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

Wysdome with voyce replete with grauyte

Callyth to all people, and sayth o thou mankynde

Howe longe wylt thou lyue in this enormyte

Alas howe longe shalt thou thy wyt haue blynde.

Here my preceptis and rote them in thy mynde

Nowe is full tyme and season to clere thy syght:

Harkyn to my wordes, grounde of goodnes and ryght

Lerne mortall men, stodyenge day and nyght

To knowe me wysdome, chefe rote of chastyte

My holy doctryne thy herte shall clere and lyght

My tunge shall shewe the ryght and equyte

Chase out thy foly, cause of aduersyte.

In direct contrast, Erasmus’s character subverts this traditional view of folly as sin. The figure of Folly could confront Wisdom with the cry, “Not so! I (Folly) am the most superior cause of happiness and contentment and the whole world is indebted to me for that very fact.” For Erasmus’s personification makes of Folly the most appealing and personable character. While using many of the tricks of practical preaching, he employs a far more subtle and ingenious approach. His character seems constantly to invite agreement, a kind of conspiracy and collaboration towards happiness, rather than belabouring her audience with injunctions to change their lives. Her talk is celebratory. She is content with a state of affairs in which everyone in the world is in one way or another complicit in folly. However, she identifies two kinds of folly akin to madness: the one deriving from a false understanding of self-importance and which results in misconduct, a fact that she is at pains to suggest is the responsibility of humankind itself; the other, that for which she is proud to be responsible, is an innocent kind of madness, in which the mind takes a holiday from everyday cares. Thus her satire upon human life and behaviour becomes an appeal to her audience to accept that there is a difference between innocent and reprehensible error. It also allows Folly to pillory any or all orders of society equally, despite their assumed or actual status. The fictional audience becomes complicit, therefore, in the satire on all aspects of human behaviour and in making judgements about what is represented.

It is remarkable that Sebastian Brant himself seems to have been one of the first to recognise a difference in objective and potential between his Narenschiff and the Moriae Encomium. Shortly after the publication of the first edition of the latter in 1511, he wrote:

Content to have carried vulgar fools in our Narenschiff, we allowed the toga to go untouched. Moria now comes forth, who, censuring the bryyha, the syrmata and the fasces, conveys as well philosophers and druids. (cited Screech, p. 186)

That is, in his view and plain for all to see, the Moriae Encomium ventures to censure cardinals, lawyers, the state itself, as well as theologians and the religious, targets that Brant himself largely avoided. Prophetically, Brant concludes, “Alas, what smears of blood she will call forth, arousing anger with wrath” (cited Screech, p. 186).

From this hint it would appear that the Moriae Encomium could from its inception be regarded as a dangerous, even a dissident, if not actually heretical work. Though it began life as an entertainment for Thomas More (the pun on his name in the title was deliberate), once it arrived in the public domain, it was destined to provoke antagonism amongst those churchmen of a more conservative frame of mind. Even Thomas More in his later years turned against it. In The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, More claimed that if it was translated into English he would burn it with his own hands (Greenblatt, p. 267, n. 83). And this apparent antagonism is one of the ways in which it is possible to perceive The Praise of Folie as a performative text in its own time. It established itself in the cultural consciousness in a way similar to that of polemical plays of the period and, as we shall see, possibly to greater effect.

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