Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 2. Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 2. Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff

As we have said before, Barclay’s most important work is his translation of Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff. What especially attracted him in the famous work of the Basel professor (first edition, Basel, 1494) was, undoubtedly, its moral tone. The idea of the whole was by no means new. Certain groups of fools had been ridiculed in German flying sheets and Fastnachtsspiele over and over again, and even the idea of the ship was not at all unfamiliar to Brant’s readers. But, to combine the two, to summon all the different kinds of fools, and to send them on a voyage in a huge ship, or in many ships, was new and proved a great success. Not that Brant took much pains to work out the allegory adopted in the beginning; on the contrary, he was extremely careless in that respect, changing and even dropping it altogether in the course of the work. And, as to the classification of his fools, he proceeded quite unmethodically. They follow one another without any strict order, only occasionally connected by a very slight association of ideas. But it was just this somewhat loose arrangement that pleased Brant’s readers; and, as his notion of folly was a very wide one, and comprised all sorts of personal and social vices and weaknesses, the book became an all-round satirical picture of the manners of the age. For the enjoyment of the scholar, Brant added to each chapter a great number of instances, taken from the Bible and from classical and medieval authors; for the more homely reader he put in many proverbs. When he called the whole a compilation, he did so, not out of sheer modesty, but because he knew well that this was the very best recommendation with his public, which loved authorities and desiderated them even for the most commonplace statements. As regards the spirit of the whole, it must be sought above all in the moral purpose of the work. Brant did not only blame people, but he wanted to induce them to mend their ways by demonstrating the absurdity or the evil consequences of their follies. His wit was not very striking, his satire rather innocent and tame, his morality somewhat shallow and his language not very eloquent. But he was in deadly earnest about his task and had a remarkable talent for observation. His pictures of contemporary life were always true, and often vivid and striking. Besides, there were the splendid woodcuts, done in a Hogarthian spirit, which helped to render the whole livelier and more dramatic, even where the words were a little dull. He thought, of course, mainly of his fellow-countrymen; but most of the follies and vices which he blamed and satirised were spread all over Europe, and the general feeling of discontent peculiar to that time of transition was extremely well expressed in the book. In spite of his learning, Brant was, decidedly, a son of the olden time. He does not insist upon reforms, but he tries to patch up. With all its reactionary spirit, Das Narrenschiff enjoyed a vast popularity and ran through many editions. Geiler von Kaisersberg made its matter the subject of 112 sermons, and it influenced the writings of such men as Murner and Erasmus. Within three years after its first appearance, it was translated into Latin by Brant’s friend Locher, and then into almost every European language.