Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1469–1536)

Erasmus is often described as one of the first "modern" persons, closer to our time than to the medieval world. In looking at his writings on childhood, however, it is apparent that his teaching was based on classical and medieval debates about upbringing and schooling. Here the basic question had been: how do children learn best, by the stick or the carrot? Erasmus's answer was: spare the rod and stimulate the child.

Early Life

Erasmus never knew his father, and his illegitimate status haunted him through his life, with the result that his own autobiographical account cannot be trusted for what it tells about his parents. At an early age he was handed over to a school in Deventer run by the Brethren of the Common Life. Here there were some good teachers who taught Erasmus the classical Latin that would become one of his lifelong passions. But here he also experienced the beatings and humiliations that he later condemned as a disciplinary method for children.

In 1487 Erasmus was convinced by his guardians to enter a monastery, thus ending their obligations toward him. The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine gave him good opportunities for study and also for writing, but Erasmus disliked most of the brethren, many of whom were probably country boys with shallow vocations and limited interest in learning. In 1493 he received permission to leave the monastery, but not the order, in order to be secretary for the bishop of Cambrai. In the bishop's company Erasmus began to make contacts with other aspiring young intellectuals and their powerful patrons.

Thanks to a leave of absence from this position, Erasmus later attended the University of Paris. If he had been critical of his monastery, he soon became equally dissatisfied with the dry theological discussions of late scholasticism. After four years and many new friendships, especially with English students, Erasmus made his first journey to England. He met central intellectual and political figures such as John Colet and Thomas More. Because of them, he revised his opinion about sterile theology and decided to concentrate his life not on the classics but on the Bible and the church fathers.

Erasmus became a leading light of what has been called Christian humanism and had passionate intellectual contacts and heated controversies with many of his humanist colleagues. He learned Greek and fathered an important edition of the New Testament; he journeyed to Italy and received new inspiration for his studies; he returned several times to England. In 1517 the Pope dispensed him from his religious vows. Soon after he was forced to realize that another Augustinian canon, Martin Luther, was threatening the unity of the Western Christian Church. Erasmus recognized the importance of Luther's criticisms of abuses but eventually distanced himself out of a desire to preserve the unity of the Church.

Early Liberal Education for Children

During these years the political and religious situation forced Erasmus to move from Louvain to Basel and finally to Freiburg im Breisgau, where he arrived in 1529. Here he published a "Declamation on the Subject of Early Liberal Education for Children" (De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis declamatio), which he had first composed in Italy in around 1509. This is Erasmus's central work on education and had immediate success. It is addressed not only to professional educators but also to parents, and the central argument is that they are to invest time, effort, and money in seeing to it that their children, especially their sons, get access to humane and humanistic schooling from the earliest possible age.

Erasmus accepted the teaching of Saint Augustine (d.430) that children are not born into innocence but are marked by original sin and so have a proclivity toward evil. But as a Christian humanist, he was convinced that generous love and careful instruction by both parents and teachers would bring out the best in children. Education's first task was to teach children to speak clearly and accurately, and so parents were obliged to spend time with children and make sure that they heard good speech. Erasmus claimed, on the basis of his vast knowledge of classical culture, that civilization went into decline when parents began to hand over the upbringing and education of their children to slaves.

Classical writers such as Plutarch, as well as medieval monastic teachers such as Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), had already discussed how educators should treat children. Erasmus, like Anselm, insisted on gentleness. The teacher must be liked, for through his own personality he makes learning attractive. Schools, he complained, had become "torture chambers," recalling his own experience and warning against sadistic and cruel practices, including those among students in initiation rituals.

Erasmus related his recommendations to statements by Saint Paul and also to the teachings of Jesus. The teacher was to become a father to his students, and Erasmus was confident that love would be able to overcome almost any challenge. Such a regime did not allow laziness or indifference: children were to begin to learn languages as early as possible. He remarked on the openness of small children to rote learning and how they excelled in memory and imitation.

The best teacher, he wrote, is the one who makes learning letters into a game, who uses pictures and illustrative stories, who knows how to make school into something attractive. Children should not be kept at home until PUBERTY and then sent off to school. Erasmus implied that sending children away to boarding school was not good for them, but his main point was that formal and informal schooling should take advantage of the early years.

On Good Manners for Boys

Also in 1530 Erasmus wrote his "On Good Manners for Boys" (De civilitate morum puerorum), which has been noticed for its lively descriptions of vulgarity and uncouth manners. Cultural historians such as Norbert Elias have seen the treatise as an indication of a new emphasis on civility after medieval barbarism, but again it must be emphasized that Erasmus drew on a discussion beginning in the classical world and continuing in medieval monasteries and court life. Erasmus here again pleaded for a gentle approach to the young, but now he addressed the young themselves and described how they were responsible for their outward behavior as an indication of inner life. Physical gestures should show respect for other people. Bodily functions should be kept under control. Erasmus emphasized modesty and propriety. The treatise, like its companion, reflects Erasmus's search for loving, caring authority figures and humanistic educational models.

See also: Education, Europe; Medieval and Renaissance Europe.


Desiderius Erasmus. 1965. Christian Humanism and the Reformation. Ed. and trans. John C. Olin. New York: Harper and Row.

Desiderius Erasmus. 1985. "A Declamation on the Subject of Early Liberal Education for Children." Trans. Beert C. Verstraete. In Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 26, ed. J. K. Sowards, pp. 291–346. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Desiderius Erasmus. 1985. "On Good Manners for Boys." Trans. Brian McGregor. In Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 25, ed. J. K. Sowards, pp. 269–289. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Huizinga, Johan. 1984 [1924]. Erasmus and the Age of Reformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.