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

But Erasmus was also recognised as a Christian humanist scholar, who, through new approaches to the study not only of classical Latin but also of Greek and Hebrew, initiated and enabled new translations of both the Old and New Testaments. As Reginald Bainton suggests:

The contribution of Erasmus to Biblical Studies lies even now in the questions which he raised, the controversies which he precipitated, and the awareness which he created as to the problems of text, translation and interpretation. (p. 166)

Erasmus’s approach seriously challenged the authority of the medieval Schoolmen, especially those of the Sorbonne and of Louvain, who were locked into a tradition of interpretation of the Scriptures based upon St Jerome’s Latin Bible, the Vulgate. Erasmus showed that the Vulgate was in part erroneous, especially in its representation of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and, perhaps most importantly, St Paul’s Epistles. He claimed that his own translations were more accurate, deriving from original documents in either Hebrew or Greek.

So one may perceive that Erasmus was an active campaigner in the process of the Reformation with a particular mission to deploy his writings to a wide reading public through the medium of print. Despite being accused on more than one occasion of intellectual arrogance, he claimed that he was not seeking conflict. He was seeking intellectual agreement with what seemed to him the self-evident truth that the Church had foolishly strayed from its ministry. Some confirmation of Erasmus’s moderate position may be found in the fact that, despite being accused by Noel Beda of the Sorbonne of being a Lutheran, he fell out with Luther. He could not agree to a root-and-branch rejection of the inherited organisation and practices of the Church. He accepted the sacraments, for instance, and especially the pastoral principle upon which Christianity was based. He felt strongly, however, that the Scriptures should be made accessible to the individual Christian even in the vernacular. That, therefore, meant re-translation of the Bible to represent the truths it contained more accurately than in the past. It was just that his challenge to the Catholic Church seemed to strike at its doctrinal orthodoxy and was felt to be as dangerous as that of Luther, even though he had no intention of establishing a new church, only of reforming the existing one.

My case for bringing Erasmus’s The Praise of Folie into this discussion rests on three premises. The first is that it is undoubtedly performable. I believe I have demonstrated that fact sufficiently both at Tours in 2004 and earlier at Groningen in 2001. Secondly, in the reading, it is a text that entertains in the manner of a performance. Indeed, Erasmus called it a Declamation, and its opening direction is simply “Folie speaketh”. Thirdly, it was also, in its own time, performative in the sense that it was active within the public cultural process I have sketched above. It gives its readers even today an experience that is inescapably similar to that of an audience in a theatre. But more significantly, just like those sixteenth-century plays published on the back of a performance, it was intended through print to reach its influence out into a wider community. For Erasmus, it became an agent in conveying his message to like-minded reforming Christians across Europe.

It was Pirandello who said that for drama to work it is necessary to find a language that is in itself spoken action. The Praise of Folie is a supreme example of such azione parlata, for, as she enters, Dame Folly not only characterises herself as someone who has the capacity to cheer people up, but also greets and characterises her fictitious and supposedly present audience, an audience whose attitudes and responses she constructs:

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