The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535

By Robert P. Adams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
OPEN MANSLAUGHTER AND BOLD BAWDRY:
ROMANCE AND TYRANNY

Few aspects of the literary and social criticism of More, Erasmus, and Juan Luis Vives have been more frequently misunderstood than their concerted attack upon medieval romance and its imaginative world. The Elizabethan humanist, Roger Ascham (who had been the future Queen Elizabeth's tutor), did not invent the idea but only followed his great predecessors when he singled out the Morte Darthur of Malory as representative of the "books of Chivalry ... the whole pleasure of which ... standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter and bold bawdry...." 1

Consider the criticism of C. S. Lewis in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. From this readers discover that these humanists "rejected ... chivalrous romance" with the most humorless, narrow‐ minded, and witless kind of contumely. They were, one is told, so obsessed with "hatred of the Middle Ages" that they "could not really bring themselves to believe" that "the poet cared about the shepherds, lovers, warriors, voyages, and battles." It is said that More, Erasmus, and Vives represent some sort of kill-joy union of "the humanist with ... the puritan." We are reminded, correctly, that More's Utopians used military methods "mischievously devised to flout the chivalric code at every turn," that Erasmus [ Christian Prince] would "forbid a young prince to read ' Arthurs and Lancelots' which smack of tyranny and are moreover rude, foolish, and anile" (anilibus really means "old‐ womanish"), and that Vives[ The Christian Woman] condemned Arthurian romance as full of lies. At the same time Lewis rejoiced because "so far as the common reader was concerned, the humanists' attack on the romances was not, in the sixteenth century, very successful." Instead, the common readers—seemingly wiser than the humanists—with simple joy "pressed the siege, wept with the heroine, and shuddered at the monsters." In general explanation, it is proposed that

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