Humanism and Renaissance Thought

A portrait of Erasmus by Quinten Massijs, 1535, which depicts the humanist thinker in a very scholarly light.

The ideals of the Renaissance, both in humanist thought and artistic innovation, flourished in the Low Countries during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The Dutch thinker Erasmus embodies the intensity of humanist thought in Northern Europe and the Low Countries. The life and writings of Erasmus were connected to the intellectual climate of the Low Countries and influenced the overall trajectory of the region, while also diffusing throughout other parts of Europe rapidly. Erasmus’s brand of humanism occupied a unique place in the intellectual world of the Northern Renaissance.

This painting of Desiderius Erasmus captures the character of the Dutch humanist writer and demonstrates the strong humanist presence in the Low Countries. Erasmus situated himself in a central position in the intellectual world of the Renaissance. Merry Wiesner-Hanks declares outright that Erasmus was “the most famous scholar of his time in all of Europe” (Wiesner-Hanks 141). Erasmus fashioned a distinct image for himself through his writings and even through paintings such as this one. St. Jerome served as the inspiration for these depictions of Erasmus (Jardine 4), which shows how Erasmus wanted to be viewed in his time: as a scholarly man and prolific writer concerned with theology and spirituality.

In connection to this inspiration from St. Jerome, Erasmus was a Christian humanist thinker. He translated and compiled many religious works, including a translation of the New Testament into Latin, and wrote many other works and letters that addressed his ideas on Christian living. Erasmus placed a greater value in the spiritual individual and connection to the Gospels than in physical representations of holiness such as relics. He also constructed a circle of other Christian humanist thinkers such as Thomas More, Juan Luis Vives, and Lèfevre d’Etaples, with whom he communicated and debated through numerous letters (Wiesner-Hanks 141). This Christian strain of humanist thought can be seen as a precursor to later Protestant and Catholic reform movements (Wiesner-Hanks 143).

A key location in Erasmus's life was Louvain, a city in the Low Countries. The scholars located in Louvain criticized many of the Christian humanist ideas espoused by Erasmus. Historian Erika Rummel relates that Erasmus eventually moved to Louvain partly in order to "keep his critics in check" (Rummel 3). Erasmus also promoted other members in humanist circles, such as Juan Luis Vives, while in Louvain (Jardine 17). Through this example one can see that Erasmus was not only of Dutch heritage, but also engaged in the geographic location of the Low Countries. Alongside his presence in the Low Countries, Erasmus’s influence extended to other areas of Europe, such as England, where his ideas contributed to the English Reformation (Jardine 12), and Spain, where Erasmus enjoyed immense popularity among intellectuals and members of the Spanish court during the 1520s (Elliot 151-152). Ultimately, Erasmus occupied a important position locally and internationally in the intellectual world of his time.