Erasmus, a scholarly hero

Erasmus. As one of Rotterdam’s most famous historic entities, his name turns up everywhere. Who was this well-travelled sage who stands immortalised in bronze with his nose in a book in front of the Laurenskerk?

A majestic figure in a loose-fitting coat with an impressive collar, hair swept under a medieval cap and one hand leafing through a book. Rotterdammers take the august bronze presence standing directly before the doors of the Laurenskerk for granted, but Erasmus is an integral part of the city, just like the Euromast or the Feyenoord Football Stadium.

Rotterdam emanates Erasmus. The bridge binding the north and the south carries his name, as does Rotterdam’s medical research centre and its university, a café, a pavilion, and even a law firm; it is a good call to select a name that carries so much weight.


Desiderius Erasmus’s birthplace was right next to the Laurenskerk. He was born in 1466, it is believed. According to some experts, it could have been a couple of years later, and some suggest that he wasn’t even born in Rotterdam but rather 25 km further away in the famous cheese city of Gouda. Perhaps that was where he was (illegally) conceived by his parents – a priest and his housekeeper.

For the sake of argument, let’s leave it at Rotterdam. That is where a monument was unveiled last year on the Grotekerkplein (in a courtyard to the right of the church), marking the place where he spent the first years of his life. It is jammed with tiles decorated with his philosophies such as, “The most important condition for happiness is to want to be what you are” and “Distance separates bodies, not minds”.

As a little boy, Erasmus undoubtedly stuck pretty close to the church near his home. When he was four, his mother took him to Gouda, the first leg of a long journey that would shape his life up till his death in 1536. Erasmus, named after a Catholic saint, proved to be blessed with an enormous thirst for knowledge. This eventually led him to travel to Paris and Turin to study theology. After 1501 Erasmus never returned to Holland but as an acknowledgement of his roots he added Roterodamus to his name.


Erasmus developed as an intellectual and a humanist, writing and translating books, poems and letters. Lof der Zotheid (In Praise of Folly) is his most famous work, written in Latin and 36 editions of it were published during his lifetime. The story goes that he came upon the idea while travelling from Italy to England. In the name of his good friend, Thomas More, he saw the word moros, which is Greek for folly.

Erasmus ridiculed what he saw as absurdities in society and challenged certain practices and superstitions. He became a symbol for tolerance, a man who considered the prohibition of divorce a nonsense and advocated for a better position in society for women.  Apparently we have him to thank for some etiquette rules as well, such as not coughing in someone’s face and not arguing during sports games.

Rotterdammers are very proud of their scholarly, mediaeval hero, figuring in bronze and now also in a bright green 3D jacket in the Tourist Office’s garden on the Coolsingel. His portrait hangs in Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, the same museum that buried the bronze statue of him in its grounds during the Second World War.

fter being restored, Erasmus now stands with his feet in the grass in front of the Laurenskerk. If you want a souvenir of the sage, you will have to visit him there and take a photo. There are none to be found, not even a fridge magnet, in the Tourist Office shop.

Words: Evelien Baks

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