Renaissance took in particular countries, it is fitting to speak of him whose work affected them all.
Born at Rotterdam in 1467, Erasmus was approaching manhood when Italian humanism, having culminated in the days of Politian, was about to decline. His own training was not directly due to Italy. When he was a schoolboy at Deventer, his precocious ability was recognised by Rudolf Agricola, whom he has designated as "the first who brought from Italy some breath of a better culture." Erasmus avers that, in his boyhood, northern Europe was barbarously ignorant of humane literature. A knowledge of Greek was "the next thing to heresy." "I did my best," he says, "to deliver the rising generation from this slough of ignorance, and to inspire them with a taste for better studies." He made himself a good scholar by dint of hard private work, suffering privations which left him a chronic invalid. In 1498 he visited Oxford, meeting there some of the earliest English humanists. From 1500 to 1505 he was in Paris, working hard at Greek. He spent the years 1506-9 in Italy. From the close of 1510 to that of 1513 he was at Cambridge, where he lectured on Greek, and also held the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity. There, in 1512, he completed his collation of the Greek text of the New Testament. In 1516, his edition of it, the first ever published, was brought out by Froben at Basel. He left England in 1514, to return only for a few months somewhat later. His life, after 1514, was passed chiefly at Basel, where he died in 1536. Those twenty-two years were full of marvellous literary activity.
The attitude of Erasmus towards humanism had a general affinity with that of Petrarch and the other leaders of the Italian revival. Like them, he hailed a new conception of knowledge, an enlargement of the boundaries within which the intellect and imagination could move. Like them, he welcomed the recovered literatures of Greece and Rome as inestimable organs of that mental and spiritual enfranchisement. But there was also a difference. To Petrarch, as to the typical Italian humanist generally, the New Learning was above all things an instrument for the self-culture of the individual. To Erasmus, on the other hand, self-culture was, in itself,—greatly though he valued it,—a secondary object, subservient to a greater end. He regarded humanism as the most effectual weapon for combating that widespread ignorance which he considered to be the root of many evils that were around him. He saw the abuses in the Church, the scandals among the clergy, the illiteracy prevalent in some of the monastic Orders. Kings wrought untold misery for selfish aims: "when princes purpose to exhaust a commonwealth," he said, "they speak of a just war; when they unite for that object, they call it peace." The pedantries of the Schoolmen, though decaying, were still obstacles to intellectual progress. The moral standards in public and private life were deplorably low. Erasmus