The Frantic Friar: Luther as Madman in Thomas More’s Responsio ad Lutherum

In 1520, King Henry VIII of England, appalled by Martin Luther’s treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, composed an erudite and combative reply—the famous Assertio Septem Sacramentorum—for which he was awarded the title Defensor Fidei (‘Defender of the Faith’) by Pope Leo X. Disseminated rapidly throughout the continent, Henry’s scornful dismissal of Luther’s theology became so popular that the reformer soon had no choice but to reply. The result (Contra Henricum Regem Angliae, 1522) was a blistering stream of invective so abusive in tone that many of the reformer’s own friends were aghast. Since Henry did not deign at that time to engage further with Luther directly, two of his most trusted courtiers, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, replied on his behalf. While Fisher opted for a calm restatement of the King’s arguments, it was left to More to confront Luther with a hostile intensity that matched—and even exceeded—that of the Contra Henricum.

More’s Responsio ad Lutherum (1523), a learned, witty, and painstaking attempt to refute Luther’s position, draws on the long classical and patristic traditions of condemning an opponent in terms which vividly suggest the excesses of insanity. In More’s verbal arsenal, however, furor and a cluster of related Latin words (insania, dementia, delirium, furiae, rabies, etc.) are deployed alongside a range of more recondite vocabulary which is extraordinary even by the extreme polemical standards of the time. More’s typically humanist rhetorical strategy of using subtle classical allusions and a variety of literary devices to heap scorn on Luther has been well documented, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the motif of madness, the dominant theme of the Responsio’s numerous taunts. When More’s furor-language is compared both with that of his classical models and that of the related Latin polemics of Henry and Luther, a key ideological tension—the uneasy relationship between classical humanism and the related but distinct movement for biblical reform—is laid bare. More’s reaction to the arguments of his antagonist, though he consistently affects to consider them hardly worth refuting, reveals a quintessentially humanistic approach: driven by a robust confidence in human rationality, More relies on his mastery of the classical tradition to bring the full Latin lexicon of derangement to bear on an opponent whose heresy tramples on reason itself (ratio), though he ironically fails in the process to engage fully with Luther’s central theological claims concerning the Church and its proper sources of authority.

(All Latin in the presentation and handout will be translated)

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