Dutch Proverbs and Ancient Sources in Erasmus's 'Praise of Folly.'

By Wesseling, Ari | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Dutch Proverbs and Ancient Sources in Erasmus's 'Praise of Folly.'


Wesseling, Ari, Renaissance Quarterly


CLARENCE NULER, the learned editor and commentator of Erasmus's Praise of Folly, made a challenging remark in a recent issue of Renaissance Quarterly. In discussing a collection of essays on the Moria and the Colloquies, he observes in conclusion that it is "very difficult to say much that is both new and true" about Erasmus's satire.(1) With a view to the flood of secondary literature on the subject, his observation seems quite to the point.

I shall illustrate a number of basic textual ingredients in the Moria whose origin has escaped the attention of Erasmus specialists, namely, Dutch proverbs and expressions. More than once it is Folly herself that suggests she is going to quote from the vernacular. In some cases a passage in other works of Erasmus provides a clue. The proverbs concerned can be easily identified through Harrebomee's dictionary of Dutch proverbs. Besides supplementing Miller's commentary, this essay aims at drawing attention to a neglected aspect of Erasmus's writings, namely the impact of his native language. The first part of this study is followed by an intermezzo, showing that one passage in the Moria is reminiscent of a poem by Poliziano. The final part deals with a number of passages where a classical source has not been recognized.

DUTCH PROVERBS AND EXPRESSIONS

In her prologue, Folly reacts against the criticism that it is stupid to extol oneself In doing so, she refers to "that common vernacular proverb |He is right in praising himself who has no one else to praise him.' " (2) Gerard Lister (Listrius), Folly's earliest commentator, remarks here: "Sic enim iocantur vulgo, cum quis de se praedicat arrogantius, vt dicant: Malos habet vicinos et ob id cogitur se laudare." In other words, Lister has translated the Dutch proverb "Hij' moet geene goede buren hebben, want hij prijst zich zelven" ("He has no good neighbors, obviously, for he praises himself").(3) However, the actual proverb quoted by Folly is slightly different, namely, "Hij prijst zich zelven te regt, die anders geen' prijzer heeft" ("He is right in praising himself, who has no one else that praises him").(4) Accordingly, the earliest Dutch translation of the Moria (produced by the Fleming Geillyaert in 1560) reads, "dat gemeyn spreekwoort, waermede men seyt dat die hemseluen met rechte prijst, die anders gheenen prijser en heeft."(5) Folly twists the meaning of the proverb by ignoring that it was meant to mock those who (wrongly) praise themselves.

Folly also deploys an array of arguments to demonstrate the blessing of her omnipresence. One paragraph must be quoted in full:

These arguments are also confirmed by the authority (not to be taken

lightly) of the common proverb which asserts that only foolishness preserves

youth, otherwise so evanescent, and keeps harsh old age at bay. Not

without reason do people bandy about the vernacular saying that, whereas

other men usually grow wiser with age, the Brabanters grow more and

more foolish the older they get. But in fact, there is no people so jolly in

social life or so little affected by the gloom of old age. Close to the Brabanters

not only in geographical location but also in their way of life are

those Dutchmen of mine -- and why shouldn't I call them mine, since they

promote my cult so eagerly that they have earned thereby a widely used

epithet. And so far are they from being ashamed of their label that they

boast of it as their chief claim to fame.(6) This section is a montage of the following elements: two Dutch proverbs, an adage of ancient origin, and a stereotype concerning the Hollanders. First, Folly quotes and expands "De zotheid is het eenige ding dat de jongheid vertraagt en de oudheid verjaagt" ("Folly is the only thing that delays youth and dispels old age").(7) To confirm this truth, she then advances and elaborates a second proverb, namely "Hoe ouder, hoe zotter Brabander" ("The older a Brabanter gets, the more foolish he is"). …

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