Stoa Consortium

Stoa Consortium

1.6.1. Introduction to Diversoria


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While the other dialogues in the present collection provide us an insight into Erasmus' intellectual and spiritual life—his views on education, his opinions about the monastic life and what it means to commune with God, his thoughts about the role of women in society, his views on marriage, and so forth—Diversoria, on the other hand, lets us see a very concrete and everyday side of the famous humanist.

In this dialogue, first published in 1523, the characters Bertulphus and Gulielmus compare their experiences as guests at hotels in France (specifically in Lyon) and in Germany (we are not told the particular city). What emerges from this dialogue is a stark contrast between the lively, entertaining and hospitable French innkeepers, who cater to their guests' every need, and the no-frills, businesslike and rather cold treatment guests receive at the hands of the German pandochei.

At the beginning of the dialogue, Bertulphus wonders at the fact that people stay two or three days in Lyon, because, when he travels, his goal is generally to get to his destination as quickly as possible. Gulielmus explains to him that, on the contrary, the inns there have such a siren-like draw that non poterant avelli socii Ulyssis. Next follows a description of the utmost in hospitality: guests being welcomed and embraced like family; an innkeeper's wife who entertains the travelers with jokes and delightful conversation; jovial, pretty young women who spirit away the guests' dirty clothes and bring them back clean; delicious food—and all at very reasonable prices.

Bertulphus (presumably a German) confesses that, while all of this sounds very nice, and squares with what he knows about the Gallicae gentis humanitatem, he prefers the way inns are run in Germany. He explains to Gulielmus that he finds the German way of providing hospitality more manly: mihi magis arrident Germaniae mores, utpote masculi. From the humorous description he then launches into, it is clear that the hospitality is more "manly" because guests are subjected to conditions which only the very tough could withstand. This dialogue satirizes the conditions at the German inn, where no one is pampered; where scores of people from all walks of life (and in varying states of health) are crammed together, sweaty and dirty, into one hot room; where there is only one sitting for the evening meal, so no one can eat until all the other guests have arrived—sometimes not until nine or ten at night; and where, if anyone complains, he is told: si non placet, quaere tibi aliud diversorium.

A frequent traveler himself, Erasmus had ample opportunity to experience how guests were treated in inns around Europe. Before this letter was published, Erasmus had lived in Paris, had traveled twice to England, once to Italy, and had made frequent trips to cities in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. Describing him as "a frequent traveler and a fastidious guest," Craig Thompson notes how Erasmus often complained about the inns where he stayed. 63 In a famous letter to Beatus Rheanus written in 1518, Erasmus narrates totam itineris mei tragicocomoediam, describing in detail a journey from Basel to Louvain during which he got little sleep, ate very badly, got caught in terrible weather, and ended up getting quite sick.64

That Erasmus found the conditions sub-par at many of the places he stayed, however, should not lead us to generalize about the cleanliness or the hospitality (or lack thereof) at European inns during his time. This is evident in the dialogue itself, as Craig Thompson points out, when the character Bertulphus criticizes a particular experience he had, but is careful not to make a sweeping statement about all German inns: An ubique sit eadem tractandi ratio, nescio: quod ego vidi, narrabo.65 Moreover, Thompson notes in his introduction to this dialogue that there are ample and conflicting accounts of European inns from sixteenth-century travelers, many of whom had not-so-great experiences in France, but quite enjoyed their stays in Switzerland and Bavaria.66

Besides providing an example of at least one person's opinion of the state of the Renaissance hospitality industry, this dialogue also lets us get a glimpse of a more personal side of Erasmus. Indeed, contributing to Erasmus' fastidiousness as a guest is the fact that he suffered from poor health most of his life. Because of his delicate constitution, he was sensitive to cold, was careful about what he ate, functioned best when able to maintain very regular sleeping habits, and loathed close, stuffy quarters—such as the hypocausta described in the present dialogue—where germs could easily spread.67

Having said this, however, the reader must bear in mind that, although Erasmus did not enjoy excellent health, he was not unique in his concern with disease and the spreading of infection. Since the time of the Black Death of 1347-1352, Europeans had to contend with regular outbreaks of the plague for the next three and a half centuries. In fact, A. Lynn Martin writes that the plague was present somewhere in Europe during almost every year from 1347 to 1670.68

This concern with the spread of disease and infection is reflected in the present dialogue when, for example, Gulielmus responds with horror at Bertulphus' description of the over-heated hypocaustum packed full of sweaty travelers: Atqui mihi nihil videtur esse pericolosius, quam tam multos haurire eundem vaporem.... He is concerned primarily with syphilis (referred to as scabies Hispanica or Gallica), but also uses the more general term pestilentia. Fear of contagion caused people to take concrete measures to avoid the spread of germs. An example from our dialogue is the closing of the thermae publicae (like the ones at Brabantos), out of fear that the plague could be spread through water.69 There are also many accounts of families or groups of people fleeing to the countryside to avoid the crowded urban areas until the wave of contagion had passed.

Because of its matter-of-fact topic, this amusing dialogue lets us eavesdrop on a very authentic-sounding conversation between a Frenchman and a German interested in comparing their cultures, contrasting their experiences, and sharing variously their praise and concern for certain practices of their day. It also serves the student of Latin by providing a rich vocabulary for discussing different cities and countries, describing people from different walks of life, describing clothing, food, different parts of the house, and—for better or worse—personal hygiene, various and sundry bodily functions and disease.

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