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

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 3. Barclay’s additions to Brant

Barclay, probably, first became acquainted with it through the Latin version, which was soon as popular in England as everywhere else. His translation, published in 1509, was almost the last in verse to appear, and was followed in the same year by a prose translation by Henry Watson from the French version of Jehan Droyn. In the preface, Barclay states that he used Locher’s translation as well as the French and German versions. In the original edition, Locher’s text is printed in front of the English translation, and Cawood’s edition of 1570 even puts on the title “translated out of Latin into Englishe.” Careful comparison has shown that Barclay follows chiefly the Latin version, but that he made use of the French version by Pierre Rivière (Paris, 1497), which was founded on Locher also, and that he used at the same time, though in a much less degree, the German original. For one of the last chapters of his book he seems to be indebted to Jodocus Badius, whereas the ballad in honour of the Virgin Mary at the end is probably his own.

According to his prologue, he desired “to redres the errours and vyces of this our royalme of Englande, as the foresayde composer and translatours hath done in theyr contress.” Therefore, he followed his author “in sentence” rather than word, and it is very interesting to see how he added here and abridged there, to suit his English public and his personal taste. On the whole, he was inclined to a certain diffuseness and wordiness. He tells us that Pynson, his publisher, who, apparently, knew him well, was afraid from the very beginning that the book might become rather bulky, and entreated him not to pack too many fools into his ship. As it is, Barclay’s translation is two and a half times as long as his Latin original, namely fourteen thousand and thirty-four lines. This is partly due to the metre, the heroic seven-lined stanza, which forms a curious contrast to the unpretending matter and is handled sometimes a little stiffly. The language is very plain and simple, as Barclay meant to write not for learned men but for the common people. A few Scots words betray the author’s nationality. Whereas the learned Locher had obliterated the popular spirit of Brant’s work, Barclay sought to intensify it by cutting out many classical references, exchanging unknown instances for such as were more familiar, introducing new comparisons and so on. He often makes remarks on the woodcuts, and tries still further to give character to the various kinds of fools. If Locher had endeavoured to work out the allegory of the ship a little better than Brant, Barclay, following English literary taste, went further in the same direction and tried to make the whole more coherent. He was very fond of philosophical and religious reflections and admonitions, which he added freely, particularly in the envoys to each chapter. Locher had left out many of Brant’s proverbs; Barclay introduces a great many that are new.

There are a few personal touches in The Ship of Fools. Barclay, like Brant, twice describes himself as the steersman of his ship, which is bound for some English harbour, though it seems doubtful if she will ever arrive; once, he introduces himself as a humble passenger. Whereas he assigns a place in the ship to some people he apparently disliked, as stout Mansell of Ottery or twelve “secondaries” of his college, he refuses to take in some of his friends as being too good. Once, he expresses his contempt of lighter poetry and speaks of his rival, John Skelton, in terms unusually strong. Several times he alludes to the sinfulness of London or to the vices of English society, or he mentions English games and the bad influence of French fashions.

Sometimes, Barclay’s additions are of a more general character, as when he speaks of vices that are not confined to any age or country in particular. The details which, in such instances, he introduces exhibit him at his best; he is then rather more lively than is usual with him, and often shows touches of real humour, as, for instance, in his satirical remarks on women.

Great stress is laid on the presumption and wrong-doings of officials, clerical and secular. On this head, Barclay, generally, has much more to say than Brant; and that he always had in his mind the conditions of his own country is proved, not only by his referring to English institutions and offices, but, also, by his express statement that some abuses are not so common in England as on the continent. He complains of the bribery in vogue at Westminster Hall and he admonishes the “yonge studentes of the Chancery” to rehabilitate justice. He always takes the part of the poor people against their oppressors. Bad secular officials are attacked as unsparingly as are haughty and greedy ecclesiastics. He is exceedingly severe on bad members of his own profession, blames artful friars and worldly priests and complains repeatedly of the promotion of ignorant and lazy people to offices for which they are not fit. He asserts quite frankly that unscrupulous prelates and bad priests are the main cause of the general muddle, and of the decay of the catholic faith, which he speaks of “with wete chekes by teres thycke as hayle” (II, 193). But, like Brant, he does not advocate any thoroughgoing reforms and is extremely hard on heretics as well as on Turks and heathen.

As Brant admired the emperor Maximilian, so Barclay enthusiastically praises Henry VIII; and, when he expects him to start a crusade against the infidels, with James IV of Scotland as ally and commander-in-chief, this shows sufficiently that he is as bad a politician as the German professor who actually expected to see the imperial crown and the tiara united on the willing head of his romantic hero.

Barclay again shows himself at one with Brant, when he echoes his continual recommendation of the golden mean. He has not the slightest sympathy for people who, like Alexander, attempt more than they can accomplish, nor for those who neglect their own affairs by pushing those of others. Knowledge and learning he values only as instruments for the promotion of faith. As to discoveries, he tries to be up to date, but calls them useless, inasmuch as we shall never know the whole earth. So, in spite of his learning, his point of view is entirely medieval.