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

However, during the 1540s, Catherine Parr and her associates were bent upon a more radical approach to reform than had been the case for Henry VIII. Indeed, she had come close to arrest and death for her persistent attempts to bring Henry along with her. After Henry died in 1547, Queen Catherine initiated work on translations of Erasmus’s New Testament Paraphrases into English. It was a major project involving a number of individuals, including, rather strangely, the Princess Mary. She was given the paraphrase on St John’s Gospel to translate. When the first volume of the Paraphrases was published in 1548, Nicholas Udall, the editor, wrote in his preface how Erasmus had shown leadership in reform and, almost echoing the sentiments expressed in The Praise, makes clear what he regards as Erasmus’s role “in detesting of imagery and corrupt honouring of saints, in opening and defacing the tyranny, the blasphemy, hypocrisy, the ambition, the usurpation of the See of Rome” (cited in Dickens and Jones, p. 205). The significance of this publication of the Paraphrases can hardly be exaggerated, since it followed on from a Royal Injunction of July 1547 stipulating that alongside a Bible in English, these translated Paraphrases of Erasmus should be in every church in the kingdom (Dickens and Jones, p. 206). Thus it may be inferred that, for the English Church at this moment, the Paraphrases of Erasmus were regarded as of the greatest importance to the process of reform. They were perceived as having a major performative role. From a similar point of view, I would argue that, in England, The Praise of Folie could have been translated in order to participate in this process.

Whether Thomas Chaloner was commissioned to make the translation or chose to do so himself is not on record. His pedigree for the job is interesting, however, since, after studies at Cambridge in 1538, he was recommended for service in the household of Thomas Cromwell, a posting that would have exposed him in some degree to the forces of reform. From there he seems to have progressed through the ranks of what might be termed the Civil Service, serving on a number of embassies, including one at the court of Charles V. He became a lifelong friend of William Cecil. At a later date, he bore witness in the trials of both Bishop Bonner in 1549 and Bishop Gardiner in 1550. Both of these bishops were reactionary conservatives opposed to reform, who fell foul of the Protestant authorities in the reign of Edward VI. So at one level Chaloner’s Protestant credentials would have made him a good choice for the job. He also had developed a reputation as a writer and poet with a special interest in Latin lyric poetry and in translation. He is mentioned for his literary achievement in George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie and Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia, as well as in Ben Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries.

Whatever the case regarding the origins of the move to translate it, not far behind the publication and distribution of the Paraphrases, Thomas Chaloner’s version of The Praise of Folie was published in 1549. It certainly seems like a timely and deliberate addition to the campaign of reform. Erasmus’s text was perhaps a salutary as well as an entertaining reminder of what had to be left behind in terms of the abuses and superstitions of Romish practices. The satire on the excesses of the popes was fuel for the reformers, creating a church now freed from that tyranny. In his preface to the reader, Chaloner confirms the view that this book has a force beyond its comic form, in that Erasmus

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