No Comment, Quotation — December 6, 2008, 8:22 am

Departure of the Ship of Fools

bosch-ship-of-fools

Allland syndt yetz voll heylger geschrifft
Vnd was der selen heyl an trifft /
Bibel / der heylgen vaetter ler
Vnd ander der glich b?cher mer /

In maß / das ich ser wunder hab
Das nyemant bessert sich dar ab /
Ja würt all gschrifft vnd ler veracht
Die gantz welt lebt jn vinstrer nacht
Vnd d?t jn sünden blindt verharren

All strassen / gassen / sint voll narren
Die nit dann mit dorheyt vmbgan
Wellen doch nit den namen han
Des hab ich gedacht z? diser früst
Wie ich der narren schyff vff rüst

All countries now are full of holy scripture
And what concerns spiritual redemption /
Bibles / the teachings of the church fathers
And other books of the same sort /

In quantity / so that I am amazed
That no one improves himself therefrom /
Indeed, all scripture and learning is despised
The whole world lives in darkest night
Tarrying in blind sin

All our streets and alleyways are full of fools
Who are surrounded with idiocies
Waves which lack a name
Of this I thought at the time
That the ship of fools was outfitted

Sebastian Brant, Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam, Vorrede (1494) in Doctor Sebastian Brants Narrenschyff p. 2 (1854)(S.H. transl.)


There was a classical style of satire, and then, as the Middle Ages faded to the Renaissance a new form was born. Its great lights were Boccaccio, Brant and Erasmus, who in their writing presented us with the human estate in all its crudeness and venality, but with sparks of greatness and potential somehow lost in human misery. These texts seem today fussy and difficult to approach, shifts of language and culture obscure them, but if we wipe away a few centuries of dust, do they not in fact still speak to our predicament? Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools captured the imagination of his contemporaries like few other works. It counts among the first works widely published and disseminated in something like the German language, crafted in the upper Rhenish dialect of the zone between Basel and Strasbourg, where Brant spent his life, and where the influence and hold of German has partially faded. But Brant’s work is consumately European, one of the great masterworks of Rhenish culture, crafted by a man who hailed from Strasbourg, pursued his academic vocation largely in Basel, and served his emperor as a legate in Ghent, passing his entire life within a few miles of the great river which formed Europe’s great pulsing artery in his age. The Rhine tied and bound the peoples who lived along it, and that fact was far more meaningful than the modern labels: Swiss, French, German, Dutch, Belgian, not to forget, of course that the Rhineland was also in these years home to one of the most important communities of the Jewish diaspora.

Brant’s book is one of the initial wonders of the bookmaker’s art. It was somewhat haphazardly illustrated with woodcarvings, many of them by a young apprentice named Albrecht Dürer. The tale is simple. A ship is outfitted and sets sail for the land of fools. The ship has 110 passengers aboard, selected to present a cross-section of Brant’s society (specifically, it is of the Empire, which belongs to the essential political subtext of the work). Brant’s work unfolds simultaneously on cultural, theological and political levels. He dissects his subjects with little mercy, presenting them as shallow figures who care for little beyond their immediate creature comforts and who fail to grasp the important accomplishments and possibilities either of the human community or of themselves as individuals. But Brant’s attitude is intensely conservative, in fact he can be called one of Europe’s first and greatest cultural conservatives. He is determined to preserve the accomplishments of the generations that went before, both their learning (the humanist ideal), their political structures (the supranational Empire, with its critical links to the achievements of classical antiquity, devotion to the arts and promise of peace and commerce) and their religion (the Catholic church). The ship of fools has set sail, but it lacks a navigator, and it doesn’t appreciate the richness of the land it is leaving. The risk that it will flounder is great. Brant pities, ridicules but in the end can’t help caring for this ship and its passengers.

But Brant provides positive models alongside the jibes. In fact that is the high promise of his work, he will be that navigator: “Z? nutz vnd heylsamer ler / vermanung vnd ervolgung der wyssheit / vernunfft vnd g?ter sytten: Ouch z? verachtung vnd straff der narrheyt / blintheyt yrrsal vnd dorheit / aller staet / vnd geschlecht der menschen” – “To the utility and salutary preparation / the admonition and pursuit of wisdom / of reason and good manners: Also for the recognition and punishment of foolishness / blindness, error and insanity / for all classes and types of humanity.”

Brant, a law professor, is certainly something of a stoic in the classical sense, and his model of wisdom is not conventional piety but what he calls the fründ Vergilium, what we might call the calm and patient command of reason. He turns to the system of inductive reasoning associated with Virgil and the dawn of the Imperial Age, the golden age of the stoics. The fruits of this learning we see in the book’s final chapter, der wis man (the wise man) who holds to the model of Socrates: “Derselb syn eygen richter ist/ Wo jm abgang, vnd wiszheit gbrist / Versücht er vff eym naeglin sich / Er acht nit was der adel spricht / Oder des gemeynen volcks geschrey / Er ist rotund / ganz wie ein ey.” “He is his own judge / And to the end in decline / he holds to wisdom’s point / He pays the lords no mind / Neither does he heed the wailings of the common folk / He is rotund / Quite like an egg.” I always loved this image of the wise man as humpty-dumpty. But what on earth does Brant mean by it? The egg is fertile, it promises invention and new life, it is sheltered, and the troubles of the world run off it (as he in fact suggests in the following lines). The wise man understands his lot in life and the limitations set upon him; he learns as best he can, avoids ostentation, seeks happiness and a meaningful life, and he is satisfied when it comes his way. And in the end the wise man understands his journey differently from the fool. He recognizes that his journey leads on an inward course; it is a matter of self-discovery.

The Ship of Fools describes Europe on the eve of the Reformation, and notwithstanding Brant’s conservatism and fervent hope for preservation of the old forms, it validates many of the criticisms of the Reformers. But it presents a critique which is not entirely tied to one human era but rather is consciously universal (“Wann wies vor tausent Jaren war/ Ist es auch hewer dieses Jar/ Was ytzt geschieht, geschah vor mehr/ Was kuenfftig wirt, vergieng vor ehr“- “As it was a thousand years past/ So it is this year too/ What now transpires, occurred before too/ What the future brings, occurred long ago”). Historians have written of the last decades of the fifteenth century that it was a time rich in scholars who explored the past and shared the wealth of its genius among themselves in private correspondence, but poor in political and social leaders, for indeed the seeds of a great rupture were laid at this time. But it is this profound failure of leadership and vision that forms the central complaint of the Ship of Fools. Brant sees it coming and can offer little solace to those who will be caught up in the whirlwind. But then, who could call his Ship of Fools little solace? It is a marvel, a comfort, an amusement, and a work of very profound wisdom.

Who are the particular fools in this cast of 110? They are the fools who pretend to lead, and in the process dispense with the learning of centuries past, who assert with an unseemly certitude that the challenges they face are unlike anything humankind has known before and use this to break the chains of human custom. But these navigators without a compass forget that the chains which they see as limitations on their freedom are a golden chord that ties us to our past, that allows us to profit from the experience of the generations who have gone before us. This is the essence of a conservative criticism, which works as effectively for 2008 as it does for 1494. The ship of fools is preparing to set sail from Washington. It will be good at long last to be rid of them. Now at last the process of rebuilding can begin. But Sebastian Brant is right: the rebuilding must begin with a remembrance of the great legacy of the past which the ship of fools ignored.


Ludwig Senfl was born and grew up in Basel while Sebastian Brant was making his academic career at the university and it is very likely that they knew each other, though there is no direct documentation of that. Both entered into the service of Emperor Maximilian and traveled with him. As Brant’s Ship of Fools was becoming Europe’s first bestseller, Senfl was establishing himself as the master of a new form of art song which had been pioneered by his teacher, Heinrich Isaac. Listen to Ludwig Senfl’s “Im Maien” (ca. 1520) performed here by the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble, and, if you can find them, the lively “Wiewohl viel herter Örden sind” which draws on images from the Ship of Fools (available on an Arte Nova Classics recording, 74321895172) and “Lust habe ich ghabt zuer Musica” an autobiographical work in which he movingly recounts what he learned about music and life at the feet of his master, Heinrich Isaac.

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