Introduced by Eamon Duffy
Illustrated by Matthew Richardson
Erasmus’s biting and brilliant 16th-century satire is ingeniously re-imagined with illustrations by award-winning artist Matthew Richardson.
The greatest of humanist scholars, Desiderius Erasmus was one of the men who ushered in the Renaissance. The leading intellectual of his era, today his most popular work is In Praise of Folly, a satire that even at its most biting is animated by a warm and lively wit. To accompany this new edition, we have commissioned an introduction from Eamon Duffy, whose Saints and Sinners was recently published by Folio. Erasmus’ playful prose is presented in Betty Radice’s fresh, lively translation, with notes from the scholar A. H. T. Levi. Witty and surreal interpretations of Hans Holbein’s original woodcuts from the award-winning artist Matthew Richardson make a delightful illustrative accompaniment.
‘In Praise of Folly is both the most notorious and in some ways the most characteristic work of the greatest European intellectual of the sixteenth century’
Written during a stay with his great friend Thomas More (the Latin title Encomium Moriae is a pun on More’s name), Erasmus uses a tongue-in-cheek personification of Folly to mock human foolishness, especially of those who consider themselves wise. Five centuries on, it’s impossible not to smile at his waspish description of philosophers who act ‘as if they were private secretaries to nature’, lawyers ‘the most self-satisfied class of people’, or a pedant who regards grammatical mistakes as ‘a thing to go to war about’. Erasmus could be caustic, lambasting the failings of a corrupt clergy, including the Pope’s ‘vast sea of profiteering’. He attacked the sale of indulgences; pilgrimages; even theological argument itself. What was the point, he demanded, of debating the immaculate conception when scripture does not mention it? Perhaps unsurprisingly, In Praise of Folly was banned by the Catholic Church. Yet Erasmus himself was a reformer not a rebel. There can be little doubt that had it been written a few years later, In Praise of Folly would have contained some trenchant criticisms of the folly of Luther to sit alongside the ‘varieties of silliness’ that he lambasts in day-to-day Christian life. For, as Erasmus states, ‘man’s mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth’. Erasmus’ great skill is to help his readers delight in human folly even as he exposes it.
According to Erasmus, In Praise of Folly was begun to while away the hours on horseback as he returned from a prolonged visit to Italy. It was completed during a week’s stay in Thomas More’s house in Bucklersbury Street, in the City of London, where Erasmus was recuperating from a kidney infection. The book was intended as a public testimony to the two men’s friendship. The Latin title of the work, Encomium Moriae, means literally ‘praise of folly’, but was also a joking play on More’s name (More frequently used the same pun to present himself, ironically, as foolish or dim-witted). At one point in the book there is an anecdote about ‘someone of [Folly’s] name’, a joker who presents his young wife with glass beads which he claims are priceless jewels. The story is clearly about More himself, who relished practical jokes of this kind.
Erasmus had gone to Italy to pursue his Greek studies, and was befriended by many cardinals and prelates. But he also saw at first hand the secular ambition of the Renaissance papacy and its court at its most blatant. He was in Bologna in November 1507 when Pope Julius II rode in at the head of his own army to take possession of the city. So both Erasmus’ immersion in the Greek classics, and his disgust at the worldliness of the Church, dominate In Praise of Folly. The book is a Lucianic satire, a declamation in which Folly herself speaks, clothed in cap and bells and flaunting her foolish femininity. (Erasmus, like More, was prone to misogyny.)
Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), born in Rotterdam, was a writer, scholar and humanist. After six years in an Augustinian monastery, he became private secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, and was ordained priest (1492). He studied and taught in Paris, then moved to England in 1498, becoming professor of divinity and of Greek at Cambridge. Here he wrote Encomium Moriae (In Praise of Folly, 1509), which he dedicated to his close friend Thomas More. After 1514 he lived alternately in Basel and England, then Louvain (1517–21), before finally returning to Basel. He published the first Greek text of the New Testament, as well as his Adages and Colloquies, and numerous editions of classical and patristic authors.
Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity, Cambridge University, and a fellow and former president of Magdalene College, Cambridge. His books include The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1570 (1992), The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (2001), Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition (2004), Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (published by The Folio Society in 2009), and Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations (2012). He is a frequent broadcaster on radio and television.
Matthew Richardson studied in London at Middlesex University and Central St Martin’s. His work has been used extensively in publishing and design and recent commissions include a project with the V&A, using their vast collection as source material, and imagery for Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor at the ENO. He has also illustrated Gabriel García Márquez for Penguin Books, and provided illustrations for cult classic The Meowmorphosis for Quirk Books. Matthew is a regular contributor to the Guardian and New Yorker and has won several prizes, including V&A Illustration Awards for editorial and book publishing and was the winner of the 2011 Book Illustration Competition for Albert Camus’ The Outsider, subsequently published by The Folio Society. Matthew is a frequent speaker at art colleges across the UK and teaches part-time at Norwich University of the Arts.
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