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On Jon’s Desk: Erasmus and Holbein, a 17th Century Printer’s Ill-executed Gift to Us

Morias Enomion 1676 Frontis PieceImage of Page containing quoted text.

Encomium igitur audietis non Herculis, neque Solonis, sed meum ipsius, hoc est, Stultitiae. Iam vero non huius facio sapientes istos, qui stultissimum & insolentissimum esse praedicant, si quis ipse laudibus se ferat. Sit sane quàm volent stultum, modo decorum esse fateantur. Quid enim magis quadrat, quàm ut ipsa Moria suarum laudum sit buccinatrix, & aute heauten aule? Quis enim me melius exprimat quam ipsa me? Nisi si cui forte notior sim, quam egomet sum mihi.

“Prepare therefore to be entertained with a panegyric, yet not upon Hercules, Solon, or any other grandee, but on myself, that is, upon Folly. And here I value not their censure that pretend it is foppish and affected for any person to praise himself. Yet let it be as silly as they please, if they will but allow it needful. And indeed what is more befitting than that Folly should be the trumpet of her own praise, and dance after her own pipe? For who can set me forth better than myself? Or who can pretend to be so well acquainted with my condition?”

– Erasmus, In Praise of Folly

Morias Enkomion 1676 Title PageEngraved portrait of Erasmus from 1676 Morias Enkomion.

Title: Morias Enkomion. Stultitiae laus. Des. Erasmi Rot. Declamatio, Cum commentariis Ger. Listrii & figuris Jo. Holbenii.

Author: Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536)

Printed: Basileae (Basel, Switzerland): Typis Genathianis, 1676

Call Number: PA8512 1676


Catholic priest and Renaissance humanist, Desiderius Erasmus was critical of the Roman Catholic Church but did not join the protestant movement, preferring to reform the church from within. He spent time at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius in Venice, acting as scholarly editor for the Aldine press’s famous publications of the classics. When he moved to Basel, Switzerland to avoid academic hostility in France, he developed a long-lasting friendship with Johann Froben, one of the great scholar-printers of the humanist movement.

Title page of 1532 Froben edition.Erasmus’ writings were best-sellers in their day. They accounted for an estimated 20 percent of all book sales in the 1530s. His best known work is Moriae encomium (In Praise of Folly), a critique of European society and the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus’ Moriae encomium was first printed by Gilles de Gourmant in Paris, ca. 1511. Erasmus was unhappy with this badly edited version and soon another, dated, edition appeared, again in Paris. Erasmus continued to develop his “Moria,” adding to the text in subsequent printings. The second Froben edition (Basel, 1516) presented the “Moria” in its most complete state to date and formed the basis for all subsequent editions. The 1532 edition, printed by Jerome Froben (son of Johann) and Nicolaus Episcopius, contains the last revisions made by Erasmus, designed, he said, “to polish the style.” He added a number of notes to the commentary, “most of which are concerned with Folly as a dramatis persona or with defending the theological precision and orthodoxy of the work.” The J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections holds a copy of this edition in the Rare Books Department.

In 1515 two young journeymen painters, Hans and Ambrosias Holbein, moved from Augsburg to Basel, where they were apprenticed to the painter Hans Herbster. The brothers worked as wood- and metalcut designers for printers. Soon after the Holbein brothers began work in Basel, the preacher and theologian Oswald Myconius invited them to add pen drawings to the margins of his second edition copy of Erasmus’ Moriae encomium. These manuscript illustrations became known for their wit and humanism. Hans Holbein went on to become a famous portraitist.

Engraved portrait of Hans Hoblein from 1676 Morias Enkomion. Holbein painted portraits of Erasmus (starting in 1523) and it was these which first brought him international acclaim. In 1526 Holbein decided to travel to England. Erasmus recommended him to his friend Thomas More. This launched Holbein’s career in King Henry VIII’s court. Holbein painted a portrait of Thomas More and became involved in humanist circles in England. After the downfall of Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, both of whom had employed him (and later lost their heads), Holbein distanced himself from the humanist circles that had allowed him his initial success in England. He began working under the patronage of Oliver Cromwell and became “the King’s Painter,” producing several portraits of the King and others in Henry’s inner circle. Scholars today recognize his work for its masterful blending of symbolism, allusion, and paradox.

Engraved portrait of Holbein's father from 1676 Morias Enkomion.In 1676 the printer Johann Rudolf Genath (Typis Genathianis) published the edition featured here of Erasmus’ Moriae encomium, which for the first time included Holbein’s illustrations. The illustrations in this edition are of particular interest. It is noteworthy that Holbein’s manuscript illustrations in the 1532 edition were kept and then brought forward for use in this edition. An artist named Caspar Merian produced the engravings. In addition to the eighty-one illustrations this edition contains engraved full page portraits of Erasmus, Holbein, and Holbein’s father, who was also a renowned painter. This edition also contains Lister’s Commentaries, a biography of Holbein, and a catalog listing of the artist’s works.

The printing of the engraved illustrations presents an intriguing periphery to the story of Holbein’s illustrations joining with Erasmus’ Moriae encomium. By 1676 the printing process had progressed considerably (two centuries had passed since the advent of printing in Europe) and mistakes made in combining text and illustrations at this point can only be chalked up as poor printing. In this edition of Moriae encomium we see a wonderfully terrible job of incorporating the two that we cannot help but find fascinating. It appears that the typesetter and the engraver suffered from a lack of communication. In some instances not enough space was left in the printing of the text to fit the illustration. The printer, using his creative problem solving skills, rectified the situation by turning the ill-fitting illustrations on their sides. Some are poorly inked. Then there is the mix up of the illustrations on pages 133 and 137. In the Rare Books copy the correct image has been laid in over the incorrect illustration. This tactic is fairly common in books from the early printing period.

Morias Enkomion - Illustration Turned SidewaysMorias Enkomion - Illustration Turned Sideways - 2Morias Enkomion - page 133Morias Enkomion - page 137

This 1676 edition of Erasmus’ famous work is a mash-up of intriguing elements that culminate into something special. The combination of famous authorship with illustrations from a highly regarded artist, who in many ways gained fame as a result of his interactions with the text at an early stage in his career, produces a historically noteworthy piece. There is an irony in the presentation of Holbein’s illustrations in this edition because they are from a master, but administered with a complete lack of printing mastery. Nevertheless, we should be very glad that Genath gave them to us despite his execution.

Morias Enkomion - page 149 - woman at loomFold Out Illustration from Morias Enkomion 1676.

~Contributed by Jon Bingham, Rare Books Curator

View the original article on the OpenBook Blog

1 Comment
  • Annabel Pougnier
    Posted at 17:30h, 22 March Reply

    Could this be the Erasmus illustrated by Holbein which disappeared from Charlecote House in England in 1958, after having last been under the care of James Lees Milne? My source (Michael Bloch: James Lees Milne, The Life) says the book belonged to Henry VIII, but your copy is, I believe, a later one. Any insight on this?

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