In Praise of Erasmus
An exhibition to mark 500 years since the publication of his New Testament
In 1511 the great Dutch scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus arrived at Queens’ College where over the next three years he made preparations for what would be one of the century’s key publication events. This occurred exactly 500 years ago when the Basel-based printer Johann Froben issued Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum, a ground-breaking new Latin edition of the New Testament.
In re-translating the Bible, Erasmus’ aim was to correct the version known as the ‘Vulgate’ which during the previous thousand years had assumed near universal acceptance as the foundation stone of philosophy, theology, and law. To achieve his objectives Erasmus took the then controversial step of consulting original Greek sources to establish a new Greek edition from which to create his ‘purified’ Latin translation. Although Erasmus was widely applauded for having cleansed the sacred scriptures of error, conservatives saw in his project a presumptuous desacralisation of hallowed tradition that risked undermining Church and society as a whole.
Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum epitomised an intellectual movement, later known as ‘Renaissance Humanism’, that sought to promote the literature, ideas, and languages of ancient Greece and Rome as a means to enlighten and improve society. Erasmus’ application of the new thinking to the study of scripture offered a new and modern perspective on Christianity. Unwittingly, he also fanned the flames of Lutheran dissent, thereby landing himself at the heart of vicious doctrinal controversies, and contributing to an existential schism that emerged at the heart of Western Christendom.
As a place Erasmus would have worked in, containing books he would have read, Queens’ Library is uniquely placed to celebrate the achievements of Erasmus. Through this exhibition we also commemorate the role played by Queens’ College in its support of Erasmus and the importance of Cambridge in the advancement of Renaissance Humanism.
Click here to download the booklet of the exhibition.