The Mimesis of Marriage: Dialogue and Intimacy in Erasmus's Matrimonial Writings*

By Leushuis, Reinier | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Mimesis of Marriage: Dialogue and Intimacy in Erasmus's Matrimonial Writings*


Leushuis, Reinier, Renaissance Quarterly


In his On the Usefulness of the Colloquies (1526), Erasmus (1467/9-1536) makes an emblematic observation about one of his most popular colloquies, Courtship, a dialogue featuring a young man trying to persuade his girlfriend into marriage: "And would that all suitors were such as I picture here, and marriages contracted with no other conversations!" (1) In this otherwise very apologetic text, written to refute objections raised against his colloquies by fellow theologians, the phrase strikes us by its reference to a future social reality which the author seeks to create. The use of the utinam-construction, the optative subjunctives ("essent," "coirent"), the plural "matrimonia," and the word "colloquium" in particular--which refers both to the "marital" conversation between the partners and the literary form of the colloquy as practiced by Erasmus--all combine to express how perfect it would be if all marriages in society were contracted according to the model provided by Erasmus's colloquy on the suitor and his maiden. This wishful comment illustrates the mimetic and transformative component of the Dutch humanist's writings on marriage, a dimension which can be detected in texts such as the Praise of Marriage (Encomium matrimonii [1518]), some of his so-called "matrimonial colloquies" from 1523--Courtship (Proci et puellae), The Girl with No Interest in Marriage (Virgo misogamos), The Repentant Girl (Virgo paenitens), and Marriage (Uxor mempsigamos sive Coniugium)--and in parts of his treatise Institution of Christian Matrimony (Institutio christiani matrimonii [1526]). (2)

This article will highlight in these texts the existence of a mimetic discourse which exploits the (re)formative capacities of an effective rhetoric of intimacy in combination with the characteristics of literary dialogue; these capacities will convey models of matrimonial life that are to be imitated by future readers. Our method will go beyond the common notion of mimesis as understood by the "imitation" or "representation" of a certain extra-textual reality, which in this case would be the social and moral disorder in marital affairs at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Current Erasmian scholarship has thoroughly studied this problematic reality and its reflection in the theological debates in which the author participates through his matrimonial works. Although this study will indeed readdress some of the issues raised by these critics, it will above all make a case for another level of mimesis: namely, those textual elements that, in an effort to reform society, invite imitational discourse and behavior by the reader. On the textual level it will seek to explore the form of mimesis Karl Morrison defines as an "adaptive strategy," or, after Aristotle, a "responsive mimesis": a mediating and transformative relation between the mind of the author and that of the audience. (3) The field in which this literary dimension operates has been delineated by Paul Ricoeur as that of "agir et patir," which one could translate as "to act and to go through": the intersection of the world of the text with the praxis of the reader (mimesis praxeos in Aristotle's Poetics). (4) An analysis of this imitative discourse as addressed to a common reader in his or her social surrounding will lead to a better understanding of the transformative power of Erasmus's matrimonial writings. Particular attention will be given to the role of dialogue, both the use of dialogue in the Colloquies and the atmosphere of the exchange of the spoken word in traditional rhetorical settings such as the declamatio and even the treatise.

The scholarship on Erasmus's matrimonial writings usually recreates the socio-intellectual framework in which the theologian-reformer operates, considering the Praise of Marriage a polemical yet playfully rhetorical joust and the Colloquies an "illustration in dialogue" of Erasmus's thought on marriage (explaining the reformer's choice of the latter genre as a mere strategy to assure himself of readership). …

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