1523 two followers of Luther were burnt alive in Brussels. Hundreds of executions were to follow. Still, Protestantism expanded further, because Luther was followed by other church reformers like the French theologian Jean Calvin who was established in Geneva and was able to rely on wide support in the Low Countries.


Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus, LUCID

The well-preserved 16th-century printworks of Christoffel Plantin in the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp.

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In about 1450 in Mainz Johannes Gutenberg developed a technique for printing texts with loose letters and a printing press. Thanks to that art of printing books could be produced fast and in larger quantities. The humanists and the protestants owed a great deal of their influence to their collaboration with printers and publishers. Ideas were spread faster and reached a wide, international public. Church and government feared the new power of the printed word and of printed illustrations. They reacted with censorship, book burnings and even a list of banned books.

In 1473 in Aalst Jan van Westfalen and his business partner Dirk Martens printed the first books in the southern part of the Low Countries. Martens later established himself in Leuven and was one of the publishers of Erasmus. From 1490 Antwerp emerged as the book centre of the Low Countries, followed by the university town of Leuven. In the second half of the 16th century the immigrant Frenchman Christoffel Plantin became one of the most influential publishers in Europe. He published in the city on the Scheldt, with much care and an eye for quality, the Greek and Roman classics, editions of the oldest Biblical texts, liturgical booksbooks with texts for use in church. , atlases, learned treatises and printed music. Pioneering achievements were the Polyglot Bible (an edition of the Bible in five languages) and the first dictionary of the Dutch language.

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In 1473 Dirk Martens from Aalst was the first person in the Low Countries to print a book with separate, reusable type. He published some fifty works of Erasmus and the first edition of Utopia by Thomas More. Since 1856 Aalst has honoured him with a statue (by Jan Geefs) in the market-place.

Griekse editie van het Nieuwe Testament.
Basel, Universitätsbibliothek

Page from Novum Instrumentum Omne (1516), Erasmus’s Greek-Latin edition of the New Testament.

Johannes Despauterius.
Brussels, KIK-IRPA, cliché M108829

Jan de Spouter from Ninove (Johannes Despauterius in Latin) was a leading humanist from the Low Countries. He wrote a grammar that was used in education all over Western Europe. Anonymous painting.

Ghent University

German pamphlet on the burning in 1523 of two Augustinian monks, Hendrk Voes and Jan van Esschen, in the market-place in Brussels. They were the first to be condemned to death because of their Protestant faith.

Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, P003461

Juan Luis Vives (1493-1540), the son of converted Jews in Spain, lived and worked in the Low Countries. He was an important Christian Humanist and a follower of Erasmus. He wrote about reforms in education and in the care of the poor. Anonymous painting.

Erasmus Lof der Zotheid
Google Books

In Laus Stultitiae (In Praise of Folly) Erasmus dissected the society of his time. Neither worldly nor ecclesiastical dignitaries escaped his sharp pen. The book appeared in Paris in 1511 and was dedicated to the English humanist Thomas More (1478-1535). The first Dutch translation appeared in 1560.

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Bron: VRT archief – 21 jun 2018

Klaar – Erasmus

Bron: VRT archief – 27 jan 2021


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Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep, 2020. 

Blokland Gottlieb
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Decavele Johan
De eerste protestanten in de Lage Landen: geloof en heldenmoed

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Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep, 2005. 

Imhof Dirk
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BAI, 2018. 

Lampo Jan
Gelukkige stad. De gouden jaren van Antwerpen (1485-1585)

Amsterdam University Press, 2017. 

Langereis Sandra
De woordenaar. Christoffel Plantijn, ‘s werelds grootste drukker en uitgever 1520-1589

Balans, 2014. 

Langereis Sandra
Erasmus: dwarsdenker; een biografie

De Bezige Bij, 2021. 

Liagre Guy
Belgisch protestantisme in perspectief: doorkijkjes in 450 jaar ideeëngeschiedenis

Houtekiet, 2011.

Marnef Guido
Antwerpen in de tijd van de Reformatie: ondergrond protestantisme in een handelsmetropool 1550-1577

Meulenhoff, 1996. 

Pleij Herman
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Bert Bakker, 2007. 

Pleij Herman
Anna Bijns, van Antwerpen

Bert Bakker, 2011. 

Praet Danny
Protestantisme: aspecten van de reformatie tussen humanisme en verlichting

Academia Press, 2014. 

Pye Michael
Antwerpen. De gloriejaren

De Bezige Bij, 2021. 

Verhoeven Gerrit
Op reis met Plantijn. Onderweg in de 16de eeuw

BAI, 2021. 


Leisink René & Derks Rob
Erasmus in Europa

Erasmus Universiteit, 2009. (9+) 

Plichart Ilona
De droom van Christoffel

Uitgeverij Vrijdag, 2016. (OKAN, 14+) 

Tompot Maurits & Van Bokhoven Ines
Het geheim van Erasmus

Mozaïek, 2006. (13+) 

Toussaint Yvon
Het manuscript van Giudecca

Atlas, 2005. 

Tulkens Joris
De schaduw van Erasmus: historische roman

Houtekiet, 2006. 

Tulkens Joris
De verloren droom van Pieter Gillis: historische roman over Antwerpen tussen Reformatie en humanisme

Davidsfonds, 2010. 

Tulkens Joris
Wentelsteen: Erasmus en de moeizame geboorte van het Collegium Trilingue: historische roman

Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2017. 

Van Damme Willy
Het geheim van Plantyn

De Vries-Brouwers, 2010. 

Van Gucht Peter & Morjaeu Luc
Suske en Wiske: De Geplaagde Plantijn (nr. 366)

Standaard, 2023. 

Van Holst Pellekaan Karen
Storm: de verboden brief van Maarten Luther

Ark Media, 2019. (9+) 

Van Lanen Marleen
Tikkie terug!; de tijdreis van Bas

Museum Gouda, 2016. (9+) 

Zandstra Jan, e.a.
Zotten zijn wij die gedichten schrijven: Goudse dichters over Erasmus

De Vrije Uitgevers, 2019. 

Life is beautiful

30 kortfilms over dromen, leven en liefde, met als uitgangspunt spreuken van Erasmus (A Film, 2011). 

Dutch Filmworks
Storm: letters van vuur


TRAPMAN, Hans, Erasmus: een hoorcollege over zijn leven, oeuvre en de invloed van zijn denken

Home Academy, 2013.

PLEIJ, Herman
Hollands grootste humanist

De Vrije Uitgevers, 2012.