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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Sebastian Brant (1458–1521)

IN 1494, shortly after the invention of printing, there appeared in Basle a book entitled ‘Das Narrenschiff’ (The Ship of Fools). Its success was most extraordinary; it was immediately translated into various languages, and remained a favorite with the reading world throughout the sixteenth century. The secret of its popularity lay in its mixture of satire and allegory, which was exactly in accord with the spirit of the age. ‘The Ship of Fools’ was not only read by the cultivated classes who could appreciate the subtle flavor of the work, but—especially in Germany—it was a book for the people, relished by burgher and artisan as well as by courtier and scholar. Contemporary works contain many allusions to it; it was in fact so familiar to every one that monks preached upon texts drawn from it. This unique and powerful book carried the spirit of the Reformation where the words of Luther would have been unheeded, and it is supposed to have suggested to Erasmus his famous ‘Praise of Folly.’

In its way, it was as important a production as Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ The ‘Narrenschiff’ was like a glass in which every man saw the reflection of his neighbor; for the old weather-beaten vessel was filled with a crew of fools, who impersonate the universal weaknesses of human nature. In his prologue Brant says:—

  • “We well may call it Folly’s mirror,
  • Since every fool there sees his error:
  • His proper worth would each man know,
  • The glass of Fools the truth will show.
  • Who meets his image on the page
  • May learn to deem himself no sage,
  • Nor shrink his nothingness to see,
  • Since naught that lives from fault is free;
  • And who in conscience dare be sworn
  • That cap and bells he ne’er hath worn?
  • He who his foolishness decries
  • Alone deserves to rank as wise.
  • He who doth wisdom’s airs rehearse
  • May stand godfather to my verse!
  • ***
  • “For jest and earnest, use and sport,
  • Here fools abound, of every sort.
  • The sage may here find Wisdom’s rules,
  • And Folly learn the ways of fools.
  • Dolts rich and poor my verse doth strike;
  • The bad finds badness, like finds like;
  • A cap on many a one I fit
  • Who fain to wear it would omit.
  • Were I to mention it by name,
  • ‘I know you not,’ he would exclaim.”
  • Sebastian Brant represented all that was best in mediæval Germany. He was a man of affairs, a diplomat, a scholar, an artist, and a citizen highly esteemed and reverenced for his judgment and knowledge. Naturally enough, he held important civic offices in Basle as well as in Strassburg, where he was born in 1458. His father, a wealthy burgher, sent him to the University of Basle to study philosophy and jurisprudence and to become filled with the political ideals of the day. He took his degree in law in 1484 at Basle, and practiced his profession, gaining in reputation every day.

    In early youth he dedicated a number of works in prose and verse to the Emperor Maximilian, who made him Chancellor of the Empire, and frequently summoned him to his camp to take part in the negotiations regarding the Holy See. He was universally admired, and Erasmus, who saw him in Strassburg, spoke of him as the “incomparable Brant.” His portrait represents the polished Italian rather than the sturdy middle-class German citizen. His features are delicately cut, his nose long and thin, his face smooth, and his fur-bordered cap and brocade robes suggest aristocratic surroundings. No doubt he graced, by his appearance and bearing as well as by his richly stored mind, the dignity of Count Palatine, to which rank the Emperor raised him. He died in Strassburg in 1521, and lies in the great cathedral.

    In addition to the pictures in the ‘Ship of Fools’ (some of which he drew, while others he designed and superintended), he illustrated ‘Terence’ (1496); the ‘Quadragesimale, or Sermons on the Prodigal Son’ (1495); ‘Boethius’ (1501), and ‘Virgil’ (1502), all of which are interesting to the artist and engraver. In the original edition of the ‘Ship of Fools,’ written in the Swabian dialect, every folly is accompanied with marginal notes giving the classical or Biblical prototype of the person satirized.

  • “Brant’s satires,” says Max Müller in his ‘Chips from a German Workshop,’ “are not very powerful, nor pungent, nor original. But his style is free and easy. He writes in short chapters, and mixes his fools in such a manner that we always meet with a variety of new faces. To account for his popularity we must remember the time in which he wrote. What had the poor people of Germany to read toward the end of the fifteenth century? Printing had been invented, and books were published and sold with great rapidity. People were not only fond, but proud, of reading. This entertainment was fashionable, and the first fool who enters Brant’s ship is the man who buys books. But what were the wares that were offered for sale? We find among the early prints of the fifteenth century religious, theological, and classical works in great abundance, and we know that the respectable and wealthy burghers of Augsburg and Strassburg were proud to fill their shelves with these portly volumes. But then German aldermen had wives and daughters and sons, and what were they to read during the long winter evenings?… There was room therefore at that time for a work like the ‘Ship of Fools.’ It was the first printed book that treated of contemporary events and living persons, instead of old German battles and French knights.
  • “People are always fond of reading the history of their own times. If the good qualities of the age are brought out, they think of themselves or their friends; if the dark features of their contemporaries are exhibited, they think of their neighbors and enemies. The ‘Ship of Fools’ is the sort of satire which ordinary people would read, and read with pleasure. They might feel a slight twinge now and then, but they would put down the book at the end, and thank God that they were not like other men. There is a chapter on Misers,—and who would not gladly give a penny to a beggar? There is a chapter on Gluttony,—and who was ever more than a little exhilarated after dinner? There is a chapter on Church-goers,—and who ever went to church for respectability’s sake, or to show off a gaudy dress, or a fine dog, or a new hawk? There is a chapter on Dancing,—and who ever danced except for the sake of exercise?… We sometimes wish that Brant’s satire had been a little more searching, and that, instead of his many allusions to classical fools,… he had given us a little more of the scandalous gossip of his own time. But he was too good a man to do this, and his contemporaries no doubt were grateful to him for his forbearance.”
  • From a line in his poem saying that the Narrenschiff was to be found in the neighborhood of Aix, it is supposed that Brant received his idea from an old chronicle which describes a ship built near Aix-la-Chapelle in the twelfth century, and which was borne through the country as the centerpiece for a carnival, and followed by a suite of men and women dressed in gay costume, singing and dancing to the sound of instruments. The old monk calls it “pagan worship,” and denounces it severely; but Brant saw great possibilities in it for pointing a moral, according to the fashion of his time. The illustrations contributed not a little to the popularity of the book, for he put all his humor into the pictures and all his sermons and exhortations into his text.

    Just as Brant in his literary qualities has been compared to Rabelais, so his satirical pencil has been likened to Hogarth’s. Boldness, drollery, dramatic spirit, force, and spontaneous satire characterize both artists. He does not mount a pulpit and speak to the erring masses with sanctimonious self-righteousness; but he enters the Ship himself to lead the babbling folk in motley to the land of wisdom. His own folly is that of the student, and he therefore begins caricaturing himself.

    To open the ‘Ship of Fools’ is to witness a masquerade of the fifteenth century. The frontispiece shows a large galley with high poop and prow and disordered rigging. Confusion reigns. Every one wears the livery of Folly,—the fantastic hood with two peaks like asses’ ears, and decorated with tiny jingling bells. One man on the prow gesticulates wildly to a little boat, and cries to the passengers, “Zu schyff, zu schyff, brüder: ess gat, ess gat!” (On board, on board, brothers; it goes, it goes!)

    In these pages every type of society is seen, “from beardless youth to crooked age,” as the author asserts. Men and women of all classes and conditions, high and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned; ladies in long trains and furred gowns; knights with long peaked shoes, carrying falcons upon their wrists; cooks and butlers busy in the kitchen; women gazing into mirrors; monks preaching in pulpits; merchants selling goods; gluttons at the table; drunkards in the tavern; alchemists in their laboratories; gamesters playing cards and rattling dice; lovers in shady groves—all and each wear Folly’s cap and bells.

    Another class of fools is seen engaged in ridiculous occupations, such as pouring water into wells; bearing the world on their shoulders; measuring the globe; or weighing heaven and earth in the balance. Still others despoil their fellows. Wine merchants introducing saltpetre, bones, mustard, and sulphur into barrels, the horse-dealer padding the foot of a lame horse, men selling inferior skins for good fur, and other cheats with false weights, short measure, and light money, prove that the vices of the modern age are not novelties. Other allegorical pictures and verses describe the mutability of fortune, where a wheel, guided by a gigantic hand outstretched from the sky, is adorned with three asses, wearing of course the cap and bells.

    The best German editions of this book are by Zarneke (Leipsic, 1854), and Goedecke (1872). It was translated into Latin by Locker in 1497, into English by Henry Watson as ‘The Grete Shyppe of Fooles of the Worlde’ (1517); and by Alexander Barclay in 1509. The best edition of Barclay’s adaptation, from which the extracts below are drawn, was published by T. H. Jamieson (Edinburgh, 1874).