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Desiderius Erasmus (1469?–1536) was born in Rotterdam, the illegitimate son of a physician’s daughter and a priest. From these inauspicious beginnings, he rose to become Europe’s premier Latinist, as well as a celebrated biblical scholar and proponent of educational and religious reform. While as a young man, he was absorbed in the Greco-Roman classics; in his middle years, he turned his attention primarily to biblical scholarship. For the last 15 years of his life, he was embroiled in the controversies surrounding Luther’s challenge to the Roman church.

During Erasmus’s lifetime, there were two major systems of learning, which simultaneously competed with and supplemented each other. Scholasticism, dominant in the universities, had flowered in the 13th century, with the reintroduction of the logical works of Aristotle into ...

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