Stoa Consortium

Stoa Consortium

1.1. Introduction to the Colloquia familiaria

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Erasmus' Colloquies first appeared in print in November of 1518, published under the full title Familiarum colloquiorum formulae, et alia quaedam per Des. Erasmum Roterodamum. The publisher, Johann Froben, was targeting the brief 80-page booklet at people who wanted to learn to speak Latin quickly.1 The collection of formulae contained various ways of greeting people with differing levels of formality; ways of wishing people well in various situations; phrases for how to take leave of people, how to inquire after people's health, and so forth.

Their author, however, was not happy to see the Familiarum colloquiorum formulae come off the presses, as he had neither authorized their publication, nor had any hand in overseeing their final contents. Never intended for public consumption, the formulae were born out of sets of exercises that Erasmus had prepared for his pupils while supporting himself as a tutor during his studies at the University of Paris.2

Erasmus was about 29 years old when he first moved to Paris in 1495, with the intention of obtaining the degree of doctor of theology. Although he had the academic preparation—and certainly the native intelligence—to achieve such a goal, Erasmus experienced a number of setbacks during his sojourn there that prevented his plan from ever coming to fruition.3 In fact, Erasmus thereafter generally looked back on his years in Paris as a period of frustration, exasperation and struggle.4

The difficulties Erasmus suffered in Paris were of both an intellectual and physical nature. From an intellectual standpoint, he was frustrated by the scholastic approach to theology that was dominant at the University of Paris at that time. Favoring intellectual simplicity, purity, and what Huizinga calls "reasonableness," Erasmus experienced the lectures at Paris as "hair-splitting, sophistical quibbling, which made men into quarrelsome pseudo-scholars..."5 Believing that the student of theology should encounter the Holy Scriptures first-hand—not filtered through overly-academic disputations—Erasmus advocated a return to the sources, which could only be accomplished through the thorough study of Latin and Greek via the texts of Classical authors.

From a physical standpoint, Erasmus' years in Paris were colored by uncomfortable accommodations and constant financial worries. When he first arrived there, he boarded at the Collège de Montaigu, run by John Standonck of Mechlin, a man known for his strictness and austerity. Augustijn describes how the students at the hostel were given horrible lodging and food, and were even humiliated and beaten.6 Erasmus ended up leaving there before the year was up, but the wretched conditions at the college made a lasting impression on him.

What is more, financial troubles continually hounded him. Before he left for Paris, it was agreed that Erasmus would receive a stipend while at the university from his former employer, the Bishop of Cambray. The money was not enough, however, to cover his expenses—an experience with which many college students can sympathize—so Erasmus found himself in the position of having to supplement his income by tutoring the sons of noble or wealthy bourgeois families.7 Among his students were Christian and Henry Northoff of Luebeck, and Augustine Vincent. It was for them that Erasmus prepared sets of simple Latin exercises that Thompson rightly compares to those encountered by students of modern languages today. In fact, Craig Thompson calls our attention to the fact that the principal speakers in the early Formulae are named Christian, Augustine and Erasmus, certainly after himself and these pupils.8

The Formulae begin with a brief statement about the importance of greeting people for fostering good will and maintaining friendships, and then provides the student with extensive vocabulary for greeting members of his family, his beloved, his betters, and even people he's not particularly fond of. Following that, Erasmus proposes many different ways to wish people well in various contexts: upon encountering a pregnant woman, at dinner, when someone has just sneezed, when someone is leaving on a trip, and so forth. The final part of the Formulae is made up of brief dialogues that build on the vocabulary and phrases in the first two parts, so the student can practice what he has learned in context.

Erasmus would continue writing at length about his views on education, but already in these early Formulae we see the seeds of what would become a more fully-developed approach.9 As J. K. Sowards explains, Erasmus believed that children should be taught to master Latin and Greek via the texts of Ancient authors, but that their command of these languages should ultimately lead them to a greater understanding of the Holy Scriptures and the Christian tradition.10 In order to master these languages, it was important for children to be able to speak and write them proficiently, not just read them. To this end, Erasmus put great stock in vocabulary-building exercises including ample synonyms and turns of phrase. He also believed that education should be fun, and that teachers should incorporate frequent game-playing into their lessons.

When Erasmus left Paris in 1499 and was no longer tutoring young boys in Latin, he had no more use of the little exercise book and apparently didn't even keep a copy of it. But his student Augustine Vincent did hold onto a copy, which eventually made its way into the hands of the publisher Johann Froben in 1518.11

Although, as mentioned above, Erasmus was initially irked by the publication of the Familiarum colloquiorum formulae, the overwhelming success of the book must have placated him and spurred him on, because he ended up not only writing a preface for a 1519 reprinting of the book, but intermittently edited and added to it up until 1533.12 In fact, by 1533 at least 16 editions of the Colloquia had been published.13

Perhaps the biggest change the Formulae underwent on its journey towards what we now know as the Colloquia familiaria is the addition of long, fully-developed dialogues, the first of which appeared in the March 1522 edition.14 In fact, no new formulae were included after 1522. Thompson writes that Erasmus probably realized the potential for the dialogue form as a medium for him to write more or less freely on on a wide variety of topics that interested him. 15 Indeed, the introduction of the dialogues transformed Erasmus' work from a phrasebook to a source of coherent compositions on a variety of sacred and profane topics that could be used as models for spoken and written Latin, and would appeal not only to schoolboys, but to serious Latin students of all ages.16

General note about orthography:

Students of Classical Latin will notice that many familiar words are spelled somewhat differently in this text. The spelling in this edition of Erasmus' Colloquia follows the conventions of medieval Latin, when orthography was not standardized and was often reflective either of local pronunciation, or of the ignorance of the scribe as to correct Classical spelling rules.17 Some specific instances of spelling changes the student will encounter in these texts are as follows:

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Date: last revised 2003-12-18 Author: Jennifer K. Nelson.
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