Bob Godfrey: Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium and the Politics of Religion in Sixteenth-Century England and Europe

openeth all his bowget: So farfoorth as by the iudgement of many learned men, he neuer shewed more arte, nor witte, in any the grauest boke he wrote, than in this his praise of Folie. Whiche the reader hauyng any considerance, shall soone espie, how in euery mattier, yea almost euery clause, is hidden besides the myrth, some deaper sence and purpose. (p. 5)

As further evidence of this deeper sense and purpose, and therefore of the energy underlying its essential performativity, I think I need only make reference to the Council of Trent, where, in 1559, all of Erasmus’s works, including The Praise of Folie, were placed on the Index of prohibited books. And although some five years later, Pope Pius IV relented and removed the scholarly religious works from the Index, nevertheless Erasmus’s Colloquies, his Adagia and The Praise of Folie remained banned by the Church of Rome. Surely a book is not so utterly prohibited unless it is feared that it will have an influence beyond its binding. It must have been genuinely believed that the critique of the Princes of the Church and of superstitious practices would have the power to affect people’s thinking and behaviour. Even as Erasmus’s text was consigned to the Index, Thomas Chaloner’s translation of The Praise of Folie was reprinted twice in 1560 and 1577—still performing in England, as it might be said, on behalf of the Elizabethan religious settlement.

And it is just possible that it is still in its own way performing today in the twenty-first century. In 2008, Nicholas Lezard wrote a review for The Guardian of a new edition and translation of the book. He admitted his enthusiastic championing of Erasmus’s work and asserted that “The modern world begins in a sense with this book … it should be on every civilised bookshelf… There was a time when it was: it was the must-read of its day, and reverberations from its impact are still being felt.” Whether this assessment is true or not, The Praise of Folly remains a living testament to the intellect, imagination, sense of fun and powerful faith in an uncorrupted Christianity that are the impulses underpinning Erasmus’s achievement. On behalf of Erasmus, then, his great creation, Folie, takes her leave and, as she departs, asks you, her audience, to “clappe your handes in token of gladnesse, liue carelesse, and drinke all out, ye the trustie seruauntes and solemne ministers of Folie” (p. 129).


Primary Sources

BRANT, Sebastian. The Ship of Fools, Vol. 1. Trans. Alexander Barclay. Ed. T. H. Jamieson. Edinburgh: William Paterson; London: Henry Sotheran, 1874. EBook No. 20179, produced by Frank von Drogen, Keith Edkins et al., 2006: (accessed 18 April 2012).

ERASMUS, Desiderius. “Catalogue of His Works [Catalogus lucubrationum]”. The Erasmus Reader. Ed. Erika Rummel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. 21-49.

. Letter to Martin Dorp (May 1515). Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly and Other Writings: A New Translation with Critical Commentary. Ed. and trans. Robert M.Adams. New York: Norton, 1989. 228-51.

. “One Ought to Be Born a King or a Fool [Aut regem aut fatuus nasci oppor-

tere]” [from the Adages]. The Erasmus Reader. Ed. Erika Rummel. Toronto:

University of Toronto Press, 1990. 334-43.

. The Praise of Folie by Sir Thomas Chaloner. Ed. Clarence H. Miller. Early English Text Society, No. 257. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the EETS,

London, 1965.

Secondary Sources

BAINTON, Roland H. Erasmus of Christendom. London: Collins, 1970.

DICKENS, A. G., and Whitney R. D. Jones. Erasmus: The Reformer. London: Methuen, 2000.

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