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

He also insisted that although he had raised questions about the failings of churchmen, he had mentioned nobody by name. But in defending The Praise of Folie, Erasmus included a most stinging rebuke for certain Doctors of Divinity, a tactic through which he might appear to be aiming at a number of those within the Louvain faculty whom he believed were behind Dorp’s criticism:

It’s an admitted fact that among theologians there are some so deficient in wit and judgement that they’re unfit for study of any sort, let alone theology. … these are the ones who despise Greek, Hebrew and even Latin literature and who, though they are more stupid than swine and don’t even have ordinary common sense, fancy themselves the defenders of the fortress of learning. . these fellows are engaged in a great conspiracy against humane letters because they want to cut a figure in the assembly of theologians and they are afraid that if polite learning flourishes and the world gets a little wiser they will be recognised as ignoramuses, though before they wanted to appear before the world as know-it-alls. . Folly displeases them because they don’t understand her. (Letter, p. 236)

And much more of the same.

Interestingly, it has long been believed that the correspondence between Erasmus and Dorp was a genuine debate about the implications of the satirical content of The Praise of Folie, its validity and its power to offend. Lisa Jardine, however, amongst others, has argued strongly for the idea that Erasmus concocted the debate with Dorp’s connivance. Erasmus’s decision to publish his reply to Dorp’s accusations in the second edition of The Praise, issued in 1515, now looks like a calculated piece of provocation. This is supported by the fact that he also wrote additional material as a conclusion to the second edition that outlined his own belief in the innocent pursuit of a simple Christianity. He identified the “fool Christian” as one who endeavours to live according to the model that Jesus has set. He also included in the volume a detailed commentary on The Praise in the manner of scholarly commentaries on classical texts. This was allegedly the work of Gerardus Listrius but is thought to be mainly if not wholly the work of Erasmus himself. This commentary offered a machinery for the interpretation of The Praise, seeking to place it within the context of other serious academic discourse. In Erasmus’s eyes, the popularity and rising notoriety of this book had become an active agent in his larger objective to effect radical change within the Church. He even suggested to Dorp that The Praise was simply a humorous version of his earlier piece, The Handbook for a Christian Soldier. Evidence of its popularity is not far to seek. Before Erasmus died in 1536, a further thirty-six Latin editions of The Praise had been published with all these additional materials. Translations of these editions were made into French, German, Czech and Italian. Erasmus himself said of this phenomenal publishing success that “hardly anything of mine has had such an enthusiastic reception” (“Catalogue”, ed. Rummel, p. 34).

In this context, it is perhaps surprising that, even apart from Thomas More’s threatening remark, no English translation of the Encomium was made until 1549, nearly fifteen years after Erasmus died. On the one hand, of course, when one thinks of Erasmus’s English associates and friends of the 1520s and 30s, almost all of those who might have chosen to read it would have been perfectly able to do so in Latin. Certain individuals like Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Prayer Book in English, and later Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury and architect of the Elizabethan religious settlement, “the middle way”, had extensive libraries of Erasmus’s books which it must be assumed included The Praise. As has been suggested by A. G. Dickens and Whitney Jones, Erasmus’s ideas and teaching may have had significant influence on the evolution of the theology and practices of the sixteenth-century English Church settlement (pp. 196-209 and 212¬14). Whatever the case, it remains a fact that the English Reformation took a distinctly different trajectory from that on the Continent. Erasmus’s idea of intellectual argument and reasonableness was in direct contrast to Luther’s and Calvin’s root-and-branch approach, which was only ever supported by a minority in England and hardly at all by the Establishment. The process of reform in England was further complicated by the shifts of allegiance necessitated by the differing preferences of Edward VI, Mary and then Elizabeth.

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