Saturday 26 April 2008

Erasmus and titles: the treatise on letter writing

A correspondent comments on Erasmus' view of titles in his work Opus de conscribendis epistolis or, "Treatise on letter writing" and opines that he recognised clerical titles but objected to them.

Erasmus’ treatise on letter-writing was published in Basle in 1522 with 410 pages.

Ironically for a humanist, Erasmus argues against the central doctrines of radical humanist letter-writing styles.

In the fifth chapter Erasmus seems nevertheless to yield to rhetorical formalism himself, dividing epistolary prose into three types introduced by Aristotle, namely the deliberative, forensic and epideictic genres or suasorium, demonstrativum and judiciale as he calls them.

He adds as a fourth category, the familiar letter, which was the type of epistolography celebrated by the humanists who so imitated Cicero’s style, ironically, since Erasmus is a critic of the elaborate Ciceronian style of the time.

I shall be corrected if wrong but I think it is this part of the work that is being referred to by my correspondent:

Iam uero consuetudinem insulsissimam quidem illam, sed aliquot iam seculis mire receptam, unum hominem multitudinis numero compellandi, non tam dedocendi sunt iuuenes quam animandi, ut ausint contemnere, certe quoties cum his agitur, unde nihil sit periculi. Mea certe aetate iam haec ineptia magna ex parte obsoleuit, paulatim subolescentibus bonis literis. Quanquam supersunt et hodie non pauci uossissatores, qui quod pueri male didicerunt, non solum ipsi mordicus tenent, uerumetiam ab aliis exigunt. Inexpiabili contumeia se putant affici, si quis unum singulari numeto salutet; ac plane rem putant iniuriarum actione dignam, ac legibus uindicandam.
[Cap 4, pp.266-8]

"As for that absurd practice, curiously in vogue now for several centuries, of addressing a single person in the plural, young men should not so much be untaught this vice as encouraged to scorn it altogether, at least in dealing with those with whom there is no risk involved. In my lifetime, at least, this folly has now largely fallen into disuse with the gradual coming of age of sound learning. Yet even today a good many users of the vos form of address, who not only hang on tenaciously to what they wrongly learnt as boys but also require it of others are still with us. They consider it an unforgivable insult if someone greets them in the singular; indeed, they deem it deserving of an action for damages and punishable by law!"
[Translation from
Collected Works of Erasmus, 25-26, Toronto 1985, p.45]

This, of course, is more a reference to the excessive use of the plural address, more evident in European languages now than in English but then in use even in English by the use of "thou" (singular) and "you" (plural).

"You" being now universal in English and "thou" having died out, save in prayer and poetry, the issue is only live in other European countries where it is remains customary, Erasmus notwithstanding, to refer to familiars and servants as "thou" and others (whether or not noble) by the plural "you".

For example:

In German: "Du" and "Sie".
In French: "Tu" and "Vous".

Digressing slightly, some may know that the word "Thou" derives from the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the German "Du", the hard "D" becoming a soft "Th" in Anglo-Saxon, written with the Anglo-Saxon letter resembling a "y".

"Sie" became "thee" and both "thou" and "thee" were later rendered "you" and "ye", as plurals, perhaps confusing the Anglo-Saxon letter for a "y" in the Greek sense.

"Die" became also "ye" and later "the" as in "Ye olde shoppe" (although one should not discount the effect of bad spelling in former times).

Even so, the plural was especially reserved for royal persons.

Use of the royal plural is not inappropriate and emphasizes the importance of the monarch at the apex of the Constitution.

It is true that Julius Caesar was addressed in the singular (as Erasmus points out) but then he was never emperor. Later Roman emperors were titled "Caesar Augustus" and addressed in the plural.

This was, in turn, as much a reflection of the Hebrew practice of addressing the great in the plural, most notably Almighty God, who, as you can see from one of the side-bar comments on this blog, was addressed in the plural as Elohim (when not addressed as Adonai).

In any event, I do not think that Erasmus objected to clerical and noble titles as such but more to their misuse.



Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Sie=they. Ihr=ye, you, but went out of fashion.

Tribunus said...

I was speaking of English usage not German and "ye" in English certainly has no derivation from "ihr".

In fact, "ye" derives from "sie" and "die", particularly the latter, since the Anglo-Saxon letter which looks very much like a small "y" means "th" which is the softened form of the German "D" used in Anglo-Saxon.

"Ihr" has not gone out of fashion in German.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tribunus said...

Mr Lundhal regrettably decided to abuse the hospitality of this blog by descending into gratuitous insult. Hence his comment has been deleted.

He won't be invited back until he learns to behave like a gentleman.

I shall, however, correct a couple of his more egregious errors.

He claims to be a German speaker and assumes that no-one else is.

Completely ignoring my last reply which said - very clearly - that "I was speaking of English usage and not German" he then delivers a pointless and redundant lecture on German pronouns, spectacularly demonstrating an amazing inability to read or pay attention to anyone else.

With amazingly comic Teutonic ponderousness he even describes "ihr" as "out of fashion as completely polite" as if politeness could ever be out of fashion.

Yes, I speak German and know that "ihr" is not in modern usage. What is funny is his own ponderous manner, however.

The silly clot fails to see how comic he makes himself to English readers.

However, the egregious error is next.

He denies my claim:

"since the Anglo-Saxon letter which looks very much like a small 'y' means 'th' which is the softened form of the German 'D' used in Anglo-Saxon."

And claims that the Anglo-Saxon letter is not so pronounced.

Here is what the experts say:

"The "y" here is a representation of the obsolete letter thorn, and was pronounced [T] or [D] (the same as modern "th"). The pronunciation of "ye" in "Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe" as, which you sometimes hear, is a spelling pronunciation and is a really "th"."

So you are wrong, I'm afraid, Lundahl.

"Ye" was a corruption and was later corrupted further. Thus it came to be used both for "the" and for words deriving from the old German "sie" and die".

If I were as impolite as Lundahl I might end by saying:

"Du bist ein flegel und ein narr"

but I shan't.

I shall simply ask him not to claim to understand the English or their language. He plainly understands neither at all well.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.