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

But how was it that this personable and jokey goddess, accompanied as she was by an emblematic array of companions such as Selflove, Adulation, Belly-cheer, and Soundsleep, and who claimed to hold the secret of all human happiness and even to influence the behaviour of Jupiter and the immortal gods, could come to be such an enemy of the Church and its reactionary defenders? The effect is achieved by a subtle sleight of hand. “For if wisedome … is naught els,” she argues, “than to be ruled by reason: and folie, to be ledde as affection will: Consider now (I praie you) how muche more Affection, than Reason, Iupiter hath put in men” (p. 23). She deals deftly with petty and entertaining foolishness—the childishness of old age, for instance: the foolishness of old men pursuing young girls or the image of old women pursuing young men. She insists that whatever pleasure such individuals derive from these behaviours, it is all to be put down to her. But through a trick of irony, Folly’s approval is subverted, and that is at the heart of the serious message of the work. While such follies are presented as a positive example of her powers over humankind, they are, at the same time, so displayed as to make the actors in their folly utterly discredited. For instance, Erasmus allows his female protagonist to give a searing account of these old women who are so carcase-like and yet play the wantons, still tupping when they have the chance, daubing their cheeks, displaying their breasts—”theyr flaggie and pendant dugges” (p. 42)—writing love letters, dancing and so on. But, having set up a picture of utter ridicule, Folly concludes:

But yet dooe these my oldgurles not a little lyke theim selues herein, takyng it for a singuler and onely delight, as if they swamme vp to the chinnes in a sea of hony, wherin who but I doeth vphold them? (p. 43)

This ambivalent ridiculing style, which focuses on the folly and blindness of self-love, is the true signature of The Praise of Folie. It serves Erasmus’s purpose most eloquently as Folly draws attention to the failings of the Church. The middle section of her declamation dealing with the follies of religion begins with a brief satire on the gullible public who accept stupid superstitions that are fed and exploited for their own profit by priests, pardoners and friars. She ridicules those who worship the images of saints, for instance, but who fail in their lives to emulate their examples of good living. She remarks upon the stupidity of many superstitious practices, such as “set[ting] tapers afore the virgin mother of god: and that at noone daies whan lest nede is?” (p. 67).

Similarly, Folly shows little tolerance when describing one of the Church’s most profitable sidelines, the selling of indulgences, by which a subscriber was enabled to redeem time to be spent in Purgatory. The attack here is sustained, and its terminology leaves little room for doubt that Folly is being used by Erasmus directly to pillory what he regards as an indefensible practice:

For what speake I of others, who with feigned Perdones, and remissions of sinnes dooe pleasantly flattre theim selues, takyng vpon theim to measure the space and continuance of soules abode in Purgatorie, as it were by houreglasses, settyng out, bothe the yeres, the monthes, the daies, the houres, and the lest minutes, without missyng, as if they had cast it by Algrysme? (p. 56)

And she persists with a diatribe against “some vsurer, or man of warre, or corrupte iudge” (p. 57), those in positions of trust and authority who seek to buy forgiveness for a life of sin, only to return to and continue in those sins, unrepentant. Folly concludes with a blanket accusation that in all such cases people are assisted by priests who seek to make money out of the business and who “know well enough on whiche side theyr breade is buttred” (p. 59). The attack on such corruption is made even more pointed when Folly introduces, with heavy irony, the instance “if some one of those cumbrous wyse-men shoulde ryse vp, and saie (and saie truely) thou shalt neuer die ill, as longe as thou liuest well” (p. 59), but goes on to point out how such an admirable moral idea and the man who offers it will be condemned by most people as exhibiting the height of folly. From the evidence of his other writings, it is clear that this whole section on religious follies and abuses occupies a central position in Erasmus’s personal criticism of the established Church and its essential deception of its congregations. He believed that it was necessary to discard all the trappings of superstition and ceremony, all the overweighted hierarchical machinery of church government, and return to a simpler “Imitation of Christ”. And it is clear also that he held priests and bishops and cardinals and popes as equally responsible for the fostering of these abuses. There is an extended and vituperative attack on the Religious too, belittling their observances in the monasteries as the chants of the ignorant and the illiterate; Folly likens the friars preaching to the acts of Italian Mountebanks and describes them all as “counterfeictours of holinesse” (p.92). Doctors of Divinity fare little better. Folly is equally unforgiving in her attack on the Princes of the Church for the manner in which they mimic the pride and magnificence of secular princes. But when she arrives at popes, her words appear as pure invective:

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