Book Review #12

cymbalum mundi

This will be a review/discussion of a somewhat older book with the odd, Latin title of Cymbalum Mundi. First, let me just say that if, like me, you ever get a chance to read this book….DON’T!

Some time ago, I published a post about how The Church, at the beginning of the Renaissance, made torture a competitive sport, offering rewards, both secular and spiritual, for winners. Jim Wheeler made me aware of a book titled A World Lit Only By Fire, a history of the excesses and hypocrisies of the time.

I obtained it by asking for an inter-library loan. Within its pages, it mentioned another book which listed and mocked certain Church practices.  Always willing to learn more of the failures of the best of the Good Christians, when I returned ‘World’, I requested another special loan.

This book was written in 1537. The title is in Latin, because back then, all serious works were written in Latin, so that educated people in different countries could all read them.  I requested an English translation.  Two weeks later, I got a call to pick it up.  I left the wife in the car, and when I brought it out, I tossed it into her lap.  Fortunately, before I got out of the parking lot, she asked, “Do you read French?”

The author was a Frenchman named Bonaventure Des Periers. While he titled it in Latin, the original text is all French.  I might get the gist of a current French document, but not the detail this book required.  I immediately returned it, and the Library Lady told me, “You should have told us you wanted an English version.”   👿

Two weeks later, I got another call, and carefully checked it before taking delivery. The French copy came from the University of Waterloo, 5 miles north, in our twin city.  The second, English copy, also came from U of W.  I’ve personally borrowed from Wilfrid Laurier University, our neighbors’ second, smaller school, but let the librarians do the work on this one.

The Book – Cymbalum Mundi [The Noise of the World]
(The anticipated applause of his adoring readers)

The Author – Bonaventure Des Periers

The Review – I don’t know what I expected to get with this book, but I didn’t get it. It came with 4 pages of Foreword, 28 pages of Introduction, 5 pages of Notes, and 4 pages of Literary References – and none of it actually explained only 74 pages of allegory and allusion.

It consists of five small segments, beginning with a fake letter to a fake friend, explaining how he carefully translated this from the original Greek. This is followed by four small scenes from a Shakespeare-like play; only, A Midsummer’s Night Dream is lucid and crystal clear, compared to this.

Jupiter sends his son Mercury to Earth, to have an old book rebound. He falls in with three brigands who steal the book from his bag, by replacing it with a worthless book, the same size and shape, while they are drinking at an inn.


Does Jupiter represent God?
Does Mercury, the Messenger, represent Jesus?
Is the book Mercury brings, the tattered Old Testament?
Does the new, rebound book represent the New Testament?
Are the thieves the rulers of the Church, who steal The Word, to sell to the masses and enrich themselves?
Is the fake book they substitute, the code of rules the Church uses to control the laity?
Is the hostess of the inn a stand-in for the Virgin Mary?
Is the real food and wine she serves them a denial of the Doctrine of Transubstantiation?

The problem is, he never actually says. One well-known historian, with a pile of evidence, says yes, while another, just as renowned, and with as big a pile of proof, says the exact opposite.  You can ‘make’ this book say anything you want it to.

I had hoped that it might show more of the excesses and failings of the Church. What it shows, is the tap-dancing necessary for any writer of this period to present some doubt, and cause people to think, without ending up chained to a post, tap-dancing on a large bonfire.

It was interesting, and in the end educational, but not really fulfilling.

6 thoughts on “Book Review #12

  1. BrainRants says:

    I’ll steer clear of this one for certain. Wacky Christians.


  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    This book was written in 1537. The title is in Latin, because back then, all serious works were written in Latin, so that educated people in different countries could all read them.

    It occurs to me that the use of Latin might have been just the opposite, an arcane language reserved for the clergy and obscure to the laity. The bible was considered the provenance of the priesthood, hence missals.


    • Archon's Den says:

      I don’t really think so. Until the printing press, the rabble were illiterate in all languages. Latin was universal among the ruling (educated) class. Eldest sons inherited, and younger sons entered The Church. Nobility and clergy controlled all. Germans ruled in England, Spaniards in The Netherlands, Italians in Switzerland, and Swedes in Bavaria.

      Latin was the common language, which only these educated people spoke and wrote. Guys like Des Periers were kept like pet parrots, and taught to speak like their betters, and had to be careful when they disagreed.

      The notes mention that by writing this book in the French vernacular, it would not be taken seriously, but it kept seditious thoughts under the radar, and his skin whole and uncharred.

      BTW; Today’s local paper included this brief. If you’re not already aware, I thought you might be interested.

      Bath, Maine
      US Navy poised to take ownership of its largest warship
      The US navy is ready to take ownership of its largest and most technologically sophisticated destroyer. Capt. James Kirk, the ship’s skipper, says sailors’ personal effects and supplies are being moved aboard the warship in anticipation of the crew taking over responsibility of ‘The Zumwalt’ this week in Bath, Maine. The 200 metre Zumwalt features a stealthy shape, electric propulsion, and new guns. It’s the first new class of warship built at Bath Iron Works since the Arleigh Burke slid into the Kennebec River in 1989.


      • Jim Wheeler says:

        No argument about Latin, really. The point I was making was that literacy was the provenance of the clergy, a point that you acknowledge in your comment. I guess another way to put it is, the educated class was small and used literacy to control.

        Thanks for the note on the Zumwalt. The thing seems surreal, including the name of the skipper! Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket! It’s a classic case of always fighting the last war instead of preparing for the next. (If that sucker goes aground, it’ll be the biggest deal since the USS Missouri went aground in Chesapeake Bay in 1950.)

        The process of introducing a new ship into service is a lengthy one, and even more so when high technology is involved, what with sea trials and systems testing, and lots of civilian experts swarming. Commissioning is the formal acceptance by the Navy, at which time the ship is considered mission-ready. I see that will be in October in San Diego.

        Liked by 1 person

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