He was born in Strasbourg. He studied at Basel, took the degree of doctor of law in 1489, and for some time held a professorship of jurisprudence there. Returning to Strasbourg, he was made syndic of the town, remaining there for the rest of his life.
In 1485 he married Elisabeth Bürgis from Basel, the daughter of a cutler. Elisabeth bore him seven children. Keen for his eldest son Onophrius to become a humanist, he taught him Latin in the cradle and enrolled him in university at the age of seven.
He first attracted attention in humanistic circles by his Latin poetry, and edited many ecclesiastical and legal works; but he is now only known by his famous satire, Das Narrenschiff, published by Bergmann in 1494, the popularity and influence of which were not limited to Germany. Under the form of an allegory, a ship laden with fools and steered by fools goes to the fools' paradise of Narragonia. Brant here lashes with unsparing vigour the weaknesses and vices of his time. Here he conceives Saint Grobian, whom he imagines to be the patron saint of vulgar and coarse people.
Returning to Strasbourg in 1500, Brant made several petitions to the Emperor Maximilian to drive back the Turks in order to save the West. But when he realises that the Emperor is not up to the task, he writes to his fellow humanist Konrad Peutinger in Augsburg in 1504 that the role of Emperor could equally well be carried out by another people if the Germans were incapable of fulfilling the role that history had given them. In the same spirit, in 1492 he had sung the praises of Ferdinand II of Aragon, for having conquered the Moors and unified Spain. A staunch proponent of German cultural nationalism, he believed that moral reform was necessary for the security of the Empire against the threat of the Turkish hordes.
Although, like most of the German humanists, essentially conservative in his religious views, Brant's eyes were open to the abuses in the church, and the Narrenschiff was a most effective preparation for the Protestant Reformation. Alexander Barclay's Ship of Fools (1509) is a free imitation of the German poem, and a Latin version by Jacobus Locher (1497) was hardly less popular than the German original.
There is also a large quantity of other "fool literature." Nigel, called Wireker (fl. 1190), a monk of Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, wrote a satirical Speculum stultorum, in which the ambitious and discontented monk figured as the ass Brunellus, who wanted a longer tail. Brunellus, who was educated in Paris, decides to found an order of fools, which shall combine the good points of all the existing monastic orders. Cock Lovell's Bate (printed by Wynkyn de Worde, c. 1510) is another imitation of the Narrenschiff. Cock Lovell is a fraudulent currier who gathers round him a rascally collection of tradesmen. They sail off in a riotous fashion up hill and down dale throughout England. Brant's other works, of which the chief was a version of Freidank's Bescheidenheit (1508), are of inferior interest and importance.
The letters that have survived show that he was in correspondence with Peter Schott, Johann Bergmann von Olpe, Emperor Maximilian, Thomas Murner, Konrad Peutinger, Willibald Pirckheimer, Johannes Reuchlin, Beatus Rhenanus, Jakob Wimpfeling and Ulrich Zasius.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Brant, Sebastian". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- The Ship of Fools
- Lach, Donald F. (1994). Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume II: A Century of Wonder. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved 2009-08-30.
- 1498 edition of Stultifera Navis
Editions of Narrenschiff
- Edited by Friedrich Zarncke (1854)
- Edited by Karl Goedeke (1872)
- Edited by Felix Bobertag (Kürschner's Deutsche Nationalliteratur, vol. xvi, 1889)
- A translation into modern German was published by K Simrock (1872)
- C. H. Herford, The Literary Relations of England and Germany in the 16th Century (1886). Discusses the influence of Brant in England.
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- Works by Sebastian Brant at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Sebastian Brant at Internet Archive
- Works by Sebastian Brant at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)