2012 June Book of the Month

The Ship of Fools

Stultifera Navis (1497)

Author: Sebastian Brant (1457-1521)

[Latinised form: Titio]

Format: 4o


Titlepage of the Ship of Fools.

Stultifera Navis is the Latin version of Sebastian Brant’s famous Narrenschiff, ‘The Ship of Fools’. This translation was the work of Jakob Locher (1471-1528), Sebastian Brant’s trusted pupil, at the instigation and with the assistance of the author himself. The translation was published in 1497 in Basel by Johann Bergmann von Olpe (fl. 1494-1499), who had also been in charge of presenting Brant’s vernacular Narrenschiff to an amazed reading public in 1494. This original had met with instant and unprecedented success: the first masterpiece of German literature, it was also the first bestseller in European history. The Latin translation was appreciated by a widespread international learned audience. The German original publication of 1494, however, inspired a multiplicity of translations into English, French, Dutch, Italian and other vernaculars within the next two decades. It spawned hundreds of lampooning or gravely moralising adaptations over the subsequent centuries.

Brant wrote in an age of religious anxiety, dominated by apprehensions of imminent, ‘inescapable’ doom, prompted by a series of ‘wonders’ in the heavens. These inexplicable phenomena inspired the popular idea that humanity was hurtling towards a convulsive, all-consuming final chaos. Paradoxically, however, it was precisely at this moment, the last decade of the fifteenth century, that a substantial number of Brant’s contemporaries – especially those with experience of responsibility for urban self-government – saw their chance to usher in a vibrant age of reform and renewal of social and political culture. The ruler of Germany, the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519), equally concerned by the ‘wonders’, championed this reform movement as a remedy for the anxieties of the time.

Brant himself was among the most eminent supporters of the reform movement. He assumed the role of an adviser and instructor of the social and intellectual élite and it was with this purpose that he composed his Narrenschiff.  The intention of the Ship of Fools is concisely summarised in Brant’s preface, which describes his work as a compilation, ‘assiduously collected for the benefit of all cities and estates of men’. The text was written for their ‘wholesome instruction and admonition, to promote wisdom, reason and good conduct’. Its purpose was to teach people to ‘despise folly, to recognise their blindness, errors and ignorance’. Brant wished to stimulate self-awareness as the antidote to the corrosive delusions of his age. In the Ship of Fools he attempted to refocus people’s minds by reminding his readership of the life-saving effect of the maxim cognosce teimpsum: see yourself for what you really are.


 Portrait of Sebastian Brant by Albrecht Dürer.

Brant had honed his skills as a writer and teacher in the lively academic environment of the University of Basel. The university was already famous for its promotion of the new humanist studies: that is, the emphasis on exploring the authentic sources of ancient culture in order to replace the discredited teaching of traditional scholastic theology, which had hitherto dominated the European universities. Brant felt energised by his personal examination of authentic classical manuscripts because they threw a new light on the wisdom of the Ancients as well as restoring the teaching of the Bible. He pursued his studies as a ‘Christian humanist’, working within a network of like-minded colleagues and friends.

Sebastian Brant’s arrival in Basel was an intellectual turning point in his life, since his earlier experience had prepared him for a very different career, that of a lawyer. He had been born in 1457 as the son of a prosperous, well-connected innkeeper, who was also a magistrate in the self-governing Free Imperial City of Strasbourg. The Strasbourg City Council laid particular stress on providing basic education for all young people. The principal purpose of a university education in the mind of the Council, however, was to equip an urban élite for the service of the common good of the city. It was with this aim that Brant in 1475 began his studies at the university of the self-governing Free Imperial City of Basel, where he was awarded the degrees of Bachelor of Arts in 1477 and Bachelor in Laws in 1475/6. He subsequently taught legal studies in the university and in 1499 became a doctor legis utriusque, that is, Doctor of Canon Law and Civil Law, which conferred on him the title of professor. He had thus embarked on the civic career to which his native city had destined him and to which he would eventually pursue on his return to Strasbourg in 1499, continuing until his death in 1521. He had, however, in the early 1490s under the humanist influence of the University of Basel, begun to pursue an entirely different intellectual course. He presented a course of lectures on the Poetics (Ars Poetica) of the Roman poet Horace, which was intended to demonstrate the importance of humanist studies within the curriculum of the BA course. It was in the context of his new humanist studies that Brant composed his Ship of Fools in 1494.

In Basel Brant was recognised as the leader of a circle of humanist friends: academics, artists, successful commercial entrepreneurs and innovative publishers. They called themselves a sodalitas litteraria (‘literary fellowship’) and held regular meetings in the imagined style of the learned men of Antiquity. It was this society that enabled him to define the aims of his publication and to hone his skills as a writer. This humanist friendship circle was conducting an essential debate about the comprehensive reform of Christian society and, as a prerequisite, of imperial government. The ambitious Emperor Maximilian, in his enthusiastic welcoming of the learned debate about imperial reform, made Brant his special adviser in the early 1490s. The emperor initially employed Brant as a propagandist, an author of broadsheets intended to allay the anxieties created by the ‘wonders’ of the times. Subsequently Brant advised the emperor on the construction of an effective system of cooperation among the German princes and Free Imperial Cities to bring about a monetary and fiscal coordination and a new constitutional order in the extensive Central European empire.

Brant’s first experience of communicating with a larger German audience was, therefore, in the broadsheets composed to calm public anxieties and to glorify the Habsburg dynasty. It was in this context that Brant produced Das Narrenschiff that has made his reputation as ‘the prototype of modern German writers’.The work, consisting of 112 distinct chapters, might be described a collection of broadsheets. Modern commentators have emphasised the traditional character of The Ship of Fools and have seen Brant as a derivative rather than an original author. In one respect, however, he was certainly a great innovator. He perceived the importance of printing in reaching a mass audience with his ideas of social awareness and reform. Essentially he wrested the printed book from its official propagandist function and produced a work of objective social observation and analysis.


 Titlepage of Edward Worth’s copy of Horace’s Opera omnia (Paris, 1529).

Brant’s starting point was the view of rhetoric of the Roman poet Horace in the Poetics, on which he had lectured to the Arts students of Basel. In Horace’s work he found, fully formed, the ideas of communication that he would so effectively exploit in the Ship of Fools. Brant’s profile as a communicator had gained shape through his study and teaching of Horace’s advice on the use of rhetoric. Brant’s pupil Jakob Locher wrote of his teacher primarily as an orator, highly accomplished in this art of communication, highly valued by the humanists. He followed the dictum of Horace, that the writer should convey the wisdom of the Ancients to his readers. This wisdom appears in The Ship of Fools in the form of biblical and numerous classical allusions and examples. The latter were greatly expanded by Jakob Locher in the Latin version, in which the sequence of ‘chapters’ were also rearranged and both biblical and classical references appear as marginalia.) It was the easy access to this ancient wisdom – which the humanists had placed at the centre of modern education – that ensured the popularity of the Ship of Fools. It was the most saleable book of the age and a work of enduring popularity.

The title incorporates two ideas already very familiar to readers of the 1490s. The ship in patristic and medieval literature had always signified the Church (specifically ‘the ship of Peter’ the fisherman and forerunner of the papacy). The most striking version of this image was that found in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s miracle of the storm at sea (Matthew 8, 23-7; Mark 4, 36-41; Luke 8, 22-5), in which the apostles cowering in their ship were saved by the intervention of their Master. This passage was widely understood as an allegory of the preservation of the Church from the continuing storms of this world. The scriptural image was incongruously combined in Brant’s title with the popular contemporary custom at carnival time of the wagon in the shape of a ship in which a company of revellers dressed in fools’ motley was drawn through the streets.


 Illustration of a fool in the Ship of Fools.

The traditional appearance of a fool as described in Brant’s work and depicted in its illustrations was already well established in Germany, particularly in the Upper Rhine valley around Basel. The fool in his garish, multicoloured costume, fool’s cap with ass’s ears and cock’s comb (to which a row of bells was added for the first time in the illustrations of The Ship of Fools) made his public appearances in the Shrove Tuesday celebrations of carnival, in the Feast of Fools celebrations at the New Year (a survival of the classical Saturnalia) and in the tradition of public mockery as a form of social control. He was the archetypal figure of the world turned upside-down, who characterised public holidays and popular celebrations. (Brant pointedly dated the colophon of his book, ‘Shrovetide 1494’.) Brant combined this popular tradition of the fool with a serious biblical dimension. In Scripture the figure of the fool is used for severe moral criticism: the fool of Psalm 52, who ‘said in his heart, there is no God’; the fools whose moral and social defects are denounced in the Book of Proverbs and the ‘rich fool’ of Luke 12, 20, who placed all his hopes in his property.

The Ship of Fools differs from the previous fifteenth-century literature of mockery, satire and parody, which survives only in manuscript, in being deliberately written for publication. Brant was encouraged to publish a work on this theme by his friend Johann Bergman von Olpe, the wealthy publisher and member of the Basel humanist circle. Olpe easily persuaded Brant that the impact of his text would be greatly enhanced by woodcuts. (Horace’s Ars Poetica had already maintained the need for images.) Olpe identified as the most appropriate illustrator the young Albrecht Dürer and was the first to employ him in a major artistic enterprise. He is now generally recognised as ‘the main artist’. It cannot be precisely established how many of the 114 woodcuts produced for the German original (all of which – with one additional illustration – were used unchanged in the Latin version) are actually by him since other artists were recruited when he could not meet the publication deadline. (These other artists have remained anonymous, despite the efforts of many art historians to identify them. Dürer himself is credited with about 2/3 of the woodcuts.)


 Copy of the titlepage illustration.

The Ship of Fools consists of over a hundred chapters, each with its own woodcut and each describing a different type of fool. The whole message of the book is found encoded in the illustration on the title page. (This title page is missing in the copy held by the Worth Library but fortunately the illustration itself is repeated at the end of the work.) This particular woodcut was supplied by one of the anonymous artists. It shows a ship without sails, rudders and crew, drifting towards Narrogonia, the Fools’ Paradise, which is named on a fluttering pennant. The passengers are all fools, identified by their fools’ caps. Brant does not exclude himself: a fool in mid-ship holds up a lance with a second pennant, showing a fool’s head with the caption ‘Doctor Griff’, which was a fictitious name Brant used to refer to himself.


 The Book Fool in the Ship of Fools.

First among the fools who are individually presented in Brant’s book is the book-fool, a figure who encapsulates the author’s humanist message: that ignorance is the principal enemy of the ideal society. The relevant illustration shows a bespectacled scholar in gown and academic hat, sitting at a reading desk in his study – a library full of impressive tomes – with an open book in front of him and a fly-swat in his right hand. Instead of reading, he is concerned only with swatting flies off the pages. This scholar is revealed as a fool by the ample foolscap hanging over his shoulders. The text explains that books are useless to this man because he lacks appreciation of their content. He therefore abuses his academic position by withdrawing into his study with all his useless books around him for his own comfort, instead of contributing to academic teaching and learned debate.


‘Of Useless Studies’.

Exposing the evils of ‘learned ignorance’ in the interest of reform of state and society is the subject of several other chapters in the book, one of which deserves closer attention. ‘Of useless studies’ presents an academic with a small open book in his hands, faced with two sumptuously dressed students. They are not yet wearing the fool’s hat but, as the text explains, all the attributes of the fool are dangling on their concealed backs. This teacher and his students are fools because they neglect ‘sensible learning’ from books of wisdom in favour of ‘empty talk’ and ‘idleness’.

aajune-8‘Concealing Truth’.

The chapter ‘Concealing truth’ is illustrated by a woodcut of preaching in church. An ignorant preacher with a fool’s cap – another who has failed to seize the opportunities offered by education – is struck dumb by the hostile reaction of the men in his congregation and by the women sitting in front of the pulpit in the conventional devout pose who seem to be sniggering at the emptiness of his words.


‘Of Useless Riches’.

The chapter ‘Of useless riches’ – one of a number that denounces wealth that is merely hoarded and not used to relieve the poverty of others – reveals one of the biblical sources of Brant’s social criticism. The illustration shows the rich fool in his fool’s cap, gloating over his gold, while outside his door a beggar (wearing a pilgrim’s hat) lies neglected. The illustrator clearly identifies this beggar as the Lazarus of Luke 16, 20-1 by showing how ‘the dogs came and licked his sores’ and the text declares that the rich fool who denies his treasure to the poor will be excluded from heaven for his folly.


‘Of Foolish Plans’.

The chapter ‘Of foolish plans’ criticises those with grandiose ideas of building who fail to plan in detail or to cost their enterprise so that the building is never finished (with an allusion to Matthew 7, 26, the house built on sand) and the workers are made redundant.  It is furthermore important to Brant that the improvident builder’s construction is nothing but a ruin and thus scars the cherished townscape that must be carefully maintained for the benefit of the whole community.


‘Of the Obsession with the Stars’.

The most important preoccupation of The Ship of Fools is that already illustrated by the book-fool: the failings of supposedly educated men. The passionate humanist Brant castigates superstition and incompetence among the supposedly learned professionals of his day. The chapter ‘Of the obsession with the stars’ captures the anxieties of the early 1490s, which had already prompted Brant’s broadsheets warning against alarmist interpretations of ‘wonders’ in the heavens. This chapter denounces the fools who base prophecies of future calamities on their astrological observations and also criticises the printers who profit from disseminating such superstitious predictions. The illustration shows a young academic allowing himself to be instructed by a fool who believes that the future can be read in the constellations and who has a pagan belief in auguries drawn from the flight of birds.


‘Of Foolish Medicine’.

No less damaging to society are the physicians described in the chapter ‘Of foolish medicine’. These are doctors who have made no serious study of contemporary medical science and apply only popular remedies and cures prescribed by ‘herb books’. The illustration shows a doctor ‘of little skill’, his academic cap surmounted by a fool’s cap, who has taken a urine sample from a seriously ill patient. The text describes how he promises to find a cure from his medical books but while he is fruitlessly consulting them, the patient dies. This is a fool who has never adequately mastered the wisdom available to him from studying, the antithesis of the humanist ideal propounded by Sebastian Brant.

The Ship of Fools is a prime example of the combination of classical and biblical learning that characterised Northern European ‘Christian humanism’ at the end of the fifteenth century. It was an intellectual movement of permanent influence because it deliberately utilised the new invention of printing for the dissemination of its ideas with the aim of reforming Christian society. The individual contribution of Sebastian Brant himself was the critical treatment of social ills with a satirical edge that became a distinguishing hallmark of the reforming literature of Northern Europe.



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There is an English edition of The Ship of Fools, edited by Edwin H. Zeydel and published by Dover Publications in 1944. This is available (in part) on Google Books.


Text: Dr Helga Robinson-Hammerstein (TCD).

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