Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Apophthegmes of Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus - The Apophthegmes of Erasmus (1531, English 1542) direct link (1562 edition)
Open Library main page

Apophthegmes are something like short anecdotes with witty sayings, related to adages or proverbs.  This compiled by Erasmus while in his 60s, apparently to some degree for money, is one of the best known.  The bulk of his material actually comes from Plutarch (something of a similar collection in Moralia and from the Lives) though Erasmus doesn't translate so much as rework.  He also drew from several other sources including Suetonius, Diogenes Laertius and authors not much read today.

An example would be this one about Alexander:

When he had seen in the city of Miletus many great images and portraits of such persons as had before times won the victories or large prices in the games of Olympia and Pythia, he said, "And where were these so great giant-like bodies when the barbarous did besiege your city?"


When [Julius] Caesar saw in Rome certain aliens that were rich and wealthy persons carrying about in their arms and bosoms little young dogs and apes, and to make sport and play with them, he demanded whether the women in the country did bring forth no children.

Most of the apophthegmes are longer than these and I've also modernized spelling and some diction because the other thing about this edition is that it's a mid-16th century translation, Early Modern English spelling and all.  As far as I've been able to tell this was the only English translation until one in 2014 by Betty I. Knott and Elaine Fantham.  It is a bit tricky to read at times though I think any familiarity with Middle English probably helps.  Unfortunately it's also not the full work - as best I can tell it's about a quarter of the original text.

The translator was Nicolas Udall (1504-1556) who also translated Erasmus' Paraphrases and was an early playwright.  He was educated at Oxford (where he knew Thomas Cromwell), later teaching logic there.  He helped create the pageant for Anne Boleyn and several other works from this period are attributed to him with varying degrees of certainty, including Ralph Roister Doister one of the first comedies in English.  There's a longish entry in the DNB.