The most famous secular book of the century


Matthew Adams reflects on the 500th anniversary of Eramus' The Praise of Folly @ New Humanist.Five hundred years ago a strange new book appeared on the streets of Paris: the Moriae Encomium (or The Praise of Folly), by Desiderius Erasmus. Born in Rotterdam in 1466, Erasmus was educated at a school in Deventer (“the day will come when thou wilt reach the highest summit of erudition,” predicted one of his elders), and after his parents died of the plague when he was just 13, his guardians sent him to be schooled at a monastic institution known as a “Brothers’ House”. These unhappy years – during which, he recalled, “some secret natural impulse drove me towards good literature” – were followed by a period in a monastery of Augustinians, before he took up a series of teaching positions, first at the University of Paris in 1494, and later as a Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.These institutions were already beginning to register the influence of Northern humanism, a movement that sought to establish a new synthesis of the values inscribed in ancient Greek and Roman literature and those of Christianity, and that counted Erasmus as its prince. The humanist idea amounted to a programme for educational, theological and religious reform, and in The Praise of Folly – which Erasmus composed over seven days in England in the house of his “sweetest” friend, Sir Thomas More (the book’s title in Greek, Morias Enkomion translates as The Praise of More) – we find the period’s most condensed and ironic example of this radical attempt to harmonise the heuristic claims of rational philosophical enquiry with those of revealed religion. The Folly fast became the most famous secular book of the century (running through 36 editions in Erasmus’s lifetime alone); it provoked enormous controversy; and to contemporary readers it must have seemed, to borrow from Peter Ackroyd, “as if the whole structure of the late medieval world was being shaken."read more