September 4

As part of a four or five day visit to the Italian city of Turin on September 4, 1506, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, a few weeks prior to his forty-first birthday, received the degree of Doctor of Theology.

Erasmus had received his bachelor’s degree in Paris in 1498 and had hoped to secure the doctorate at Cambridge, but in the manner of scholars then and since, he decided instead that courses in several schools would be better than in one. He took advantage of a trip to Italy as tutor of the sons of Henry VII’s physician. The Turin degree of course gave greater authority to his name in his printed works, to which he was then devoting most of his time.

In 1496 while in Paris Erasmus had heard of a book by Robert Gaguin, the historian. In it the printer had had the misfortune to complete the last signature with two blank pages. Erasmus volunteered to fill these pages with a eulogy to the historian, and thus “blooded with the printers” as one biographer has put it, “went steadily on.”

When in Italy, he wrote to the great Venetian printer, Aldus Manutius, suggesting a new edition of the dramas of Euripedes. Erasmus was attracted to Aldus both by his fame as a scholarly printer and by his “most magnificent letters.” As a true bibliophile, the humanist was in love with the appearance of books and rightly knew that Aldus could print his own works in an eminently readable and artistic style.

The two men worked so well together that Erasmus cancelled his projected trip to Rome and remained in Venice at the residence of Aldus’ father-in-law, Andrea Asolani, for a period of eight months. Association with printers was to be the true element for Erasmus, and he made the most of the opportunity. In the confusion of the busy printing office he wrote and edited in complete happiness. As he wrote each page the compositors transferred his manuscript into type so rapidly that he had a difficult time in keeping up with them. The library of Aldus was in every way rich in the Greek and Latin classics, and with the circle of scholars attracted to the printing office formed a combination which the visiting philosopher found to be irresistible. He was of the generation which had grown up with the new art of printing, and he was both implemented by it and served it well. Erasmus was one of the first writers to be made famous by the printing press. In his turn he helped to bring to the printed word the reputation for scholarly exactness so necessary during its first century of existence.

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