Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Ship of Fools

Das Narrenschiff

Of finding treasure

Of luck

Fools, far, near and forever

Of expecting inheritance

Neglecting one's own interests

Of wooing

Of useless books

German Sebastian Brandt (1457-1521) was a lawyer, theologian, teacher and government official but is best remembered for his very popular 1494 incunabulum, Das Narrenschiff or 'Ship of Fools' (becoming Stultifera Navis when translated into latin).

A shipload of fools, steered by fools, sails for the fool's paradise of Narragonia ('ship' being of course a metaphor for life). In a long and disjointed moralistic poem, Brandt criticizes 110 vices or human failures, each pertaining to a different fool. 'Fool' had a wider connotation back then, including such characters as adulterers and gamblers and not just the usual purveyors of the 7 deadly sins. Although it is satirical there is still an earnest, didactic tone to the work which also sought to stress the value of good manners.

The bulk of the often allegorical woodcuts that accompany the text are attributed to a young Albrecht Dürer. The success of the work is almost certainly due to these frequently comical illustrations - this was probably the first book in which humorous woodcuts had appeared.

Brandt and his publisher Johann Bergmann de Olpe brought out 7 further editions in both german and latin but unauthorized copies still surfaced. More than 50 editions were released by the middle of the 16th century.
"It has been argued that the work also resembles later emblem books, particularly the English version which provides a verse "motto" as well as a Latin title and summary. The book has been variously labelled as satire, allegory, sermon and complaint, incorporating themes such as the dance of death, memento mori and the wheel of fortune. The Ship of Fools may be thought of as a blend of tradition and innovation."
*actually, the top image is in latin but most of the other pages I viewed were in the original german so they are hosting a 'mixed' set.

Tangential addition: Foolish Clothing: Depictions of Jesters and Fools in Medieval and Renaissance Art via Frank from Hooting Yard.

2 comments:

Frank Key said...

I am beginning to think this is my favourite website.

I cannot find Brandt's text online, but there is plenty of further (illustrated) foolishness at "Foolish Clothing: Depictions of Jesters and Fools in Medieval and Renaissance Art" at
http://www.geocities.com/
karen_larsdatter/foolwear.htm

Meanwhile, a modern (if amateurish) ship of fools can be found at:
http://hooting.yard.users.
btopenworld.com/shipoffools.jpg

pk said...

Thanks Frank. I guess you mean you can't find a transcript? Yeah, I had a little look around and there are a few verses at the bottom of this Project Gutenburg page in ye olde english. Somewhere in the BibliOdyssey archives you'll find that picture at the top of the 'foolish clothes' site. Cheers.

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