Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Literary Controversy.

In the article Milton, I had occasion to give some strictures on the asperity of literary controversy, drawn from his own and Salmasius’s writings. If to some the subject has appeared exceptionable, to me, I confess, it seems useful, and I shall therefore add some other particulars; for this topic has many branches. Of the following specimens the grossness and malignity are extreme; yet they were employed by the first scholars in Europe.

Martin Luther was not destitute of genius, of learning, or of eloquence; but his violence disfigured his works with singularities of abuse. The great reformer of superstition had himself all the vulgar ones of his day; he believed that flies were devils; and that he had had a buffeting with Satan, when his left ear felt the prodigious beating. Hear him express himself on the Catholic divines: “The Papists are all asses, and will always remain asses. Put them in whatever sauce you choose, boiled, roasted, baked, fried, skinned, beat, hashed, they are always the same asses.”

Gentle and moderate, compared with a salute to his holiness:—“The Pope was born out of the Devil’s posteriors. He is full of devils, lies, blasphemies, and idolatries; he is anti-Christ; the robber of churches; the ravisher of virgins; the greatest of pimps; the governor of Sodom, &c. If the Turks lay hold of us, then we shall be in the hands of the Devil; but if we remain with the Pope, we shall be in hell. — What a pleasing sight would it be to see the Pope and the Cardinals hanging on one gallows in exact order, like the seals which dangle from the bulls of the Pope! What an excellent council would they hold under the gallows!”1

Sometimes, desirous of catching the attention of the vulgar, Luther attempts to enliven his style by the grossest buffooneries: “Take care, my little Popa! my little ass! Go on slowly: the times are slippery: this year is dangerous: if them fallest, they will exclaim, See! how our little Pope is spoilt!” It was fortunate for the cause of the Reformation that the violence of Luther was softened in a considerable degree by the meek Melancthon, who often poured honey on the sting inflicted by the angry wasp. Luther was no respecter of kings; he was so fortunate, indeed, as to find among his antagonists a crowned head; a great good fortune for an obscure controversialist, and the very punctum saliens of controversy. Our Henry VIII. wrote his book against the new doctrine: then warm from scholastic studies, Henry presented Leo X. with a work highly creditable to his abilities, according to the genius of the age. Collier, in his Ecclesiastical History, has analysed the book, and does not ill describe its spirit: “Henry seems superior to his adversary in the vigour and propriety of his style, in the force of his reasoning, and the learning of his citations. It is true he leans too much upon his character, argues in his garter-robes, and writes as ’twere with his sceptre.“ But Luther in reply abandons his pen to all kinds of railing and abuse. He addresses Henry VIII. in the following style: “It is hard to say if folly can be more foolish, or stupidity more stupid, than is the head of Henry. He has not attacked me with the heart of a king, but with the impudence of a knave. This rotten worm of the earth having blasphemed the majesty of my king, I have a just right to bespatter his English majesty with his own dirt and ordure. This Henry has lied.” Some of his original expressions to our Henry VIII. are these: “Stulta, ridicula, et verissimè Henricicana et Thomastica sunt hæc — Regem Angliæ Henricum istum planè mentiri, &c. — Hoc agit inquietus Satan, ut nos a Scripturis avocet per sceleratos Henricos,“ &c. — He was repaid with capital and interest by an anonymous reply, said to have been written by Sir Thomas More, who concludes his arguments by leaving Luther in language not necessary to translate: “cum suis furiis et furoribus, cum suis merdis et stercoribus cacantem cacatumque.” Such were the vigorous elegancies of a controversy on the Seven Sacraments! Long after, the court of Rome had not lost the taste of these “bitter herbs:” for in the bull of the canonization of Ignatius Loyola in August, 1623, Luther is called monstrum teterrimum et detestabilis pestis.

Calvin was less tolerant, for he had no Melancthon! His adversaries are never others than knaves, lunatics, drunkards and assassins! Sometimes they are characterised by the familiar appellatives of bulls, asses, cats, and hogs! By him Catholic and Lutheran are alike hated. Yet, after having given vent to this virulent humour, he frequently boasts of his mildness. When he reads over his writings, he tells us, that he is astonished at his forbearance; but this, he adds, is the duty of every Christian! at the same time, he generally finishes a period with —“Do you hear, you dog?” “Do you hear, madman?”

Beza, the disciple of Calvin, sometimes imitates the luxuriant abuse of his master. When he writes against Tillemont, a Lutheran minister, he bestows on him the following titles of honour:—“Polyphemus; an ape; a great ass, who is distinguished from other asses by wearing a hat; an ass on two feet; a monster composed of part of an ape and wild ass; a villain who merits hanging on the first tree we find.” And Beza was, no doubt, desirous of the office of executioner!

The Catholic party is by no means inferior in the felicities of their style. The Jesuit Raynaud calls Erasmus the “Batavian buffoon,” and accuses him of nourishing the egg which Luther hatched. These men were alike supposed by their friends to be the inspired regulators of religion!2

Bishop Bedell, a great and good man, respected even by his adversaries, in an address to his clergy, observes, “Our calling is to deal with errors, not to disgrace the man with scolding words. It is said of Alexander, I think, when he overheard one of his soldiers railing lustily against Darius his enemy, that he reproved him, and added, “Friend, I entertain thee to fight against Darius, not to revile him;” and my sentiments of treating the Catholics,” concludes Bedell, “are not conformable to the practice of Luther and Calvin; but they were but men, and perhaps we must confess they suffered themselves to yield to the violence of passion.”

The Fathers of the Church were proficients in the art of abuse, and very ingeniously defended it. St. Austin affirms that the most caustic personality may produce a wonderful effect, in opening a man’s eyes to his own follies. He illustrates his position with a story, given with great simplicity, of his mother Saint Monica with her maid. Saint Monica certainly would have been a confirmed drunkard, had not her maid timelily and outrageously abused her. The story will amuse. —“My mother had by little and little accustomed herself to relish wine. They used to send her to the cellar, as being one of the soberest in the family: she first sipped from the jug and tasted a few drops, for she abhorred wine, and did not care to drink. However, she gradually accustomed herself, and from sipping it on her lips she swallowed a draught. As people from the smallest faults insensibly increase, she at length liked wine, and drank bumpers. But one day being alone with the maid who usually attended her to the cellar, they quarrelled, and the maid bitterly reproached her with being a drunkard! That single word struck her so poignantly that it opened her understanding; and reflecting on the deformity of the vice, she desisted for ever from its use.”

To jeer and play the droll, or, in his own words, de bouffonner, was a mode of controversy the great Arnauld defended, as permitted by the writings of the holy fathers. It is still more singular, when he not only brings forward as an example of this ribaldry, Elijah mocking at the false divinities, but God himself bantering the first man after his fall. He justifies the injurious epithets which he has so liberally bestowed on his adversaries by the example of Jesus Christ and the apostles! It was on these grounds also that the celebrated Pascal apologised for the invectives with which he has occasionally disfigured his Provincial Letters. A Jesuit has collected “An Alphabetical Catalogue of the Names of Beasts by which the Fathers characterised the Heretics!” It may be found in Erotemata de malis ac bonis Libris, p. 93, 4to. 1653, of Father Kaynaud. This list of brutes and insects, among which are a vast variety of serpents, is accompanied by the names of the heretics designated!

Henry Fitzsermon, an Irish Jesuit, was imprisoned for his papistical designs and seditious preaching. During his confinement he proved himself to be a great amateur of controversy. He said, “he felt like a bear tied to a stake, and wanted somebody to bait him.” A kind office, zealously undertaken by the learned Usher, then a young man. He engaged to dispute with him once a week on the subject of antichrist! They met several times. It appears that our bear was out-worried, and declined any further dog-baiting. This spread an universal joy through the Protestants in Dublin. At the early period of the Reformation, Dr. Smith of Oxford abjured papistry, with the hope of retaining his professorship, but it was given to Peter Martyr. On this our Doctor recants, and writes several controversial works against Peter Martyr; the most curious part of which is the singular mode adopted of attacking others, as well as Peter Martyr. In his margin he frequently breaks out thus: “Let Hooper read this!"—“Here, Ponet, open your eyes and see your errors!"—“Ergo, Cox, thou art damned!” In this manner, without expressly writing against these persons, the stirring polemic contrived to keep up a sharp bush-fighting in his margins. Such was the spirit of those times, very different from our own. When a modern bishop was just advanced to a mitre, his bookseller begged to re-publish a popular theological tract of his against another bishop, because he might now meet him on equal terms. My lord answered —“Mr. — — no more controversy now!” Our good bishop resembled Baldwin, who from a simple monk, arrived to the honour of the see of Canterbury. The successive honours successively changed his manners. Urban the Second inscribed his brief to him in this concise description — Balduino Monastico ferventissimo, Abbati calido, Episcopo tepido, Archiepiscopo remisso!

On the subject of literary controversies, we cannot pass over the various sects of the scholastics: a volume might be compiled of their ferocious wars, which in more than one instance were accompanied by stones and daggers. The most memorable, on account of the extent, the violence, and duration of their contests, are those of the Nominalists and the Realists.

It was a most subtle question assuredly, and the world thought for a long while that their happiness depended on deciding, whether universals, that is genera, have a real essence, and exist independent of particulars, that is species:— whether, for instance, we could form an idea of asses, prior to individual asses? Roscelinus, in the eleventh century, adopted the opinion that universals have no real existence, either before or in individuals, but are mere names and words by which the kind of individuals is expressed; a tenet propagated by Abelard, which produced the sect of Nominalists. But the Realists asserted that universals existed independent of individuals — though they were somewhat divided between the various opinions of Plato and Aristotle. Of the Realists the most famous were Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. The cause of the Nominalists was almost desperate, till Occam in the fourteenth century revived the dying embers. Louis XI. adopted the Nominalists, and the Nominalists flourished at large in France and Germany; but unfortunately Pope John XXIII. patronised the Realists, and throughout Italy it was dangerous for a Nominalist to open his lips. The French King wavered, and the Pope triumphed; his majesty published an edict in 1474, in which he silenced for ever the Nominalists, and ordered their books to be fastened up in their libraries with iron chains, that they might not be read by young students! The leaders of that sect fled into England and Germany, where they united their forces with Luther and the first Reformers.

Nothing could exceed the violence with which these disputes were conducted. Vives himself, who witnessed the contests, says that, “when the contending parties had exhausted their stock of verbal abuse, they often came to blows; and it was not uncommon in these quarrels about universals, to see the combatants engaging not only with their fists, but with clubs and swords, so that many have been wounded and some killed.”

On this war of words, and all this terrifying nonsense John of Salisbury observes, “that there had been more time consumed than the Cæsars had employed in making themselves masters of the world; that the riches of Crœsus were inferior to the treasures that had been exhausted in this controversy; and that the contending parties, after having spent their whole lives in this single point, had neither been so happy as to determine it to their satisfaction, nor to find in the labyrinths of science where they had been groping any discovery that was worth the pains they had taken.” It may be added that Ramus having attacked Aristotle, for “teaching us chimeras,” all his scholars revolted; the parliament put a stop to his lectures, and at length having brought the matter into a law court, he was declared “to be insolent and daring”— the king proscribed his works, he was ridiculed on the stage, and hissed at by his scholars. When at length, during the plague, he opened again his schools, he drew on himself a fresh storm by reforming the pronunciation of the letter Q, which they then pronounced like K— Kiskis for Quisquis, and Kamkam for Quamquam. This innovation Was once more laid to his charge: a new rebellion! and a new ejection of the Anti-Aristotelian! The brother of that Gabriel Harvey who was the friend of Spenser, and with Gabriel had been the whetstone of the town-wits of his time, distinguished himself by his wrath against the Stagyrite. After having with Gabriel predicted an earthquake, and alarmed the kingdom, which never took place (that is the earthquake, not the alarm), the wits buffeted him. Nash says of him, that “Tarlton at the theatre made jests of him, and Elderton consumed his ale-crammed nose to nothing, in bear-baiting him with whole bundles of ballads.” Marlow declared him to be “an ass fit only to preach of the iron age.” Stung to madness by this lively nest of hornets, he avenged himself in a very cowardly manner — he attacked Aristotle himself! for he set Aristotle with his heels upwards on the school gates at Cambridge, and with asses’ ears on his head!

But this controversy concerning Aristotle and the school divinity was even prolonged. A professor in the College at Naples published in 1688 four volumes of peripatetic philosophy, to establish the principles of Aristotle. The work was exploded, and he wrote an abusive treatise under the nom de guerre of Benedetto Aletino. A man of letters, Constantino Grimaldi, replied. Aletino rejoined; he wrote letters, an apology for the letters, and would have written more for Aristotle than Aristotle himself perhaps would have done. However, Grimaldi was no ordinary antagonist, and not to be outwearied. He had not only the best of the argument, but he was resolved to tell the world so, as long as the world would listen. Whether he killed off Father Benedictus, the first author, is not affirmed; but the latter died during the controversy. Grimaldi, however, afterwards pursued his ghost, and buffeted the father in his grave. This enraged the University of Naples; and the Jesuits, to a man, denounced Grimaldi to Pope Benedict XIII. and to the Viceroy of Naples. On this the Pope issued a bull prohibiting the reading of Grimaldi’s works, or keeping them, under pain of excommunication; and the viceroy, more active than the bull, caused all the copies which were found in the author’s house to be thrown into the sea! The author with tears in his eyes beheld his expatriated volumes, hopeless that their voyage would have been successful. However, all the little family of the Grimaldis were not drowned — for a storm arose, and happily drove ashore many of the floating copies, and these falling into charitable hands, the heretical opinions of poor Grimaldi against Aristotle and school divinity were still read by those who were not out-terrified by the Pope’s bulls. The salted passages were still at hand, and quoted with a double zest against the Jesuits!

We now turn to writers whose controversy was kindled only by subjects of polite literature. The particulars form a curious picture of the taste of the age.

“There is,” says Joseph Scaliger, that great critic and reviler, “an art of abuse or slandering, of which those that are ignorant may be said to defame others much less than they show a willingness to defame.”

“Literary wars,” says Bayle, “are sometimes as lasting as they are terrible.” A disputation between two great scholars was so interminably violent, that it lasted thirty years! He humorously compares its duration to the German war which lasted as long.

Baillet, when he refuted the sentiments of a certain author always did it without naming him; but when he found any observation which, he deemed commendable, he quoted his name. Bayle observes, that “this is an excess of politeness, prejudicial to that freedom which should ever exist in the republic of letters; that it should be allowed always to name those whom we refute; and that it is sufficient for this purpose that we banish asperity, malice, and indecency.”

After these preliminary observations, I shall bring forward various examples where this excellent advice is by no means regarded.

Erasmus produced a dialogue, in which he ridiculed those scholars who were servile imitators of Cicero; so servile, that they would employ no expression but what was found in the works of that writer; everything with them was Ciceronianised. This dialogue is written with great humour. Julius Cæsar Scaliger, the father, who was then unknown to the world, had been long looking for some occasion to distinguish himself; he now wrote a defence of Cicero, but which in fact was one continued invective against Erasmus: he there treats the latter as illiterate, a drunkard, an impostor, an apostate, a hangman, a demon hot from hell! The same Scaliger, acting on the same principle of distinguishing himself at the cost of others, attacked Cardan’s best work De Subtilitate: his criticism did not appear till seven years after the first edition of the work, and then he obstinately stuck to that edition, though Cardan had corrected it in subsequent ones; but this Scaliger chose, that he might have a wider field for his attack. After this, a rumour spread that Cardan had died of vexation from Julius Cæsar’s invincible pen; then Scaliger pretended to feel all the regret possible for a man he had killed, and whom he now praised: however, his regret had as little foundation as his triumph; for Cardan outlived Scaliger many years, and valued his criticisms too cheaply to have suffered them to have disturbed his quiet. All this does not exceed the Invectives of Poggius, who has thus entitled several literary libels composed against some of his adversaries, Laurentius Valla, Philelphus, &c., who returned the poisoned chalice to his own lips; declamations of scurrility, obscenity, and calumny!

Scioppius was a worthy successor of the Scaligers: his favourite expression was, that he had trodden down his adversary.

Scioppius was a critic, as skilful as Salmasius or Scaliger, but still more learned in the language of abuse. This cynic was the Attila of authors. He boasted that he had occasioned the deaths of Casaubon and Scaliger. Detested and dreaded as the public scourge, Scioppius, at the close of his life, was fearful he should find no retreat in which he might be secure.

The great Casaubon employs the dialect of St. Giles’s in his furious attacks on the learned Dalechamps, the Latin translator of Athenæus. To this great physician he stood more deeply indebted than he chose to confess; and to conceal the claims of this literary creditor, he called out Vesanum! Insanum! Tiresiam! &c. It was the fashion of that day with the ferocious heroes of the literary republic, to overwhelm each other with invectives, and to consider that their own grandeur consisted in the magnitude of their volumes; and their triumphs in reducing their brother giants into puny dwarfs. In science, Linnæus had a dread of controversy — conqueror or conquered we cannot escape without disgrace! Mathiolus would have been the great man of his day, had he not meddled with such matters. Who is gratified by “the mad Cornarus,” or “the flayed Fox?” titles which Fuchsius and Cornarus, two eminent botanists, have bestowed on each other. Some who were too fond of controversy, as they grew wiser, have refused to take up the gauntlet.

The heat and acrimony of verbal critics have exceeded description. Their stigmas and anathemas have been long known to bear no proportion to the offences against which they have been directed. “God confound you,” cried one grammarian to another, “for your theory of impersonal verbs!” There was a long and terrible controversy formerly, whether the Florentine dialect was to prevail over the others. The academy was put to great trouble, and the Anti-Cruscans were often on the point of annulling this supremacy; una mordace scritura was applied to one of these literary canons; and in a letter of those times the following paragraph appears:—“Pescetti is preparing to give a second answer to Beni, which will not please him; I now believe the prophecy of Cavalier Tedeschi will be verified, and that this controversy, begun with pens, will end with poniards!”

Fabretti, an Italian, wrote furiously against Gronovius, whom he calls Grunnovius: he compared him to all those animals whose voice was expressed by the word Grunnire, to grunt. Gronovius was so malevolent a critic, that he was distinguished by the title of the “Grammatical Cur.”

When critics venture to attack the person as well as the performance of an author, I recommend the salutary proceedings of Huberus, the writer of an esteemed Universal History. He had been so roughly handled by Perizonius, that he obliged him to make the amende honorable in a court of justice; where, however, I fear an English jury would give the smallest damages.

Certain authors may be distinguished by the title of Literary Bobadils, or fighting authors. One of our own celebrated writers drew his sword on a reviewer; and another, when his farce was condemned, offered to fight any one of the audience who hissed. Scudery, brother of the celebrated Mademoiselle Scudery, was a true Parnassian bully. The first publication which brought him into notice was his edition of the works of his friend Theophile. He concludes the preface with these singular expressions —“I do not hesitate to declare, that, amongst all the dead, and all the living, there is no person who has anything to show that approaches the force of this vigorous genius; but if amongst the latter, any one were so extravagant as to consider that I detract from his imaginary glory, to show him that I fear as little as I esteem him, this is to inform him that my name is De Scudery.”

A similar rhodomontade is that of Claude Trellon, a poetical soldier, who begins his poems by challenging the critics, assuring them that if any one attempts to censure him, he will only condescend to answer sword in hand. Father Macedo, a Portuguese Jesuit, having written against Cardinal Noris, on the monkery of St. Austin, it was deemed necessary to silence both parties. Macedo, compelled to relinquish the pen, sent his adversary a challenge, and according to the laws of chivalry, appointed a place for meeting in the wood of Boulogne. Another edict forbad the duel! Macedo then murmured at his hard fate, which would not suffer him, for the sake of St. Austin, for whom he had a particular regard, to spill either his ink or his blood.

Anti, prefixed to the name of the person attacked, was once a favourite title to books of literary controversy. With a critical review of such books Baillet has filled a quarto volume; yet such was the abundant harvest, that he left considerable gleanings for posterior industry.

Anti-Gronovius was a book published against Gronovius, by Kuster. Perizonius, another pugilist of literature, entered into this dispute on the subject of the Æs grave of the ancients, to which Kuster had just adverted at the close of his volume. What was the consequence? Dreadful! — Answers and rejoinders from both, in which they bespattered each other with the foulest abuse. A journalist pleasantly blames this acrimonious controversy. He says, “To read the pamphlets of a Perizonius and a Kuster on the Æs grave of the ancients, who would not renounce all commerce with antiquity? It seems as if an Agamemnon and an Achilles were railing at each other. Who can refrain from laughter, when one of these commentators even points his attacks at the very name of his adversary? According to Kuster, the name of Perizonius signifies a certain part of the human body. How is it possible, that with such a name he could be right concerning the Æs grave? But does that of Kuster promise a better thing, since it signifies a beadle; a man who drives dogs out of churches? — What madness is this!”

Corneille, like our Dryden, felt the acrimony of literary irritation. To the critical strictures of D’Aubignac it is acknowledged he paid the greatest attention, for, after this critic’s Pratique du Théâtre appeared, his tragedies were more artfully conducted. But instead of mentioning the critic with due praise, he preserved an ungrateful silence. This occasioned a quarrel between the poet and the critic, in which the former exhaled his bile in several abusive epigrams, which have, fortunately for his credit, not been preserved in his works.

The lively Voltaire could not resist the charm of abusing his adversaries. We may smile when he calls a blockhead, a blockhead; a dotard, a dotard; but when he attacks, for a difference of opinion, the morals of another man, our sensibility is alarmed. A higher tribunal than that of criticism is to decide on the actions of men.

There is a certain disguised malice, which some writers have most unfairly employed in characterising a contemporary. Burnet called Prior, one Prior. In Bishop Parker’s History of his Own Times, an innocent reader may start at seeing the celebrated Marvell described as an outcast of society; an infamous libeller; and one whose talents were even more despicable than his person. To such lengths did the hatred of party, united with personal rancour, carry this bishop, who was himself the worst of time-servers. He was, however, amply paid by the keen wit of Marvell in “The Rehearsal Transposed,” which may still be read with delight, as an admirable effusion of banter, wit, and satire. Le Clerc, a cool ponderous Greek critic, quarrelled with Boileau about a passage in Longinus, and several years afterwards, in revising Moreri’s Dictionary, gave a short sarcastic notice of the poet’s brother; in which he calls him the elder brother of him who has written the book entitled, “Satires of Mr. Boileau Despréaux!"— the works of the modern Horace, which were then delighting Europe, he calls, with simple impudence, “a book entitled Satires!”

The works of Homer produced a controversy, both long and virulent, amongst the wits of France. This literary quarrel is of some note in the annals of literature, since it has produced two valuable books; La Motte’s “Réflexions sur la Critique,” and Madame Dacier’s “Des Causes de la Corruption du Goût.” La Motte wrote with feminine delicacy, and Madame Dacier like a University pedant. “At length, by the efforts of Valincour, the friend of art, of artists, and of peace, the contest was terminated.” Both parties were formidable in number, and to each he made remonstrances, and applied reproaches. La Motte and Madame Dacier, the opposite leaders, were convinced by his arguments, made reciprocal concessions, and concluded a peace. The treaty was formally ratified at a dinner, given on the occasion by a Madame De Staël, who represented “Neutrality.” Libations were poured to the memory of old Homer, and the parties were reconciled.

1 Caricaturists were employed on both sides of the question, and by pictures as well as words the war of polemics was vigorously carried on. In one instance, the head of Luther is represented as the Devil’s Bagpipe; he blows into his ear, and uses his nose as a chanter. Cocleus, in one of his tracts, represents Luther as a monster with seven heads, indicative of his follies; the first is that of a disputatious doctor, the last that of Barabbas! Luther replied in other pamphlets, adorned with equally gross delineations levelled at his opponents.

2 Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry will furnish an example of the coarseness of invective used by both parties during the era of the Reformation; in such rhymes as “Plain Truth and Blind Ignorance”—“A Ballad of Luther and the Pope,” &c. The old interlude of “Newe Custome,” printed in Dodsley’s Old Plays; and that of “Lusty Juventus,” in Hawkins’s English Drama, are choice specimens of the vulgarest abuse. Bishop Bale in his play of King John (published in 1838 by the Camden Society), indulges in a levity and coarseness that would not now be tolerated in an alehouse —“stynkyng heretic” on one side, and “vile popysh swyne” on the other, are among the mildest epithets used in these religious satires. One of the most curious is a dialogue between John Bon, a husbandman, and “Master Parson” of his parish, on the subject of transubstantiation; it was so violent in its style as to threaten great trouble to author and printer (see Strype’s Ecclesiastical Memorials). It may be seen in vol. xxx. of the Percy Society’s publications.

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