Familiar Colloquies by Desiderius Erasmus

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 Religious Banquet."

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 about ceremonies.

 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.

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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 haste, Alastor?

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 ago!

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 to peace.

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.