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

For as for Christ, he (thei thynke) maie easily enough be pleased, so long as thei shew them selues like popes in their Misticall Pontificalibus, bolstred vp with ceremonies, and titles of blissednes, reuerendnes, and sanctitee, to blisse and curse whom thei liste: what for the rest, it is stale with theim, and out of vse at these daies to doe myracles: peynefull, to teache the people: scholerlyke, to expounde scripture: to ydle a thyng, to praie: farre more milkesoplyke and womannisshe, to cast foorth teares: vile, to be nedie: dishonourable, to be ouercome, and most vnsittyng for theim who scantly will admitte kynges and emperours to the kyssyng of theyr feete: Finally it is an vnsauoury thyng, to die: and as reprocheable, to be hanged on the crosse: So that refusyng to stande to any of these harde condicions, thei rest onely vpon feates of armes, with also those sugred and doulcet benedictions of theirs, … with a thousande wherof I wene they woulde parte more liberally, than with one pennie. (p. 99)

It is possible to see from this that The Praise of Folie, as it develops, has turned into something else. It grows into a critique of the status quo in religion, as regards both its practice and its theology. Erasmus clearly speaks out against what he sees as behaviour contrary to the Christian belief to which he aspires and for which he pleads most earnestly. The mood of lightness and fun has changed radically to a mood of frustration, even anger, at what Erasmus sees as perversions of the Christian faith. The Praise of Folie has turned from being an entertainment for a friend into a direct attack on what the author regarded as the abuses of the Church.

It is this latter emphasis to which Martin Dorp referred especially in the letter he purportedly wrote to Erasmus following his reading of The Praise of Folie some time between 1512 and 1515. His letter began by congratulating Erasmus on his work on commentaries on the New Testament, though he warned that the corrections made to the standard text, the Vulgate, might be suspect theologically. He then went on to criticise The Praise of Folie on two major grounds.

One was that the subject matter and style of The Praise of Folie was trivial and that it reflected badly on Erasmus and his reputation. The second was that he had raised some sensitive issues relating to Church practice. Furthermore Dorp warned that certain figures in the Church regarded themselves as direct targets for Erasmus’s satire and would be moved to take action against him.

In an extensive written reply to Martin Dorp, Erasmus sought to defend The Praise of Folie, beginning with the assertion that he himself regarded it as a slight piece hardly worthy of serious intention. He went further, invoking both Plato and Horace in defence of his method of using humour to tell the truth. He wrote, “the charge of having gone clumsily to work I won’t dispute; that of excessive bitterness I certainly do. We all know how many things could be said about bad popes, scandalous bishops and priests, corrupt princes— if, like Juvenal, I had not been ashamed to write down what many are not ashamed to act out” (Letter, p. 233). If people wished to identify themselves by what he had said, then that was their business, not his. He went on to say that “I wanted to mock, not to attack; to benefit, not to wound; to comment on men’s manners, not to denounce them” (p. 231)

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