Period IV

Basel, Haus zum Lufft. Photo, Foto: TES.

Erasmus in Basel

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) spent more than ten years in Basel in four different periods (1514-1516, 1521-1529, 1535-1536). Like many of his contemporaries, the humanist and scholar had a travelling existence. 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) strives 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. The European Union does not change that either.

Erasmus felt at home in an environment of learning, humanism and (relative) tolerance and the presence of printers and publishers. Basel was in this period the European centre 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 in 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 a friend of Erasmus.

In the years 1525-1529, Basel adopted the Protestant faith. Erasmus remained (critically) Catholic, but he stayed in Basel. However, the bishop and his canons left the episcopal palace and the residences on the Münsterplatz and went to Porrentruy, later to Arlesheim and finally to Solothurn, the new episcopal city. Erasmus, however, was to remain in Basel.

Erasmus did not leave the city and is buried in the (Protestant) Basler-Münster in 1536, near his last residence in Haus zum Lufft on the Bäumleingasse.