A Serious Indictment of Theologians and Churchmen. A Fine Copy of Erasmus’ “Praise of Folly”, Printed by Froben

Erasmus, Desiderius (ca. 1466-1536)

Moriae Encomium nunc postremum ab ipso autore religiose recognitu[m] una cum alijs aliquot libellis, no[n] minus eruditis quam amoenis, quorum omniu[m] titulos proxima pagella loquetur.

Basel: Apud Io[hannem] Frob[enium], 1522


Octavo: 17 x 11.5 cm. 408, [16] pp. Collation: a-z8, A-B8, C4, D8

SIXTH FROBEN EDITION. Erasmus’ "Praise of Folly” was first printed by Gilles de Gourmont at Paris, probably in 1511. The first Froben edition, the first to include the additional texts found in the present edition, appeared in 1515. This 1522 edition, edited by Erasmus, includes new material. With fine woodcut borders to the first three leaves.

A lovely, large copy bound in contemporary quarter tanned sheep (ruled and tooled in blind with animals and flowers) over wooden boards, lacking clasps but with both brass catches. The leather is a little worn on along the spine and hinges. A tall, bright copy with just a few tiny pin-prick wormholes to the first leaves. The rear paste-down is from a contemporary meteorological text. The front paste-down is a letter to the reader in verse by Andreas Endlich, from an unidentified work. With fine woodcut borders to the first three pages and a full-page Froben device on the final leaf.

“The Praise of Folly has long been famous as the best-known work of the greatest of the Renaissance humanists, Erasmus of Rotterdam. It is a fantasy that starts off as a learned frivolity but turns into a full-scale ironic encomium after the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian, the first and in its way the finest example of a new form of Renaissance satire. It ends with a straightforward and touching statement of the Christian ideals that Erasmus shared notably with his English friends John Colet and Thomas More.

“The book was written in 1509 to amuse Thomas More, on whose name its Greek title Moriae Encomium is a pun, as a private allusion to their cooperation in translating Lucian some years earlier. It was a retreat into the intimacy of their friendship at a moment when Erasmus, just back from Italy, was ill, disillusioned at the state of the Church under Julius II and perhaps uncertain whether he had been right to turn down the curial post of apostolic penitentiary and promise of further preferment offered him if he stayed in Rome.

“He tells us that he wrote the Praise of Folly in a week, while staying with More and waiting for his books to turn up. It was certainly revised before publication in 1511, and the internal evidence leads one to suppose that it was considerably augmented and rewritten. Almost one sixth of the final text was added after the first edition, almost all before 1522. The text as we have it now moves from light-hearted banter to a serious indictment of theologians and churchmen, before finally expounding the virtues of the Christian way of life, which St Paul says looks folly to the world and calls the folly of the Cross (I Corinthians i, 18 ff.). It is situated at the nodal point where Renaissance Christianity, having broken with medieval religion, already manifests those characteristics that will later make inevitable the split between the majority of the evangelical humanists who inaugurated the early sixteenth-century return to scripture and the leaders of the Reformation.

“The bantering tone, the attack on the theologians and the satire on widely practiced religious observances provoked a reaction of shocked hostility during Erasmus's lifetime. Erasmus regarded the Praise of Folly as a minor work and said that he almost regretted having published it. But Pope Leo X was amused by it, and both More and Erasmus defended the work in long formal letters to the representative of the Louvain theologians, Maarten van Dorp (Erasmus’ letter to Dorp is included in this edition.) Erasmus himself was surprised at the satire's success and at the strength of the reaction it provoked. As he pointed out, it contained, cast in an ironic mold, much the same views as he had already published in the Enchiridion Militis Christiani. But the Praise of Folly with its bantering and incongruous irony was a much more potent vehicle for conveying the same message.”(A.H.T. Levi)

Additional texts: The Froben editions of the “Moria'” include two ancient examples of the mock-encomium, Seneca's “Apocolocyntosis” or "Ludus de Morte Claudii Caesaris" (“The Apotheosis of the Pumpkin-Head, Claudius Caesar”) and Synesius of Cyrene's "De Laudibus Calvitii" ("In Praise of Baldness"), translated from the Greek by the Englishman John Phreas (d. 1465). In his introductory letter to Thomas More, Erasmus cites both the "Ludus" and the "Praise of Baldness" in a pre-emptive defense against those who will object to his literary frivolity ("levitas et ludicrum argumenti".) The text of the "Moria" is accompanied by the commentary of Gerard Listrius, with assistance from Erasmus.

Van der Haeghen, Bibliotheca Erasmiana, ser. 1, p. 123; Bezzel, Erasmus, 1313; Adams E396