March 13, 2005

The Ship of Fools

I first meant to write something about Sebastian Brant’s 1494 book Das Narrenschiff (aka Stultifera Navis, or ‘The Ship of Fools’) a couple of years ago, but, at the time I don’t think I could find a good, complete set of its woodcuts on-line. I guess I can’t have looked all that hard though, since the Library of the University of Houston’s website has been presenting a marvellous set of cuts from the 1497 Latin edition of the book since 2002. An e-mail from a reader (Thanks, Mark) a couple of months ago reminded me about the book, and renewed my interest in writing about it.

'Of Amours,' woodcut illustration by Dürer(?) to chapter 13 of Brant's 'Narrenschiff.'

Brant was born in 1457 (or ’58), in Strasbourg. His family was not wealthy, but managed to provide him with an excellent education. In 1475 he went to university in Basel, and remained in that city until 1501. At first he studied philosophy, but later took up legal studies. He obtained a licence to practice and teach law in 1484, and gained a doctorate another five years later. In the 1480s Brant developed an enthusiasm for literature, and wrote a good deal of verse in Latin, and, later, in German. Much of Brant’s earlier work was satiric, condemning the vices and follies of his time, and found publication in pamphlet form.

'Fools Now as Before,' woodcut illustration by Dürer(?) to chapter 34 of Brant's 'Narrenschiff.'

In Das Narrenschiff, Brant presented a more sustained and systematic satire on contemporary life as he saw it. The book comprises more than a hundred sections, each one concerned with a particular variety of folly. Each section consists of a brief motto, a woodcut illustration, and a few dozen lines of verse. Here and there, Brant introduces an overarching theme of a doomed voyage of all the fools to the land of Narragonia (a region that can be doubtless be found not too far from Schlaraffenland). Brant was both politically and religiously conservative: an upright, censorious prig, who nevertheless invested great liveliness in his lampoons. Also, to his credit, Brant didn’t exclude himself from his survey of foolishness.

'Of Chance,' woodcut illustration by Dürer(?) to chapter 37 of Brant's 'Narrenschiff.'

The book was a great success, and was followed by dozens of other editions, adaptations and translations (into Latin, Low German, French, Dutch, Flemish and English). Especially significant was the Latin adaptation (Stultifera Navis) prepared by Brant’s pupil Jacob Locher in 1497. The first English version The Ship of folys of the worlde… was the work of a priest & poet named Alexander Barclay, and appeared ca. 1509. Brant lived to supervise a sixth official edition of his book. After 1501 he returned to his native Strasbourg, where he took up a prestigious municipal post. He died there in 1521.

'Bad Example of Parents,' woodcut illustration by Dürer(?) to chapter 49 of Brant's 'Narrenschiff.'

It is unlikely that Das Narrenschiff would be much remembered had it been published unillustrated. Brant’s verse, while not always without merit, is often plain doggerel. The book’s woodcuts,however, continue to fascinate, even after half a millennium. Stylistic variation among the illustrations indicates that several artists contributed designs. Some modern authorities have attributed the best of them to the hand of the young Albrecht Dürer. The artist is known to have spent time in Basel between 1492 and 1494, and, some years later, produced a portrait of Brant.

'Of Attention to the Stars,' woodcut illustration by Dürer(?) to chapter 65 of Brant's 'Narrenschiff.'

At first, I planned to copy images from the University of Houston’s library’s site to illustrate this entry. For once, I took heed of a Copyright notice, and contacted them before doing so. I was dismayed, but not entirely surprised when the reply came back that they would only permit reproduction of two images from their pages, and those unaltered. I can’t help thinking it a particular folly of our times that a university library wants thus to restrict the diffusion of images from a book printed over five-hundred years ago.

'Quarrelling and Going to Court,' woodcut illustration by Dürer(?) to chapter 71 of Brant's 'Narrenschiff.'

Fortunately for me, Dover Publications offer a fine edition of The Ship of Fools translated into modern English, and with illustrations which are ‘part of Dover’s Pictorial Archive Series and may be used by commercial artists free of charge.’ The images above are scanned from my copy of this edition: click on them to see them enlarged.

I know it, I confess to God
Of folly I was never free,
I’ve joined the fool’s fraternity.
I pull the cap which I would doff,
Yet my fool’s cap will not come off…
From Brant’s Apology of the Poet, translated by Edwin H. Zeydel.
Posted by misteraitch at March 13, 2005 11:53 AM | TrackBack


Much is known about the 14th century, for instance " A distant Mirror" Barbara Tuchman.

The 15th century?

It looks as if it started in ... 1492.

Posted by: bernard on March 14, 2005 01:10 PM

Hello, Mr. H... As always, I come back and find something interesting. These images are haunting. By the way, I just posted a little text about that Nerdrum image... Best regards, and thanks.


Posted by: Lisa Benjamenta on March 14, 2005 04:44 PM

These are wonderful...glad you found a way to reproduce them.

Posted by: beth on March 19, 2005 02:44 AM


Very nice your post. I have a question about the woodcuts: are designed by Duhrer? or by other artists, like Brueghel, too?

Posted by: Marcio on August 24, 2005 06:03 PM
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