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

as soone as I came forth to saie my mynd afore this your so notable assemblie, by and by all your lokes began to clere vp: vnbendyng the frounyng of your browes, and laughyng vpon me with so merie a countinaunce, as by my trouth me semeth euin, that all ye doe fare as if ye were well whitled, and thoroughly moysted with the Nectar wine of the Homericall Goddes. (p. z)3

An Interlude of Folly was a solo performance derived substantially from Erasmus’s monologue. Bob Godfrey performed it at a Festival of Medieval Drama at the University of Groningen in 2001 to accompany the Xth Colloquium of the SITM (Société Internationale pour l’Étude du Théâtre Médiéval). It was performed a second time in 2004 at the CESR, Tours, in association with the IXth Round Table on Tudor Drama (whom I see here present).

It is worth noting that this trick of constructing the audience’s situation is almost identical with the one played by Medwall in the opening gambit of player A on his entry into the fictional world of Fulgens and Lucres. Erasmus carries this further, as Folly proceeds with her self-fashioning, so that the marks that link her to the present occasion, the here and now-ness of her address, proliferate:

For I am here (as ye see) the distributrix and dealer of all felicitee, named Μωρία in Greeke, in Latin Stultitia, in Englishe Folie.
But aye, what neded me to vtter thus muche? as if I bare not signes enough in my face, and countinance, what maner person I am. (p. 10)

The whole of this induction is sprinkled with glancing rhetorical questions that give immediacy to her discourse. For instance: “And what (I praie you) maie be more apt or better sittyng, than dame Foly to praise hir selfe, and be hir owne trumpet?” (p. 8); or perhaps: “Ye haue heard my name than (O my friendes) what addicion shall I geue you?” (p. 11). Through such questions, Folly suggests alternatives, keeps the readers—the fictional audience (and the actual audience)—engaged. Similarly, the frequent use that Folly makes of the personal pronouns “I” and “you” both brings her subjectivity into relationship with the consciousness of her audience and personalises the effectiveness of her arguments. Speaking of her lineage, she claims that her father was

Plutus the golden god of riches. … At whose arbitrement, warre, peace, kyngdomes, counsailes, judgementes, assemblees, mariages, couenauntes, leagues, lawes, sciences, games, earnest mattiers (my breath faileth me) to be short, all publike, and priuate doynges of men are administred. . Further, to the ende that ye mistake no thyng, I dooe ye to wite that Plutus begatte me not in his olde daies, whan he was blynde, and skarce able to goe for age, and goutinesse, … but in his prime yeres, whan as yet he was sounde, and full of hote bloudde, but muche fuller of Nectar drinke, whiche … he had sipped than by chaunce somewhat more than enough. (pp. 11-12)

Thus Erasmus has succeeded in weaving together a network of affective meanings that give flesh and blood to his lady Folly and to the supposed occasion of the Encomium. Furthermore, this technique brings the supposed audience into the frame in such a way that the whole declamation has the characteristics of an extempore performance.

The style and manner is one thing, the theme and subject matter of The Praise of Folie another. How may it be seen as performative in the per-locutionary sense of having an effect beyond its author’s first intentions? To what effect does this monologue play a role in the political arena of the sixteenth century? How might it earn a place as a text able to compete with the drama in that context? A brief reference to the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant will prove useful here. First published in 1494 and subsequently immensely popular throughout Europe, this extended satire on a wide selection of the failings of humankind gives us a picture of fallen man and woman whose follies are also sins. The poem treats of these failures moralistically in a quite traditional manner: the verses are set in the style of a preacher who exhorts his congregation to better behaviour. Brant deploys the preacher’s technique of offering bad exempla to his audience in a comic way as a means of persuading them to behave better. The direct correlation between folly and sin is reinforced through the woodcut illustrations that accompany the text. No doubt the popularity of Brant’s book rested as much on the numerous woodcuts as upon the entertainment from the exempla. The verse that introduces Dame Wisdom illustrates this point:

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