He stayed there five years, and in all that time he received from the King nothing more than an occasional salutation. Was Henry too busy with foreign relations or domestic relatives? Erasmus waited and fretted. Mountjoy came to the rescue with a gift; Warham dowered him with the revenues of a parish in Kent; and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of Cambridge University, appointed him professor of Greek at £13 ($1,300) a year. To raise this income to the maintenance of a servant and a horse, Erasmus dedicated his publications to his friends, who responded ever inadequately.
In the first year of this third sojourn in England, and in the home of Thomas More, Erasmus wrote in seven days his most famous book, The Praise of Folly. Its Latinized Greek title, Encomium Moriae, was a pun on More’s name, but moros was Greek for fool, and moria for folly. Erasmus kept the work in manuscript for two years, then went briefly to Paris to have it printed (1511). Forty editions were published in his lifetime; there were a dozen translations; Rabelais devoured it; as late as 1632 Milton found it “in everyone’s hand” at Cambridge.
Moria in Erasmus’ use meant not only folly, absurdity, ignorance, and stupidity, but impulse, instinct, emotion, and unlettered simplicity, as against wisdom, reason, calculation, intellect. The whole human race, we are reminded, owes its existence to folly, for what is so absurd as the male’s polymorphous pursuit of the female, his feverish idealization of her flesh, his goatish passion for copulation? What man in his senses would pay for such detumescence with the lifelong bondage of monogamy? What woman in her senses would pay for it with the pains and tribulations of motherhood? Is it not ridiculous that humanity should be the accidental by-product of this mutual attrition? If men and women paused to reason, all would be lost.17
This illustrates the necessity of folly, and the foolishness of wisdom. Would bravery exist if reason ruled?18 Would happiness be possible?—or was Ecclesiastes right in believing that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow, and in much wisdom is much grief”? Who would be happy if he knew the future? Fortunately science and philosophy are failures, are ignored by the people, and do no great damage to the vital ignorance of the race. The astronomers “will give you to a hair’s breadth the dimensions of the sun, moon, and stars, as easily as they would do that of a flagon or a pipkin,” but “nature laughs at their puny conjectures.”19 The philosophers confound the confused and darken the obscure; they lavish time and wit upon logical and metaphysical subtleties with no result but wind; we should send them, rather than our soldiers, against the Turks, who would retreat in terror before such bewildering verbosity.20 The physicians are no better; “their whole art as now practiced is one incorporated compound of imposture and craft.”21 As for the theologians, they
will tell you to a tittle all the successive proceedings of Omnipotence in the creation of the universe; they will explain the precise manner of original sin being derived from our first parents; they will satisfy you as to how .... our Saviour was conceived in the Virgin’s womb, and will demonstrate, in the consecrated wafer, how accidents may subsist without a subject.... how one body can be in several places at the same time, and how Christ’s body in heaven differs from His body on the cross or in the sacrament.22
Think also of the nonsense purveyed as miracles and prodigies—apparitions, curative shrines, evocations of Satan, and “such like bugbears of superstition.”
These absurdities .... are a good trade, and procure a comfortable income to such priests and friars as by this craft get their gain.... . What shall I say of such as cry up and maintain the cheat of pardons and indulgences?—that by these compute the time of each soul’s residence in purgatory, and assign them a longer or shorter continuance according as they purchase more or fewer of these paltry pardons and saleable exemptions? Or what can be said bad enough of others who pretend that by the force of such magical charms, or by the fumbling over their beads in the rehearsal of such and such petitions (which some religious impostors invented, either for diversion, or, what is more likely, for advantage), they shall procure riches, honors, pleasure, long life, and lusty old age, nay, after death, a seat at the right hand of the Saviour?23
The satire runs on at the expense of monks, friars, inquisitors, cardinals, popes. Monks pester the people with begging, and think to take heaven by a siege of soporific psalmodies. The secular clergy hunger and thirst after money; “they are most subtle in the craft of getting .... tithes, offerings, perquisites, etc.”24 All ranks and varieties of the clergy agree in putting witches to death. The popes have lost any resemblance to the Apostles in “their riches, honors, jurisdictions, offices, dispensations, licenses, indulgences .... ceremonies and tithes, excommunications and interdicts,” their lust for legacies, their worldly diplomacy and bloody wars.25 How could such a Church survive except through the folly, the gullible simplicity of mankind?26
The Praise of Folly stirred the theologians to an understandable fury. “You should know,” wrote Martin Dropsius to Erasmus, “that your Moria has excited a great disturbance even among those who were formerly your most devoted admirers.”27 But the satire in this gay devastation was mild compared to that which marked Erasmus’ next outburst. The third and final year of his teaching at Cambridge (1513) was the year of Pope Julius Il’s death. In 1514 there appeared in Paris a skit or dialogue called Iulius exclusus.Erasmus made every effort, short of explicit denial, to conceal his authorship, but the manuscript had circulated among his friends, and More unguardedly listed it among Erasmus’ works.28 It may stand here as perhaps an extreme sample of Erasmus the satirist. The dead warrior-pope finds the gates of heaven closed against him by an obstinate St. Peter.
Julius: Enough of this. I am Julius the Ligurian, P.M.....
Peter: P.M! What is that? Pestis maxima?
J: Pontifex Maximus, you rascal.
P: If you are three times Maximus... you can’t get in here unless you are Optimus also.
J: Impertinence! You, who have been no more than Sanctus all these ages—and I Sanctissimus, Sanctissimus Dominus, Sanctitas, Holiness itself, with bulls to show it.
P: Is there no difference between being holy and being called Holy? .. . Let me look a little closer. Hum! Signs of impiety aplenty.... Priest’s cassock, but bloody armor beneath it; eyes savage, mouth insolent, forehead brazen, body scarred with sins all over, breath loaded with wine, health broken with debauchery. Ay, threaten as you will, I will tell you what you are.... You are Julius the Emperor come back from hell.....
J: Make an end, or I will excommunicate you.....
P: Excommunicate me? By what right, I would know?
j: The best of rights. You are only a priest, perhaps not that—you cannot consecrate. Open, I say!
P: You must show your merits first....
J: What do you mean by merits?
P: Have you taught true doctrine?
J: Not 1.1 have been too busy fighting. There are monks to took after doctrine, if that is of any consequence.
P: Have you gained souls to Christ by pure example?
J: I have sent a good many to Tartarus.
P: Have you worked any miracles?
J: Pshaw! Miracles are out of date.
P: Have you been diligent in your prayers?
J: The invincible Julius ought not to answer a beggarly fisherman. However, you shall know who and what I am. First, I am a Ligurian, and not a Jew like you. My mother was a sister of the great Pope Sixtus IV. The pope made me a rich man out of Church property. I became a cardinal. I had my misfortunes. I had the French pox. I was banished, hunted out of my country, but I knew all along that I should come to be pope.... It came true, partly with French help, partly with money which I borrowed at interest, partly with promises. Croesus could not have produced all the money that was wanted. The bankers will tell you about that. But I succeeded.... And I have done more for the Church and Christ than any pope before me.
P: What did you do?
J: I raised the revenue. I invented new offices and sold them.... I recoined the currency and made a great sum that way. Nothing can be done without money. Then I annexed Bologna to the Holy See.... I set all the princes of Europe by the ears. I tore up treaties, and kept great armies in the field. I covered Rome with palaces, and left five millions in the treasury behind me....
P: Why did you take Bologna?
J: Because I wanted the revenue....
P: And how about Ferrara?
J: The duke was an ungrateful wretch. He accused me of simony, called me a pederast.... I wanted the duchy of Ferrara for a son of my own, who could be depended upon to be true to the Church, and who had just poniarded the Cardinal of Pavia.
P: What? Popes with wives and children?
J: Wives? No, not wives, but why not children? ...
P: Were you guilty of the crimes of which they accused you?
J: That is nothing to the purpose.....
P: Is there no way of removing a wicked pope?
J: Absurd! Who can remove the highest authority of all?... A pope can be corrected only by a general council, but no general council can be held without the pope’s consent.... Thus he cannot be deposed for any crime whatsoever.
P: Not for murder?
J: No, not even if it were parricide.
P: Not for fornication?
J: Not for incest.
P: Not for simony?
J: Not for 600 acts of simony.
P: Not for poisoning?
J: No, nor for sacrilege.
P: Not for all these crimes gathered in a single person?
J: Add 600 more to them, there is no power that can depose the pope.
P: A novel privilege for my successors—to be the wickedest of men, yet be safe from punishment. So much the unhappier the Church that cannot shake such a monster off its shoulders.... . The people ought to rise with paving stones and dash such a wretch’s brains out.... If Satan needed a vicar he could find none fitter than you. What sign have you ever shown of an apostle?
J: Is it not apostolic to increase Christ’s Church? ...
P: How have you increased the Church? ....
J: I filled Rome with palaces .... troops of servants, armies, offices. ...
P: The Church had nothing of this when it was founded by Christ....
J: You are thinking of the old affair when you starved as pope, with a handful of poor hunted bishops about you. Time has changed all that., . . Look now at our gorgeous churches .... bishops like kings .... cardinals gloriously attended, horses and mules checked with gold and jewels and shod with gold and silver. Beyond all, myself, Supreme Pontiff, borne on soldiers’ shoulders in a golden chair, and waving my hand majestically to adoring crowds. Hearken to the roar of the cannon, the bugle notes, the boom of the drums. Observe the military engines, the shouting populace, torches blazing in street and square, and the kings of the earth scarce admitted to kiss my Holiness’s foot.... Look at all this, and tell me, is it not magnificent? .... You perceive what a poor wretch of a bishop you are, compared to me.
P: Insolent wretch! Fraud, usury, and cunning made you pope.... I brought heathen Rome to acknowledge Christ; you have made it heathen again. Paul did not talk of the cities he had stormed, the legions he had slaughtered... he talked of shipwrecks, bonds, disgraces, stripes; these were his apostolic triumphs, these were the glories of a Christian general. When he boasted it was of the souls he had recovered from Satan, not of his piles of ducats.....
J: All this is news to me.
P: Very likely. With your treaties and your protocols, your armies and your victories, you had no time to read the Gospels.... . You pretend to be a Christian, you are no better than a Turk; you think like a Turk, you are as licentious as a Turk. If there is any difference you are worse. ...
J: Then you won’t open the gates?
P: Sooner to anyone else than to such as you.....
J: If you don’t give in I will take your place by storm. They are making fine havoc below just now; I shall soon have 60,000 ghosts behind me.
P: O wretched man! O miserable Church!... I am not surprised that so few now apply here for admission, when the Church has such rulers. Yet there must be good in the world, too, when such a sink of iniquity can be honored merely because he bears the name of pope.29
This, of course, is outrageously one-sided. No such unredeemed rascal as was here represented could have freed Italy from her invaders, replaced the old St. Peter’s with the new, discovered, directed, and developed Michelangelo and Raphael, united Christian and classic civilization in the Stanze of the Vatican, and offered to Raphael’s skill that visage of profound thought and exhausting care pictured in the incomparable portrait of Julius in the Uffizi Gallery. And poor Erasmus, calling all priests to apostolic poverty while himself importuning his friends for coin! That a priest should pen so savage an indictment of a pope reveals the rebellious mood of the time. In 1518—year 2 of Luther—Peter Gillis wrote to Erasmus from Antwerp: “The Iulius exciusus is for sale everywhere here. Everyone is buying it, everyone is talking of it.” 30 No wonder the Reformers later reproached Erasmus for having sounded the tocsin of revolt and then himself fled.
In 1514 another product of Erasmus’ pen startled the intellectual world of Western Europe. From 1497 onward he had composed informal dialogues, professedly to teach Latin style and conversation, but incidentally discussing a rich variety of lively topics guaranteed to rouse schoolboys from their daily slumbers. His friend Beatus Rhenanus, with his permission, published a series of these as Familiarium colloquiorum formulae—“Forms of Familiar Conversations, by Erasmus of Rotterdam, useful not only for polishing a boy’s speech but for building his character.” Later editions added more colloquies, so that they became Erasmus’ most substantial composition.
They are a strange concoction—serious discussions of marriage and morals, exhortations to piety, exposés of absurdities and abuses in human conduct and belief, with a sprinkling of pungent or risqué jokes—all in a chatty and idiomatic Latin which must have been harder to write than the formal language of learned discourse. An English translator in 1724 judged “no book fitter to read which does, in so delightful and instructing a manner, utterly overthrow almost all the Popish Opinions and Superstitions.”31 This slightly overstates the point, but certainly Erasmus, in his gay way, used his “textbook of Latin style” to attack again the shortcomings of the clergy. He condemned relic-mongering, the misuse of excommunication, the acquisitiveness of prelates and priests, the false miracles foisted upon the credulous, the cult of saints for worldly ends, the excesses of fasting, the shocking contrasts between the Christianity of the Church and the Christianity of Christ.32 He made a prostitute praise monks as her most faithful clients.33He warned a young lady who wished to keep her virginity that she should avoid “those brawny, swill-bellied monks.... Chastity is more endangered in the cloister than out of it.”34 He deplored the exaltation of virginity, and sang a paean to married love as superior to celibacy. He mourned that men so carefully mated good horses with good, but, in marriages of financial convenience, wed healthy maids to sickly men; and he proposed to forbid marriage to syphilitics or persons with any other serious disability or disease.35 Mingled with these sober reflections were passages of broad humor. Boys were advised to salute people when they sneezed, but not when they “broke wind backward”;36 and a pregnant woman was hailed with a unique blessing: “Heaven grant that this burden that you carry .... may have as easy an exit as it had an entrance.”37 Circumcision was recommended, “for it moderates the itch of coition.” A long dialogue between “The Young Man and the Harlot’ endeb reasssuringly with the lady’s reform.
Critics complained that these colloquies were a very reckless way of teaching Latin style. One alleged that all the youth of Freiburg were being corrupted by them.38 Charles V made their use in school a crime punishable with death. Luther here agreed with the Emperor: “On my deathbed I shall forbid my sons to read Erasmus’ Colloquies” The furore assured the book’s success; 24,000 copies were sold soon after publication; till 1550 only the Bible outsold it. Meanwhile Erasmus had almost made the Bible his own.