Dutch Proverbs and Expressions in Erasmus' Adages, Colloquies, and Letters (*)

By Wesseling, Ari | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Dutch Proverbs and Expressions in Erasmus' Adages, Colloquies, and Letters (*)


Wesseling, Ari, Renaissance Quarterly


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The interaction and competition between Latin and the vernaculars is a fascinating feature of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Many authors were bilingual; the names of Petrarch, More, and Milton spring to mind, not to mention Luther, Hutten, and Zwingli. Erasmus, by contrast, used Latin exclusively and ignored his native language. Or did he?

The impact of Dutch is a largely unexplored aspect of Erasmus' works. My previous study argued that he used proverbs and expressions of Dutch provenance in his Praise of Folly. (1) This article does the same for the Colloquia, the letters, and the Adagiorum collectanea. A search for vernacular expressions leads to interesting results. It throws new light on familiar passages involving proverbs and phrases whose source or provenance has not as yet been identified. Secondly, it yields evidence as to his view and estimate of his native language. The article also deals with passages in the Colloquia in which Erasmus uses a common Latin word in a novel sense and the effect of such usage on humanist lexicography. A close examination of passages which commentators have passed over further bears out his artistry in adapting adages and making puns. His fondness for punning on names is well known; and this study includes an attempt to decode the names of characters who have defied identification.

To get a perspective on the question of how Erasmus used vernacular proverbs and what value they had for him, it is worth considering first his discussion of ancient adages.

I. DEFINING THE PROVERB

Erasmus' essay on adagia is of prime importance. (2) He was the first author since antiquity to discuss the nature of proverbs at some length. His elaborate discussion has no equal in Greek and Roman literature, nor in that of the Renaissance, an age in which proverbs, mottoes, and maxims in general enjoyed a tremendous popularity. It was surpassed in the seventeenth century by his compatriot Gerardus Joannes Vossius (d. 1649). (3) Erasmus' essay, published as an introduction to the Adagiorum chiliades (1508), is an extended version of the brief account he provided in the prefatory letter to the original collection, the Adagiorum collectanea (1500). (4)

He addresses two questions: first, the nature of proverbs; and second, their prestige, relevance, and usefulness. He begins with a review of definitions given by the fourth-century Roman grammarians Donatus and Diomedes and by Michael Apostolios, a late Byzantine proverb collector (ca. 1420-80). Erasmus discards their definitions as inadequate: they are either too restrictive or too broad. The restrictive definitions assert that proverbs convey a moral or a meaning expressed through a metaphor (some even claiming both features). He admits that proverbs conveying a moral in veiled form are the best in their category; but he rightly refers to the practice of ancient authors, who frequently refer to expressions as proverbial even when they lack these characteristics. He then formulates a definition of his own, which in his view is sufficiently broad and exact to cover the adages in his collection: "A proverb is a saying in popular use, remarkable for some shrewd and novel turn of phrase" (Paroemia est celebre di ctum, scita quapiam nouitate insigne). It is noteworthy that Erasmus uses the terms paroemia, proverbium, and adagium indiscriminately throughout his collection. He applies them to a large variety of expressions, ranging from proverbs to phrases, metaphors, and even individual words. In fact, he casts a very wide net. (5)

After discussing the various elements of his definition (chap. ii and iii), he next turns to the awkward task of distinguishing proverbs from related forms of discourse: aphorisms ("sententiae"), apothegms, gibes ("scommata"), and fables (6) (chap. iv). Our focus, however, is his definition. Addressing the question of how sayings came into current use in antiquity, he lists an array of popular sources such as oracles, the Seven Sages, myths, fables, and the works of poets and playwrights (Homer, Pindar, Sappho, Euripides, and Aristophanes; chap. …

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Dutch Proverbs and Expressions in Erasmus' Adages, Colloquies, and Letters (*)
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