Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Witches" as "fortunetellers", "enchanters" and "magicians" in John Wilson's 1668 translation of Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly"

In 1509, Desiderius Erasmus wrote "In Praise of Folly". Like any good Renaissance Humanist, Erasmus wrote his essay in Latin and gave it a Greek title: Μωρίας Εγκώμιον. (Here is a link to the original: https://archive.org/details/stultitiaelaus00erasgoog.) In 1668 John Wilson's English translation of Erasmus' essay was published.

In the excerpt from Wilson's translation quoted below, notice that where Erasmus uses maleficium in the original, Wilson translates this as "Witch". No big surprise there, perhaps. But then again, perhaps not.

You see, if we read on, the original and the translation taken together clearly demonstrate that even when the word "Witch" is being used as a direct gloss of  maleficium, this does not necessarily refer to one who uses magic to cause harm. (Exclamation point!) Indeed, Erasmus has done us the favor us telling us explicitly, at least in his opinion (and when it comes to Latin Erasmus is someone whose opinions can be taken rather seriously), what sort of magical workers maleficium does refer to: "fortunetellers [sortilegos], enchanters [incantatores], and magicians [magos]."

Link to Wilson's translation: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1509erasmus-folly.asp

The following is from near the end, specifically the section "Folly Attends a Theological Dispute":
I was lately myself at a theological dispute, for I am often there, where when one was demanding what authority there was in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument; a crabbed old fellow, and one whose supercilious gravity spoke him at least a doctor, answered in a great fume that Saint Paul had decreed it, who said, "Reject him that is a heretic, after once or twice admonition." And when he had sundry times, one after another, thundered out the same thing, and most men wondered what ailed the man, at last he explained it thus, making two words of one: "A heretic must be put to death." Some laughed, and yet there wanted not others to whom this exposition seemed plainly theological; which, when some, though those very few, opposed, they cut off the dispute, as we say, with a hatchet, and the credit of so uncontrollable an author. "Pray conceive me," said he, "it is written, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch [maleficium] to live.' But every heretic bewitches the people; therefore, etc."

And now, as many as were present admired the man's wit, and consequently submitted to his decision of the question. Nor came it into any of their heads that that law concerned only fortunetellers [sortilegos], enchanters [incantatores], and magicians [magos], whom the Hebrews call in their tongue "Mecaschephim," witches or sorcerers.