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

With these considerations in mind, I have chosen not a dialogue but a monologue as exemplar of the performative nature of texts other than plays. Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium, written in the first instance as an entertainment for his friend Thomas More but later achieving a kind of cult status, is the subject of my discussion of Folly and Politics. What I shall endeavour to demonstrate in this paper is how this text was in its own time and in every sense a performance that made as significant an impact on the culture of its day as any comparable theatrical event may have done.

Erasmus’s pen was prolific and, as is well understood, his exploitation of the possibilities of publication through print was skilful, wide-ranging and thorough. He made translations from the Greek, especially Euripides and the satirical dialogues of Lucian. He published more than one edition of his Copia, a kind of handbook on style, and his Adagia, a series of bons mots from classical authors. Both of these derived from his early experience of teaching, as did his Colloquia, a series of dialogues prepared for student use to assist in the learning of Latin. Each of these volumes ran through several editions, and as the readership expanded, each subsequent edition was modified and developed to include more material. The Colloquia in particular offered an opportunity for Erasmus to create dialogues on the subject of religion and reform, dialogues that, as the more and later expanded editions came into circulation, began to cause concern and offence in high places in the Church. Their message was always the same. The present religious organisation and practice was a betrayal of the original simplicity and integrity of the early Christian church.

Erasmus was also responsible for a number of polemical books, beginning with the Enchyridion Militis Christian (The Handbook of a Christian Soldier), a miles christianus, in Erasmus’s terms, being a soldier for peace. He was himself a convinced pacifist. He also wrote the Institutio Principis Christiani, a guide for the Christian education of princes, following his own advice from an earlier adage entitled, One Ought to Be Born a King or a Fool. There he wrote: “if anyone is to be a coachman, he learns the art, spends care and practice; but for anyone to be a king we think it enough for him to be born” (trans. Margaret Mann Phillips, Rummel, ed., p. 339). It followed from this statement that “We are not free to choose our king—but we are free to educate him.” He also wrote Querela Pacis (A Complaint of Peace), a declamation not dissimilar to The Praise of Folie, lamenting humankind’s continuing capacity for ignoring the benefits of peace in contrast with the disruptions of war. The Complaint pilloried the folly of kings and their courtiers who caused the mayhem of war in pursuit of illusory honour, status and self-respect. War was above all a wholly unchristian activity. Erasmus is also alleged to have written the comically satirical piece Iulius Exclusus e Coelis (Julius Excluded from Heaven), which plays on the idea that Pope Julius II, because of his venality and warmongering disposition, cannot persuade Peter to let him into heaven. Enduringly inscribed in Erasmus’s memory was the image he had of Pope Julius entering Bologna victoriously at the head of his army. He could hardly imagine a more unchristian performance, the epitome of folly in a religious leader, and he never forgave him for it. Although Erasmus never openly acknowledged the authorship of the Julius Excluded, it was from the beginning attributed to him.

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