Ship of Fools (satire)

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Title page of a 1549 edition of Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools (Modern German: Das Narrenschiff, Latin: Stultifera Navis, original medieval German title: Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam) is a book of satire published in 1494 in Basel, Switzerland, by Sebastian Brant, a conservative German theologian.


In a prologue, 112 brief satires, and an epilogue, all illustrated with woodcuts,[1] the book is notable for including the first commissioned work by the great Renaissance artist-engraver Albrecht Dürer[citation needed]. Most of the woodcuts are by the Meister der Bergmannschen Offizin (de), who may have been Albrecht Dürer. Much of the work was critical of the current state of the Church. 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.

The Ship of Fools was inspired by a frequent motif in medieval art and literature, and particularly in religious satire, due to a pun on the Latin word "navis", which means a boat and also the nave of a church.

The concept of foolishness was a frequently used trope in the pre-Reformation period to legitimise criticism, as also used by Erasmus in his In Praise of Folly and Martin Luther in his "An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung" (Address to the Christian Nobility). Court fools were allowed to say much what they wanted; by writing his work in the voice of the fool, Brant could legitimise his criticism of the church.

Sculpture based on the satire, located in Nuremberg, home of Albrecht Dürer.

The work immediately became extremely popular, with six authorised and seven pirated editions published before 1521. Brant’s own views on humanism and the new, revolutionary views on Christianity emerging in the sixteenth century are unclear. The debate still continues whether the Ship of Fools is itself a humanist work or just a remnant of Medieval sensibilities.[2]

The book was translated into Latin by Jakob Locher (de) in 1497,[3] into French by Pierre Rivière (fr) in 1497 and by Jean Drouyn in 1498, into English by Alexander Barclay in 1509 and by Henry Watson also in 1509. Many wood-cuts of the first edition are believed to have been carved by Dürer. The additional wood-cuts are the work of the so-called Haintz-Nar-Meister (de), the gnad-her-Meister and two other anonymous artists.

An allegorical painting by Hieronymus Bosch, The Ship of Fools, a fragment of a triptych said to have been painted by Bosch between 1490 and 1500, may have been influenced by Dürer's frontispiece for the book.[citation needed] It is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Some 20th-century artists (including Art Hazelwood, Dušan Kállay (fr), István Orosz, Richard Rappaport, Brian Williams) made images based on "Das Narrenschiff", or drew illustrations for contemporary editions of The Ship of Fools.


  1. ^ W Gillis, trans, The Ship of Fools, (1971)
  2. ^ Ulrich Gaier, “Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff and the Humanists”, PMLA (May, 1968) 83: 266-270
  3. ^ Full 1498 edition of Stultifera Navis

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