Erasmus in Basel
19 November 2020
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) spent more than ten years in Basel during four different periods (1514-1516, 1521-1529, 1535-1536). Like many of his contemporaries, the humanist and scholar travelled throughout Europe.
The elite of artists, scholars, students, traders, monks and spiritual and secular (aristocratic) rulers was much more European in the Middle Ages and until the nineteenth century than they are today.
Latin was their lingua franca. They read the same books, listened to the same music, had the same cultural background, and shared the same (university) education.
In short, they spoke the same language, which did not detract from the many (religious, economic, political or dynastic) differences, (belligerent) strifes and disagreements. Sailors, artisans, mercenaries and wage-earners also often settled over long distances.
The rise of the nation-state in the nineteenth century would fundamentally change this attitude and mentality.
Erasmus felt at home in an environment of learning, humanism and (relative) tolerance, as well as in the presence of printers and publishers.
During this period, Basel was the European center of humanism and the capital of publishing and printing. The Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing (The Basler Papiermühle) in St. Alban in Basel is a cultural heritage from the heydays of this industry.
Many of Erasmus’ works were written, printed and published in Basel. His famous Greek translation of the New Testament was, for example, written and published in this city in 1516 by his friend and printer/publisher Johannes Froben (1460-1527).
The famous Erasmus profile by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) also dates from this period. An authentic image from 1523 is exhibited at the Kunstmuseum Basel. Holbein took care of the artistic design of the publications of Froben’s publishing house and, therefore, also of Erasmus’ works.
His son Hieronymus Froben (1501-1563) took over the printing/publishing business in 1527. He was also befriended with Erasmus.
In the years 1525-1529, Basel adopted the Protestant faith. Erasmus remained (critically) Catholic, but he did not leave Basel, contrary to the bishop and his canons. They moved to Porrentruy, later to Arlesheim and finally to Solothurn, the new episcopal city.
Erasmus was buried in the (Protestant) Basler cathedral (Münster) in 1536, not far from his last residence in Haus zum Lufft on the Bäumleingasse.