Familiar Colloquies by Desiderius
Desiderius Erasmus, the most learned ecclesiastic of the fifteenth
century, and the friend of Luther and other reformers,
was born at Rotterdam on October 28, 1466, and died at Basel
on July 12, 1536. He was the son of a Dutchman named Gerard,
and, according to the fashion of the age, changed his family
name into its respective Latin and Greek equivalents, Desiderius
and Erasmus, meaning "desired," or "loved." Entering the
priesthood in 1492, he pursued his studies at Paris, and became
so renowned a scholar that he was, on visiting England, received
with distinction, not only at the universities, but also by the
king. For some time Erasmus settled in Italy, brilliant prospects
being held out to him at Rome; but his restless temperament
impelled him to wander again, and he came again to
England, where he associated with the most distinguished
scholars, including Dean Colet and Sir Thomas More. Perhaps
nothing in the whole range of mediŠval literature made
a greater sensation immediately on its appearance, in 1521,
than the "Colloquia," or "Familiar Colloquies Concerning Men,
Manners, and Things," of Erasmus. As its title indicates, it
consists of dialogues, and its author intended it to make youths
more proficient in Latin, that language being the chief vehicle
of intercommunication in the Middle Ages. But Erasmus
claims, in his preface, that another purpose of the book is to
make better men as well as better Latinists, for he says: "If
the ancient teachers of children are commended who allured
the young with wafers, I think it ought not to be charged on
me that by the like reward I allure youths either to the elegancy
of the Latin tongue or to piety." This selection is made from
the Latin text.
Concerning Men, Manners and Things
Erasmus issued his first edition of the "Colloquies"
in 1521. Successive editions appeared with great rapidity.
Its popularity wherever Latin was read was immense,
but it was condemned by the Sarbonne, prohibited
in France, and devoted to the flames publicly in
Spain. The reader of its extraordinary chapters will
not fail to comprehend that such a fate was inevitable
in the case of such a production in those times. For, as
the friend of the reformers who were "turning the world
upside down," Erasmus in this treatise penned the most
audacious, sardonic, and withering onslaught ever delivered
by any writer on ecclesiastical corruption of religion.
He never attacks religion itself, but extols and defends
it; his aim is to launch a series of terrific innuendoes
on ecclesiasticism as it had developed and as he saw
it. He satirically, and even virulently, attacks monks
and many of their habits, the whole system of cloister-life,
the festivals and pilgrimages which formed one of
the chief features of religious activity, and the grotesque
superstitions which his peculiar genius for eloquent irony
so well qualified him to caricature.
This great work, one of the epoch-making books of the
world, consists of sixty-two "Colloquies," of very varying
length. They treat of the most curiously diverse
topics, as may be imagined from such titles of the chapters
as "The Youth's Piety," "The Lover and the
Maiden," "The Shipwreck," "The Epithalamium of
Peter Egidius," "The Alchemist," "The Horse Cheat,"
"The Cyclops, or the Gospel Carrier," "The Assembly
or Parliament of Women," "Concerning Early Rising."
A sample of the style of the "Colloquies" in the more
serious sections may be taken from the one entitled "The
Nephew: How unwillingly have I seen many Christians
die. Some put their trust in things not to be confided
in; others breathe out their souls in desperation,
either out of a consciousness of their lewd lives, or by
reason of scruples that have been injected into their
minds, even in their dying hours, by some indiscreet men,
die almost in despair.
Chrysoglottus: It is no wonder to find them die so,
who have spent their lives in philosophising all their lives
Nephew: What do you mean by ceremonies?
Chrysoglottus: I will tell you, but with protestation
beforehand, over and over, that I do not find fault with
the rites and sacraments of the Church, but rather highly
approve of them; but I blame a wicked and superstitious
sort of people who teach people to put their confidence
in these things, omitting those things that make them
truly Christians. If you look into Christians in common,
do they not live as if the whole sum of religion
consisted in ceremonies? With how much pomp are the
ancient rites of the Church set forth in baptism? The
infant waits without the church door, the exorcism is
performed, the catechism is performed, vows are made,
Satan is abjured with all his pomps and pleasures; then
the child is anointed, signed, seasoned with salt, dipped,
a charge given to its sureties to see it well brought up;
and the oblation money being paid, they are discharged,
and by this time the child passes for a Christian, and in
some sense is so. A little time after it is anointed again,
and in time learns to confess, receive the sacrament, is
accustomed to rest on holy days, to hear divine service,
to fast sometimes, to abstain from flesh; and if he observes
all these he passes for an absolute Christian. He
marries a wife, and then comes on another sacrament;
he enters into holy orders, is anointed again and consecrated,
his habit is changed, and then to prayers.
Now, I approve of the doing of all this well enough,
but the doing of them more out of custom than conscience
I do not approve. But to think that nothing
else is requisite for the making of a Christian I absolutely
disapprove. For the greater part of the men in
the world trust to these things, and think they have nothing
else to do but get wealth by right or wrong, to
gratify their passions of lust, rage, malice, ambition.
And this they do till they come on their death-bed. And
then follow more ceremonies—confession upon confession
more unction still, the eucharists are administered;
tapers, the cross, the holy water are brought in; indulgences
are procured, if they are to be had for love or
money; and orders are given for a magnificent funeral.
Now, although these things may be well enough, as they
are done in conformity to ecclesiastical customs, yet there
are some more internal impressions which have an efficacy
to fortify us against the assaults of death by filling
our hearts with joy, and helping us to go out of the world
with a Christian assurance.
Eusebius: When I was in England I saw St. Thomas'
tomb all over bedecked with a vast number of jewels of
an immense price, besides other rich furniture, even to
admiration. I had rather that these superfluities should
be applied to charitable uses than to be reserved for
princes that shall one time or other make a booty of
them. The holy man, I am confident, would have been
better pleased to have had his tomb adorned with leaves
and flowers.... Rich men, nowadays, will have
their monuments in churches, whereas in time past they
could hardly get room for their saints there. If I were
a priest or a bishop, I would put it into the head of these
thick-skulled courtiers or merchants that if they would
atone for their sins to Almighty God they should privately
bestow their liberality on the relief of the poor.
A wonderful plea for peace, in shape of an exquisite
satire, is the "Colloquy" entitled "Charon." It is a
dialogue between Charon, the ghostly boatman on the
River Styx, and Genius Alastor. Its style may be gathered
from the following excerpt.
Charon: Whither are you going so brisk, and in such
Alastor: O Charon, you come in the nick of time; I
was coming to you.
Charon: Well, what news do you bring?
Alastor: I bring a message to you and Prosperine
that you will be glad to hear. All the Furies have been
no less diligent than they have been successful in gaining
their point. There is not one foot of ground upon earth
that they have not infected with their hellish calamities,
seditions, wars, robberies, and plagues. Do you get your
boat and your oars ready; you will have such a vast multitude
of ghosts come to you anon that I am afraid you
will not be able to carry them all over yourself.
Charon: I could have told you that.
Alastor: How came you to know it?
Charon: Ossa brought me that news about two days
Alastor: Nothing is more swift than that goddess.
But what makes you loitering here, having left your boat?
Charon: My business brought me hither. I came
hither to provide myself with a good strong three-oared
boat, for my boat is so rotten and leaky with age that it
will not carry such a burden, if Ossa told me true.
Alastor: What was it that Ossa told you?
Charon: That the three monarchs of the world were
bent upon each other's destruction with a mortal hatred,
and that no part of Christendom was free from the rage
of war; for these three have drawn in all the rest to be
engaged in the war with them. They are all so haughty
that not one of them will in the least submit to the other.
Nor are the Danes, the Poles, the Scots, nor the Turks
at quiet, but are preparing to make dreadful havoc.
The plague rages everywhere: in Spain, Britain, Italy,
France; and, more than all, there is a new fire sprung
out of the variety of opinions, which has so corrupted
the minds of all men that there is no such thing as sincere
friendship anywhere; but brother is at enmity with
brother, and husband and wife cannot agree. And it is
to be hoped that this distraction will be a glorious destruction
of mankind, if these controversies, that are
now managed by the tongue and pen, come once to be
decided by arms.
Alastor: All that fame has told you is true; for I
myself, having been a constant companion of the Furies,
have with these eyes seen more than all this, and that
they never at any time have approved themselves more
worthy of their name than now.
Charon: But there is danger lest some good spirit
should start up and of a sudden exhort them to peace.
And men's minds are variable, for I have heard that
among the living there is one Polygraphus who is continually,
by his writing, inveighing against wars, and exhorting
Alastor: Ay, ay, but he has a long time been talking
to the deaf. He once wrote a sort of hue and cry after
peace, that was banished or driven away; after that an
epitaph upon peace defunct. But then, on the other
hand, there are others that advance our cause no less
than do the Furies themselves. They are a sort of animals
in black and white vestments, ash-coloured coats,
and various other dresses, that are always hovering about
the courts of the princes, and are continually instilling
into their ears the love of war, and exhorting the nobility
and common people to it, haranguing them in their sermons
that it is a just, holy, and religious war. And
that which would make you stand in admiration at the
confidence of these men is the cry of both parties. In
France they preach it up that God is on the French side,
and that they can never be overcome that has God for
their protector. In England and Spain the cry is, "The
war is not the king's, but God's"; therefore, if they do
but fight like men, they depend on getting the victory,
and if anyone should chance to fall in the battle, he will
not die, but fly directly up into heaven, arms and all.