Book: Jerry H. Bentley & Herb Zeigler. Traditions & Encounters, Vol. B From 1000 to 1800, 5th Ed. 2010, Chap. 20 – 27
Late medieval religion was not without its critics, ranging from harmless cranks and troublemakers, to fire and brimstone preachers of the impending apocalypse, to sophisticated and subtle thinkers gently prodding the church in the direction of reform. At one extreme we have the illiterate peasant in the remote village of Montaillu who opined that Mary was certainly not a virgin. And on the other, we have a figure like Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536), standing at the pinnacle of culture and learning. In his 1509 book In Praise of Folly, Erasmus launched a scathing attack on the manifold stupidities and blatant immoralities of the religious establishment. The fact that he remained to the end of his life a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church shows that critical thought did not necessarily have to move in the Protestant direction. The Encomium Moriae (“Praise of Folly”) is a half-satirical work, in which the character of “Folly” praises herself and all her satirized “followers,” including credulous lay people, church officials, and others.
Compose an essay that explains the specific criticisms made of medieval religious practices, of particular institutions and persons in medieval religious life, and also author’s emphasis on speaking well and writing well, which was especially characteristic of the humanist movement. Make sure you put these ideas in context using the textbook, and cite specific examples from the document.
Desiderius Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (1509)
[T]here is no doubt but that that kind of men are wholly ours [i.e., followers of Folly] who love to hear or tell feigned miracles and strange lies and are never weary of any tale, though never so long, so it be of ghosts, spirits, goblins, devils, or the like; which the further they are from truth, the more readily they are believed and the more do they tickle their itching ears. And these serve not only to pass away time but bring profit, especially to mass priests and pardoners.
And next to these are they that have gotten a foolish but pleasant persuasion that if they can but see a wooden or painted [Saint] Polypheme Christopher, they shall not die that day; or do but salute a carved Barbara, in the usual set form, that he shall return safe from battle; or make his application to Erasmus on certain days with some small wax candles and proper prayers, that he shall quickly be rich. Nay, they have gotten a Hercules, another Hippolytus, and a St. George, whose horse most religiously set out with trappings and bosses there wants little but they worship; however, they endeavor to make him their friend by some present or other, and to swear by his master’s brazen helmet is an oath for a prince.
Or what should I say of them that hug themselves with their counterfeit pardons [i.e., indulgences]; that have measured purgatory by an hourglass, and can without the least mistake demonstrate its ages, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, as it were in a mathematical table? Or what of those who, having confidence in certain magical charms and short prayers invented by some pious imposter, either for his soul’s health or profit’s sake, promise to themselves everything: wealth, honor, pleasure, plenty, good health, long life, lively old age, and the next place to Christ in the other world, which yet they desire may not happen too soon, that is to say before the pleasures of this life have left them?
And now suppose some merchant, soldier, or judge, out of so many rapines, parts with some small piece of money. He straight conceives all that sink of his whole life quite cleansed; so many perjuries, so many lusts, so many debaucheries, so many contentions, so many murders, so many deceits, so many breaches of trusts, so many treacheries bought off, as it were by compact; and so bought off that they may begin upon a new score. But what is more foolish than those, or rather more happy, who daily reciting those seven verses of the Psalms promise to themselves more than the top of felicity? Which magical verses some devil or other, a merry one without doubt but more a blab of his tongue than crafty, is believed to have discovered to St. Bernard, but not without a trick. And these are so foolish that I am half ashamed of them myself, and yet they are approved, and that not only by the common people but even the professors of religion.
And what, are not they also almost the same where several countries avouch to themselves their peculiar saint, and as everyone of them has his particular gift, so also his particular form of worship? As, one is good for the toothache; another for groaning women; a third, for stolen goods; a fourth, for making a voyage prosperous; and a fifth, to cure sheep of the rot; and so of the rest, for it would be too tedious to run over all. And some there are that are good for more things than one; but chiefly, the Virgin Mother, to whom the common people do in a manner attribute more than to the Son.
Yet what do they beg of these saints but what belongs to folly? To examine it a little. Among all those offerings which are so frequently hung up in churches, nay up to the very roof of some of them, did you ever see the least acknowledgment from anyone that had left his folly, or grown a hair’s breadth the wiser? One escapes a shipwreck, and he gets safe to shore. Another, run through in a duel, recovers. Another, while the rest were fighting, ran out of the field, no less luckily than valiantly. Another condemned to be hanged, by the favor of some saint or other, a friend to thieves, got off himself by impeaching his fellows. Another escaped by breaking prison. Another recovered from his fever in spite of his physician. Another’s poison turning to a looseness proved his remedy rather than death; and that to his wife’s no small sorrow, in that she lost both her labor and her charge. Another’s cart broke, and he saved his horses. Another preserved from the fall of a house. All these hang up their tablets, but no one gives thanks for his recovery from folly; so sweet a thing it is not to be wise, that on the contrary men rather pray against anything than folly.
But why do I launch out into this ocean of superstitions? Had I a hundred tongues, as many mouths, and a voice never so strong, yet were I not able to run over the several sorts of fools or all the names of folly, so thick do they swarm everywhere. And yet your priests make no scruple to receive and cherish them as proper instruments of profit; whereas if some scurvy wise fellow should step up and speak things as they are, as, to live well is the way to die well; the best way to get quit of sin is to add to the money you give the hatred of sin, tears, watchings, prayers, fastings, and amendment of life; such or such a saint will favor you, if you imitate his life- these, I say, and the like- should this wise man chat to the people, from what happiness into how great troubles would he draw them?
Of this college also are they who in their lifetime appoint with what solemnity they’ll be buried, and particularly set down how many torches, how many mourners, how many singers, how many almsmen they will have at it; as if any sense of it could come to them, or that it were a shame to them that their corpse were not honorably interred; so curious are they herein, as if, like the aediles of old, these were to present some show