M.G. Piety

Erasmus Montanus

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on May 16, 2016 at 5:57 pm
Untitled 2

Scene from a production of Erasmus Montanus by Bagsværd Amatørescene, Photographer: Flemming Mortensen

There are two places in Kierkegaard’s published and unpublished works where he refers to the earth being “as flat as a pancake.” The first is in his review of H.C. Andersen’s failed attempt at a novel, Kun en Spillemand, that was published under the title of From the Papers of One Still Living, and the second is in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs

The second reference will no doubt be familiar to Kierkegaard scholars. It is in that passage where Kierkegaard, or Johannes Climacus, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published the Postscript, illustrates his claim that the mere utterance of an objective truth is not in itself evidence that the person who utters it is sane. “Let me recount an incident,” he begins, “that without any kind of adaptation from my side, comes straight from an insane asylum.” He then tells the story of a man who escapes from this asylum and on his way into town, finds a little skittle ball lying on the ground. He absent-mindedly picks up the ball and puts it in the tail pocket of his coat. As he walks, the ball gently hits him, explains Climacus, on his “a – “ and presumably, the fact of it’s being a ball, reminds him every time it strikes him that the earth is round. Since he knows that everyone agrees that the earth is round, he decides that the best way to convince people that he is sane is to go about saying continually ”the earth is round!”

“And indeed is not the earth round?” ask Climacus. “Does the asylum crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion as when everyone believed it to be as flat as a pancake?” (Hannay, 164). This reference to the earth being “flat as a pancake” is clearly an allusion to Ludvig Holberg’s play Erasmus Montanus. I cannot remember how I learned this. I could have sworn it was in an explanatory note in either one of the English translations of the Postscript or in the text as it appears in the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter. But I have searched in vain for such a note, though SKS does acknowledge that the first appearance of this phrase in Kierkegaard’s works, the one in From the Papers of One Still Living is an allusion to the Holberg play.

Since there are at least two references to this play in Kierkegaard’s works, I felt that I should read it. I didn’t own a copy, however, so I did a google search, in the hope that I could find a copy online. I did. Not only did I find a copy, but I found a download able copy in English translation!

The play is hilarious. The Danes like to claim Holberg as one of their own, but in fact, he was Norwegian. The thing is, Denmark ruled Norway back then, so Norwegians were viewed, more or less, as Danes, particularly if they distinguished themselves the way Holberg did. I’m telling you this because the play is clearly set in Norway, in that it concerns a people in a little mountain village and, well, there are no mountains in Denmark. Back in the 18th century, when the play is set, residents of Norway who wanted a university education typically attended the University of Copenhagen. So Rasmus Berg, the eldest son of a prosperous farmer does just that.

I don’t know if all the instruction was in Latin back then, but at least some of it was. Students were typically taught to argue in Latin and showy Latin disputations were part and parcel of university life. Rasmus Berg returns to his little mountain village as Erasmus Montanus, determined to impress everyone with his new learning. Unfortunately for him, the local deacon succeeds in convincing the poor townsfolk, none of whom know a word of Latin, that he is beating the pants off Berg, or Montanus, in Latin disputation even though the Latin he purports to be speaking is nothing but gibberish, bits and pieces of Latin grammar, and other odd words and phrases that he strings together to form nonsensical sentences that he utters with such passionate conviction that everyone feels sorry for poor Berg, or Montanus, for being shown up that way in public.

That isn’t the worst of it, though. The townsfolk are so scandalized when Berg, or Montanus, informs them that the earth is round, that his future father-in-law withdraws his permission for Berg to marry his daughter. Berg, or Montanus, is forced, finally, to recant his statement that the earth is round in order to win the hand of his ladylove.

Interesting, eh? Not only was Kierkegaard understandably taken with the play, the whole thing is kind of a metaphor for his life. There are lines in it about how the earth must be flat because everyone but Montanus thinks it is, and that truth is in numbers. There is the general backwardness of the mountain people that mirrors what Kierkegaard thought of as the backwardness, or philistinism, of the people in the little market town of Copenhagen. And then there is the fact that Montanus had to surrender his calling as an intellectual, to betray his learning, to betray what he knew to be true, in order to enjoy the pleasures of domestic life. This, as we all know, was a sacrifice Kierkegaard could not himself make.

I have come to believe that there are likely many more allusions to this particular play in Kierkegaard’s authorship than have yet been recognized as such. If you can find one yourself, please send it along. Perhaps we can write a collective paper on the influence this play on Kierkegaard’s works, and if there are enough of us, then everyone will have to admit that our claims are correct –– right?

(Hannay, who is generally an excellent translator of Kierkegaard, has inexplicably rendered the Danish Keglekugle as “skittle bowl” instead of “skittle ball.” Perhaps this is some kind of Anglicism with which I am unfamiliar. The object in question is indisputably a skittle ball, however, as both earlier English translations of the Postscript indicate, no matter what people in the UK call it.)









  1. The reference to Erasmus is in Hannay’s translation of the Postscript, page 54, footnote 1 :-).

    • The reference on page 54 is not to the phrase “flat as a pancake,” but to the character of Peter (or Peer) Degn from the same play. I’ll confess to you, however, that I don’t understand that reference. Perhaps I will if I read the play again…

  2. What delicious good humor, Marilyn! Chapeau.



  3. “I’m telling you this because the play is clearly set in Norway, in that it concerns a people in a little mountain village and, well, there are no mountains in Denmark. ” Never before heard anyone relate Eramus Montanus to Norway! A village near to Holberg’s farm is Munke Bjergby, No mountain of course, but you know we have Himmelbjerget!:-) and at Munke Bjergby ( Monk’s mountain village) you have a nice view over the area! http://lokalhistorisk-arkiv-stenlille.dk/?id=327897

    • Thanks for this. Perhaps you are right. It is hard to say, however, whether it is more likely that Holberg would be making fun of his neighbors than of his countrymen.

  4. This is perhaps not the kind of method you seek. The Princeton KW series cites Erasmus Montanus in a few different volumes. For instance in Either/Or I:

    KW III p. 257 Either/Or I, The First Love
    KW III p. 321 Either/Or I, The Seducer’s Diary
    KW III p. 459 Either/Or I, SUPPLEMENT
    KW III p. 470 Either/Or I, SUPPLEMENT
    KW III p. 569 Either/Or I, SUPPLEMENT
    KW III p. 639 Either/Or I, END-NOTE TO The First Love, p 257
    KW III p. 648 Either/Or I, END-NOTE TO The Seducer’s Diary, P 321
    KW III p. 665-6 Either/Or I, END-NOTE TO SUPPLEMENT, p 470
    KW III p. 669 Either/Or I, END-NOTE TO SUPPLEMENT, p 569

  5. Perhaps this is entry more worthy of your interest:

    SKS…………..SKS Link…………………………………….Erasmus Montanus ACT, Scene
    SKS 1, 34…… http://sks.dk/LP/txt.xml#ss34 ….. ….III, 2
    SKS 1, 81…… http://sks.dk/BI/txt.xml#ss81 ………..I, 4
    SKS 1, 263…. http://sks.dk/BI/txt.xml#ss263 ……..I, 2; III, 4
    SKS 2, 250…. http://sks.dk/EE1/txt.xml#ss250 …..V, 5
    SKS 2, 311…. http://sks.dk/EE1/txt.xml#ss311 ….. I, 3
    SKS 4, 71…… http://sks.dk/G/txt.xml#ss71 …………I (et.al.), 2 (et.al.)
    SKS 4, 198…. http://sks.dk/FB/txt.xml#ss198 ……..I, 3
    SKS 4, 300…. http://sks.dk/PS/txt.xml#ss300 ……..IV, 2
    SKS 4, 314…. http://sks.dk/BA/txt.xml#ss314 ……..III, 4
    SKS 4, 367…. http://sks.dk/BA/txt.xml#ss367 ……..III, 5
    SKS 6, 48…… http://sks.dk/SLV/txt.xml#ss48 ……..III, 6
    SKS 6, 205…. http://sks.dk/SLV/txt.xml#ss205 .. …Dramatis Personæ, etc.
    SKS 6, 272…. http://sks.dk/SLV/txt.xml#ss272 .. …II, 1
    SKS 6, 316…. http://sks.dk/SLV/txt.xml#ss316 … ..I, 4
    SKS 6, 413…. http://sks.dk/SLV/txt.xml#ss413 …. .I, 4
    SKS 7, 39…… http://sks.dk/AE/txt.xml#ss39 …… ..III, 3
    SKS 7, 66…… http://sks.dk/AE/txt.xml#ss66 ……. .I, 2
    SKS 7, 179…. http://sks.dk/AE/txt.xml#ss179 ….. .III, 2
    SKS 14, 83…. http://sks.dk/AeV/txt.xml#ss83 ….. .IV, 3; Dramatis Personæ, etc.

    • Very cool. Thanks for this!

      • That list was created with a lot of pick-&-shovel work. Today I discovered that I could have made a table 4 times as long in 10 minutes. Here’s how I would do it now:
        1. Open http://www.sks.dk/ in a browser.
        2. In the søg (search) box replace “skriv tekst her” with “Erasmus Montanus”. Press or click on [søg]
        3. Click on the search results categories, copy links, paste… lather, rinse, repeat.
        Søgeresultater for: erasmus montanus i alle kategorier
        60 resultater fundet, som indeholder alle søgeudtryk.
        Raffiner søgningen efter kategori:
        Trykte skrifter (3)
        Journaler, notesbøger og papirer (2)
        Kommentarer (55)
        [I have Google translate running so I see this in English]
        Search Results for: erasmus montanus in all categories
        60 results found containing all search terms.
        Refined search by category:
        Trykte writings (3)
        Journaler, notebooks and papers (2)
        Comments (55)
        4. I haven’t researched it thoroughly, but from a brief survey I think the 55 commentary entries probably capture all the instances I scavenged from the Princeton books plus many more. And in sks.dk you don’t have to correlate Princeton titles to the SKS nomenclature. Many of the commentary entries report allusions to “Erasmus Montanum” including ACT & scene. I suspect maximizing additional literal EM references might require searching for individual characters and various spellings (e.g. “Jeronymus” “Jeronimus”)

  6. Thanks for this. I do know how to search the online version of SKS. That’s how I found the first reference to the world being “flat as a pancake” was in From the Papers of One Still Living. It is obvious, however, from the fact that there is no reference to Erasmus Montanus in the CUP commentary where the same expression occurs, that the SKS commentary is not going to include all the allusions to this work in Kierkegaard’s authorship. The problem with SKS is that many of the editors were neither Kierkegaard scholars nor philologists. Most of the editors were actually very young, so they simply hadn’t had enough years of familiarity with Kierkegaard’s works to catch all the allusions to the various plays of Holberg, not to mention plays and other literary works by other famous authors. The bright side of that weakness in the critical apparatus to SKS is that it presents a lot of opportunities for scholars.

    Thanks again for all these references. They are very helpful!

    • First of all, I apologize that my words might have implied that you would know how to search. I am accustomed to finding everything in the Princeton series and then trying to track it down in the SKS mangled-Google-translation. My point was that I would do it the other way around should I ever become smarter.

      I’m confused. I could resume scavenging end-note allusions from the Princeton books if I thought they were more useful to you than SKS. But THAT particular CUP instance was not found in the Princeton series either. On the other hand I did find it in SKS commentary here:

      Am I misunderstanding the meaning of “no reference to Erasmus Montanus in the CUP commentary”?

      • I stand corrected! I don’t know how I missed that reference, but you are indeed correct, the reference is there just as you indicate. I thought perhaps that it had been added to the online copy after the printed copy had been produced, so I checked the printed copy of SKS VII and the commentary and it was there as well. I don’t know how I missed that. I am very grateful to you for bringing it to my attention.

      • I’m afraid I keep digging myself deeper into a hole. I do not proof my words carefully enough or consider well enough how they might sound hurtful. Forgive me.

        What I was fishing for was encouragement to continue assembling search results. I have been wading through far more instances than I might have guessed for allusions to and references to Erasmus Montanus among Kierkegaard’s works. I have an affinity for tedious chores like assembling search results into tables. I don’t want to waste either of our times if you think a more suitable resource is available. The scholarly apparatus of the Princeton KW series is quite familiar to me (and also that of the Indiana University JP series). While the structure and translations may leave a lot to be desired, the apparatus of each may yield something useful to your project. Merging them on Excel spreadsheet with the SKS search information would my proposal.

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