Praise of Folly and Pope Julius barred from Heaven

Praise of Folly

Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly in 1509 as a joke, but a joke with a serious purpose, ridiculing the society of his day.  Praise of Folly takes the form of a lengthy sermon delivered by the goddess Folly, the personification of foolishness.  Erasmus imagines Folly as a woman dressed in a fool’s garb with cap and bells, mounting a pulpit in a large church to address a congregation of men – to his readers a spectacle of outrageous absurdity.

Folly’s sermon is a masterpiece of sustained irony.  Irony is the shield behind which Erasmus ingeniously protects himself as he delivers his bold and stinging critique of contemporary society from ordinary folk to the summits of academia, state and church.  No-one was named, but all could recognise themselves; and employing Folly as a mouthpiece enabled Erasmus (still with irony) to disown what she said.

Praise of Folly met with huge success in Erasmus’ lifetime, especially among humanists, the open-minded and those in favour of church reform.  Despite its ridicule of senior churchmen, even Pope Leo X read the work with amusement.  But, as the ferment of the Reformation began to permeate Europe, it became increasingly controversial.  Conservative churchmen accused Erasmus of blasphemy and heresy, and blamed him for inflaming the Reformers’ attacks on the doctrine and practice of the church.  Erasmus doggedly defended his orthodoxy, but within a few decades of his death the church authorities in Rome had banned the work.

Pope Julius barred from Heaven

The second work in the volume, Pope Julius barred from Heaven,takes the form of a satirical dialogue at the gates of Heaven between the recently deceased Pope Julius II and St Peter.  Julius, as pope, considers himself entitled to automatic entry.  Peter, however, in his role as Heaven’s doorkeeper, fails to recognise Julius and refuses him admission till he has given an account of his qualifications and merits.  Julius responds to Peter’s questions by boasting of his various distinctions and achievements while Peter contrasts these with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.  In the end Peter delivers an indictment of Julius’ worldliness and turns him away.

The dialogue is not just a personal invective against Julius; it is an attack on the corruption of the whole religious establishment of the time, an attack merited maybe, but highly offensive to the system’s many beneficiaries.  Erasmus, therefore, never acknowledged the work as his own.  It was, nevertheless, probably written by him in Cambridge in 1513, shortly after Julius’ death for private circulation among his friends.  It was later published anonymously, without his consent, and widely read.

Other works

The volume also contains an epigram of Erasmus, in which he scathingly compares Pope Julius with his namesake Julius Cæsar.  There is also a small sample from Erasmus’ Adages, his enormous annotated collection of ancient proverbs, another work of his that was extremely popular with budding writers and others during his lifetime.

My translation

Erasmus wrote all his works in Latin.  His was the last generation to use Latin as the normal means of written communication within western Europe.  His Latin was fluent and vigorous, and I have therefore attempted to translate it into fluent and vigorous contemporary English.

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