“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”—Erasmus

Thanks to the development of the printing press, books were coming down in price during Erasmus’s years (c. 1466–1536), but he was preparing scholarly versions of hitherto unprinted manuscripts for the press, and that was not an inexpensive task. He had to correspond with scholars across Europe, visit libraries, and pay for hand-copying. It’s a cinch he wasn’t picking up ten books for four bucks. In fifteenth-century England, one could still rent a cottage for a year for six shillings—the price of a moderately-priced book. In fact, his work was so expensive he had to beg large sums from patrons all over Europe. He remarked that it cost him and his co-workers more in time and money to restore the works of Jerome than it cost the saint to write them.

Reading the life of Erasmus, one finds a man devoted to learning and willing to risk more than money for it. His preface to his 1516 Greek-Latin New Testament showed concern that he might get into hot water for differing with the Vulgate, the official Latin version of the Catholic Church. He wrote soothingly to Pope Leo X and defended his corrections with citations from early church fathers.

I had been willing to pay a price, too, but never came near Erasmus’s depth of knowledge or his ability to purvey what he had learned. Erasmus was one of the most learned men of his day and by his witty satires on the foibles of his era and his Bible scholarship became a precursor of the Reformation. Following in his steps, many of the great reformers were also profound scholars.