M.A. Screech

M.A. Screech, Professor of French at University College, London, and at present a visiting fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, is the author of Rabelais and Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly. He is now working on Erasmus: Annotations on the New Testament and on a study of Montaigne.

In search of the Reformation

M.A. Screech, 9 November 1989

Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Renaissance, Humanism – we all break up the past into periods and movements convenient for study, yet it is impossible to understand the Europe of the 15th and 16th centuries if such labels are mistaken for realities. The Reformation is an infinitely complex and mysterious affair: unless and until there is agreement over what it was there can be no successful search for its causes. The Reformation embraces delicate questions of individual decision, vast political movements, civil wars, petty college rivalries, profoundly opposed pieties, tensions between occasional tolerance and frequent searing indignation. The same martyr who walked in dignity to the scaffold dismisses others burning at the stake as the ‘Devil’s stinking martyrs’. Clergymen as diverse as Luther, Erasmus, Rabelais and Pierre de Ronsard explode at what they see in monasteries and convents. For Luther – and for Rabelais, in a book dedicated to a cardinal – the Vatican was stuffed with unbelievers, pretending to follow Christ in order to diddle Christian idiots out of their money; a staunch Roman Catholic gentleman-soldier such as Montaigne can giggle (in his Journal de Voyage) at the ineffectual fulmintions of his Pope while deeply respecting the magisterium of the Church. We do not know, we shall never know, how much depended on the complex psychology even of well-known men such as Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bucer or Beza, not to mention that of their wives or mothers, nor of now lesser-known theologians such as Faber (Lefevre d’Etaples) or Girard Roussel, the favourite preacher and bishop of Margaret of Navarre, who was prepared to protect controversial religious thinkers, or a Lutheran court poet such as Clément Marot, from persecutions approved of by her beloved brother King Francis I.’

Homage to Rabelais

M.A. Screech, 20 September 1984

This will be a happy year if everyone who owns a Rabelais gives it a good read. The French have made 1984 ‘L’ Année Rabelais’, treating it as the 500th anniversary of his birth. Glasgow (which has one of the world’s best collections of Gargantua and Pantagruel) got in early, celebrating it last year. But 1983 was Luther year. Luther and Rabelais, committed ex-monks with a genius for writing in their vernacular, have much in common, but each needs a year to himself. Rabelaisian laughter is both a complement to Luther’s scornful vehemence and an antidote to it. Nobody knows when Rabelais was born: 1483 or 1484, in the comfortable house of a rich Touraine legal family, is a good guess. We know that he studied law before he studied medicine; was a Franciscan before he became a Benedictine; was influenced by Erasmus; had three children; travelled abroad; remained a secular priest (an Evangelical Royalist Gallican); lived a life full of incidents, with periods of want in virtual exile as well as periods of comfort in the households of powerful men. About his early years we know nothing, except that, in his first two comic Chronicles, writing about giants brought him to think happily about his own childhood. It often does.

Possible Enemies

M.A. Screech, 16 June 1983

‘Treat a friend as a possible enemy’ – that Classical saw must have been on many sadder and wiser lips as Renaissance friends broke up into rival groups. Lefèvre d’Etaples’s Biblical studies won him the support of the French King’s sister, Margaret, and ought to have made him a natural ally of Erasmus. He was soon at Erasmus’s throat. I ‘treat Christ with contumely’, Erasmus exploded. He picked over Lefèvre’s worst insults in a letter addressed to Guillaume Budé (who had the ear of the French King): I ‘side with the Jews’! I am ‘opposed to the spirit’ and, worst of all, ‘I cling to the flesh and the literal meaning!’ Lefèvre was making Erasmus into the enemy of the Gospel, an ‘adversary’ – like the Devil. The bone of contention was Hebrews 2, 7. Does the Greek and its Hebrew source mean that Christ was made ‘a little lower than the angels’, or was he made ‘for a while, lower than God’? We have learned to live with such uncertainties. Lefèvre had not. He did, however, have the art of slinging at Erasmus precisely the insults which hurt the most, insults which, from Erasmus’s own point of view, were hopelessly wrong-headed. Erasmus’s whole ‘philosophy of Christ’ was platonically opposed to ‘Jewish’ literalness: he saw Jewish scholarship largely through the eyes of a distorted St Paul – and sought out the ‘spirit’, not the ‘letter’. His dislike of Jews at this stage in his career is an embarrassment to modern admirers, though Heiko Oberman has shown it was pretty typical of the time. His version of Gospel truth owes much to Plato and the early Fathers, seeing reality in the spirit and playing down the flesh as passing shadows.

Ancient and Modern

M.A. Screech, 19 November 1981

Does Luther explain Hitler? Oberman, an international Dutchman at home in Tuebingen, asks the question only to toss it aside: the Reformation was not a ‘German tragedy’. Into this English version of Werden und Wertung der Reformation he interpolates an abrupt sentence: ‘The appalling experiences of the Third Reich incline historians to assume that what went wrong with the Reformation was Luther’s sell-out to the princes’ – which supposedly led to a German tendency to give the last word in politics or morals, not to the individual or the Church, but to the collective and the State. Oberman rejects all this as too easy a way out of a complex problem. It may well salve ‘forever the German religious conscience’, but it does violence to truth. Generalisations must wait till we know a lot more. Confessional distortions are out of fashion; some political and social ones less so. Oberman’s book is a massive contribution to a debate. He cannot see the Reformation solely in terms of social or political forces. He believes in a variety of Geistesgeschichte. His thesis is a controversial one, and is presented as such in the blurb.

Have you heard the one about the children who laughed at the prophet and called him ‘slaphead’? A bear tore 42 of them to pieces. Or the one about the maid, expecting her...

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What mattered to Erasmus

James McConica, 2 March 1989

Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament, which made the Greek text available in print for the first time, is remembered as his most important achievement. This is partly because his profound...

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Viva la joia

Roy Porter, 22 December 1983

What would Montaigne have made of being deconstructed? Would that gentle ironist, that pricker of presumption and pedantry, have been amused, or saddened, to find himself the totem and target of...

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A Foolish Christ

James McConica, 20 November 1980

Erasmus is the Reformation’s orphan. Illegitimate at birth and deprived of his parents as a boy, his origins seem in retrospect oddly prophetic of his fate. He was passionately concerned...

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Rabelais’s Box

Peter Burke, 3 April 1980

When Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato’s entitled The Symposium, praises his master Socrates, beyond all doubt the prince of philosophers, he compares him, amongst other things, to a...

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