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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

How the gourd could have preached


"One worships a certain Rochus, and why? because he fancies he will drive away the plague from his body. Another mumbles prayers to Barbara or George, lest he fall into the hands of his enemy. This man fasts to Apollonia to prevent the toothache. That one gazes upon an image of the divine Job, that he may be free from the itch.... In short, whatever our fears and our desires, we set so many gods over them, and these are different in different nations.... This is not far removed from the superstition of those who used to vow tithes to Hercules in order to get rich, or a cock to AEsculapius to recover from an illness, or who slew a bull to Neptune for a favourable voyage. The names are changed, but the object is the same."(123)

In speaking of the monastic life, he says:

" 'Love,' says Paul, 'is to edify your neighbour,' ... and if this only were done, nothing could be more joyous or more easy than the life of the 'religious'; but now this life seems gloomy, full of Jewish superstitions, not in any way free from the vices of laymen and in some ways more corrupt. If Augustine, whom they boast of as the founder of their order, came to life again, he would not recognise them; he would exclaim that he had never approved of this sort of life, but had organised a way of living according to the rule of the Apostles, not according to the superstition of the Jews."(124)

The more one studies the _Praise of Folly_, the more evident it becomes that Erasmus did not intend to write a satire on human weakness in general: the book is the most severe attack on the mediaeval Church that had, up to that time, been made; and it was meant to be so. The author wanders from his main theme occasionally, but always to return to the insane follies of the religious life sanctioned by the highest authorities of the mediaeval Church. Popes, bishops, theologians, monks, and the ordinary lay Christians, are all unmitigated fools in their ordinary religious life. The style is vivid, the author has seen what he describes, and he makes his readers see it also. He writes with a mixture of light mockery and bitter earnestness. He exposes the foolish questions of the theologians; the vices and temporal ambitions of the Popes, bishops, and monks; the stupid trust in festivals, pilgrimages, indulgences, and relics. The theologians, the author says, are rather dangerous people to attack, for they come down on one with their six hundred conclusions and command him to recant, and if he does not they declare him a heretic forthwith. The problems which interest them are:

"Whether there was any instant of time in the divine generation? ... Could God have taken the form of a woman, a devil, an ass, a gourd, or a stone? How the gourd could have preached, wrought miracles, hung on the cross?"(125)

He jeers at the Popes and higher ecclesiastics:

"Those supreme Pontiffs who stand in the place of Christ, if they should try to imitate His life, that is, His poverty, His toil, His teaching, His cross, and His scorn of this world ... what could be more dreadful!... We ought not to forget that such a mass of scribes, copyists, notaries, advocates, secretaries, mule-drivers, grooms, money-changers, procurers, and gayer persons yet I might mention, did I not respect your ears,--that this whole swarm which now burdens--I beg your pardon, honours--the Roman See would be driven to starvation."(126)


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