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April Fools! The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus.

This April Fool’s Day we thought we’d share several editions of Moriae Encomium by Desiderius Erasmus, which, in addition to being a definitive resource on fools and foolishness, has a great Latin pun for a title.

Holbein frontispieceFrontispiece portrait of Erasmus, engraving after Hans Holbein (London, 1709).

Erasmus, More, and Holbein portrait frontispieceFrontispiece and engraved title page featuring Erasmus, More, Holbein, and Folly as a goddess (Leiden, 1715).

Holbein illustrationsThe folly of scholarship, engravings after Hans Holbein (Paris, 1715).

Eisen frontispieceFrontispiece illustration of Folly as a goddess, illustration after Charles Eisen (Paris, 1757).

Eisen illustrationThe folly of drunkenness, engraving after Charles Eisen (Paris, 1757).

Chodowiecki illustrationsVarious types of folly, engravings after Daniel Chodowiecki (Berlin, 1781).

Ward illustrationThe folly of pedagogues, mezzotint by Lynd Ward (New York, 1953).

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) isn’t the figure one would suppose to be an authority on foolishness.  Ordained as a priest and consecrated as a monk, Erasmus spent his life as a classical scholar, humanist, and theologian.  Although he is best known for theological work, he was also a prolific and engaging author whose works ranged from popular handbooks on children’s table manners to bitter mockeries of Church and state officials.

The Praise of…  More?

Around 1498, Erasmus moved to England, where he met Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia.  The two men worked together on a translation of the works of Lucian and became close friends. Erasmus moved to Italy to pursue a doctorate in divinity in 1500, but he and More continued to write to each other regularly.

In 1509, Erasmus returned to England and wrote Moriae Encomium during his journey, dedicating it to More.  The title of the work makes an affectionate joke of More’s last name – Moriae Encomium can be translated as either The Praise of Folly or The Praise of More.  Erasmus continued the wordplay throughout the text, parodying the elaborate literary style both he and More would have encountered in their classical studies.

Erasmus considered Moriae Encomium a minor work and was surprised and dismayed at its popularity upon its first publication in 1511.  The work went through multiple editions and translations in his lifetime, and it touched off an entirely new literary genre – the spoof encomium, which became popular among learned Elizabethans.

Picturing Folly

Moriae Encomium also gave rise to an artistic tradition.  The artist Hans Holbein, a mutual friend of Erasmus and More, decorated Erasmus’ own copy of the book with marginal drawings.  Holbein’s humorous doodles were adapted as engravings in a later edition, and they were copied for the next two hundred years.  They have served as an inspiration – or a point of departure – for the generations of artists who have illustrated this text.

The Division of Special Collections, Archives, and Rare Books has editions of Moriae Encomium ranging from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, and many are illustrated.  In addition to Holbein, illustrators include Charles Eisen, Daniel Chodowiecki, and Lynd Ward.  The images above are just a sampling from our collection.  Enjoy!

Sources

  1. L’Eloge de la Folie composé en forme de declamation… , illustrated with engravings after the designs of Hans Holbein (Leiden, P. vander Aa, 1715).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1715
  2. L’Eloge de la Folie, illustrated by Charles Eisen (Paris, n.p., 1757).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1757
  3. Moriae Encomium: or, A Panegyrick Upon Folly, illustrated with engravings after the designs of Hans Holbein (London, Printed, and sold by J. Woodward, in Threadneedle street, 1709).  RARE PA8514.E5 1709
  4. L’Eloge de la Folie, illustrated by Charles Eisen (Paris, n.p., 1757).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1757
  5. Moriae Encomium: or, The Praise of Folly, illustrated by Lynd Ward (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1943).  RARE PA8514 .E5 1943
  6. L’Eloge de la Folie composé en forme de declamation… , illustrated with engravings after the designs of Hans Holbein (Leiden, P. vander Aa, 1715).  RARE PA8514 .F8 1715
  7. Das Lob der Narrheit aus dem Lateinischen, illustrated by Daniel Chodowiecki (Berlin: G.J. Decker, 1781).  RARE PA8514 .G3 1781
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