Sebastian Brant 1457-1521
German poet, translator, educator, and legal scholar.
A respected law professor, poet, and intellectual in his own time, Brant is remembered today for his satirical poem Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Ship of Fools). The didactic, allegorical tale tells of a shipload of 110 people looking for a fool's paradise who ultimately die because of their errant behavior. The work, illustrated with dramatic woodcuts, satirizes the follies and vices of medieval social, political, and religious life. Written in vernacular German rather than Latin, The Ship of Fools was an instant success, showcasing the potential of the new printing technology and attesting to the interest in literature by a non-Latin-educated audience. Although the work has been criticized as lacking in unity and nuance, it continues to occupy a central place in European literature. It spawned a new genre of literature known as “fool's literature” and made Brant the most popular German writer before Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe. Although he published prolifically—translating, editing, and writing works on law, theology, and poetry—Brant's other works are little studied today. However, scholars point out that they anticipate ideas set out in The Ship of Fools underscoring his humanist passion for education and learning and his belief that reason and self-knowledge are the keys to human empowerment and salvation.
Brant was born at Strasbourg (now in France) in 1457 to Diebold Brant, an innkeeper, and his wife, Barbara. Brant's father died when the boy was only nine, and his mother supported the family. Despite the strain on her meager finances, she encouraged her son's learning and nurtured his considerable talents. When he outstripped the abilities of his teachers at the local parish school, she engaged private tutors to instruct him. In 1475 Brant went to the University of Basel, where he began a study of philosophy but soon abandoned it to study law. In 1483 he received his juristic license, which enabled him to teach canonical and Roman law, and he began lecturing at the university and practicing law at the same time. He obtained the degree of Doctor of Canon and Civil Law in 1489. He continued to teach law and poetics at Basel until 1496. During this period he wrote law textbooks, theological works, and occasional verse that was published in broadsides. He also translated medieval didactic works from Latin into German. In 1494 he published The Ship of Fools, which sold widely and won the author a great deal of popularity. Brant was loyal to the Holy Roman Empire and the Emperor Maximilian, and when Basel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1499, he returned to imperial Strasbourg. In 1503 he was appointed town clerk and rose to considerable prominence. He worked for the city in various administrative capacities until his death in 1521.
Without question, the work to which Brant owes his fame is The Ship of Fools. The long moralistic poem, written in verse couplets, satirizes the human follies and vices of the time. It tells of a shipload of 110 people bound for Narragonia, a fool's paradise. Each of the poem's 112 chapters is devoted to a different kind of folly, such as arrogance toward God, marrying for money, and making noise in church. The work has no systematic plan, but it describes and discusses a number of social, political, and religious issues while suggesting that foolish conduct can be defeated by having knowledge of oneself and living a life of faith that respects the will of God. Brant relied heavily on biblical sources as well as works by the classical writers Ovid, Juvenal, and Horace when he composed his poem, and he has in common with the earlier authors the desire to highlight humans' reasoning nature and to guide them along the path to salvation by pointing out their follies. Brant shows that foolishness is akin to ungodliness and illustrates the effects of straying from God and of engaging in irrational behavior. This message was enhanced in the text by a set of striking woodcuts, most of which are believed to be the work of a young Albrecht Dürer, who probably produced the illustrations during a short stay in Basel in 1494. Each woodcut illustrates a chapter from The Ship of Fools, giving either a literal or allegorical interpretation of the sin or vice being described. The Ship of Fools enjoyed tremendous success in Germany, as evidenced by the numerous editions that appeared in rapid succession. It was translated into Latin by Jacob Locher in 1497, into French by Paul Riviere in 1497, and into English by Alexander Barclay in 1509.
Besides The Ship of Fools, Brant wrote, edited, and translated legal texts and religious and political poems in Latin and German. He also edited and translated a number of legal, philosophical, and theological treatises, including works by Saint Augustine and Boethius. His best-known work after The Ship of Fools is Varia Sebastiani Brant Carmina (1498; Diverse Lyric Poems), a volume that contains panegyrics on the Emperor Maximilian and poems on historical and contemporary figures. His most important writing about law is his textbook Expositiones sive declarations admodum necessarie ac perutiles omnium titulorum legalium exacta repetitaque opera ac diligentia interpretatorum (1490; Expositions or Explanations of All Divisions of Law, Civil as Well as Canon), a popular pedagogical work that went through many editions. Besides writing, editing, and translating, Brant worked with publishers and editors in Basel, writing dedications and prefaces to works that in his humanist zeal he believed should be made available to better educate the citizenry.
The Ship of Fools was an immediate and enormous success and demonstrated for the first time the mass-market potential of the new printing technology. It launched a new literary genre known as fool's literature, and there were imitators of Brant's style and theme all over Europe. The book was quickly translated into Latin, the language of choice for scholars, who praised the book so highly that it was soon rendered into other European languages, making it one of the best-known works of its time. With the number of editions and translations it received, it has been called the most famous work of German literature before Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1774. The Ship of Fools had a considerable impact on Europe's cultural climate, as it highlighted the abuses of the Catholic Church and thus paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. The work continued to be popular for well over a century throughout most of Europe.
Although it was a groundbreaking and important work during its own time, by the nineteenth century The Ship of Fools was viewed as a mediocre effort—disorganized and lacking style or nuance. However, it continued to be viewed as one of the most important works of early German literature. In the twentieth century scholars began to explore the complex reaction to the poem over the centuries, as well as its effect on subsequent literature, and in the process generated renewed interest in its literary aspects. In 1962 Katherine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools, based on the poem, revived interest in the poem among English-language critics. The scholarship of Ulrich Gaier in the 1960s also rehabilitated the poem's literary status by pointing out its classical influences. While today it is read mainly by students and specialists in medieval literature, the work continues to generate critical debate, with commentators exploring its humanist concern and ethic, its success as a work of literature, and its insights into the daily mental, social, economic, and political conditions of late medieval life.
Brant's other works are of interest today mainly because they issued from the same hand that composed The Ship of Fools. Critics have explored Brant's juristic writings for what they show about his humanist values of education and self-improvement. His poems—viewed as stiff and pretentious—are studied because they anticipate themes and ideas that are developed more fully in The Ship of Fools. Indeed, Brant's name is practically synonymous with his most famous book, and the author's place in German literary history is assured because of the innovations present in that work. Its use of vernacular German, stunning woodcuts, the fool motif, humor, and availability to a wide audience made it a milestone in European letters and made Brant the first widely read author in the history of German literature.
Disticha Catonis [Cato] [translator; of works by Cato] (poetry) 1490
Expositiones sive declarations admodum necessarie ac perutiles omnium titulorum legalium exacta repetitaque opera ac diligentia interpretatorum [Expositions or Explanations of All Divisions of Law, Civil as Well as Canon] (legal textbook) 1490
De modo studendi in utroque jure [How to Study Both Civil and Criminal Law] [translator; of the work by Jean Baptiste de Gasalupis] (legal textbook) 1490
Thesmophagia [translator] (poetry) 1490
Rosarium ex floribus vitae passionisque domini nostri Jesu Christi consertum (poetry) 1492
Decretum Gratiani summon studio elaboratum: correctum et cum libris Biblie accurate concordatum [The Canonical Rules of Gratianus Carefully Worked Out and Coordinated with the Bible] [editor; of a work by Gratianus] (legal textbook) 1493
Carmina in Laudem B. Mariae Virginis multorumque sanctorum (poetry) 1494
De conceptu et triplici Mariae Virginis gloriosissmae candore [editor] (theology) 1494
Decretales [editor] (legal textbook) 1494
Liber sextus decretalium [editor] (legal textbook) 1494
Das Narrenschiff [The Ship of Fools] (poetry) 1494
De Origine et...
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SOURCE: Zeydel, Edwin H. “Brant's Literary Work Prior to the Narrenschiff” and “Brant, the Writer, Humanist, and Man: A Summary.” In Sebastian Brant, pp. 64-73; 122-33. New York: Twayne, 1967.
[In the following essays, Zeydel examines Brant's poetical exercises and broadsides, which the critic argues reveal similar religious and social concerns as those presented in his Latin prose and The Ship of Fools. He also assesses Brant's place in literary history as he presents the principal aspects of Brant's views and works.]
I. LITERARY APPRENTICESHIP
Perhaps soon after he had secured his baccalaureate in 1477 Brant began composing occasional verses, announcements, and letters—all now lost or unidentifiable—to accompany volumes published during the early years of printing in Basel. Such an early date for this activity is likely since Heynlin, who probably recommended him to the printers, spent most of his time in Basel between 1474 and 1478 and soon had come to know Brant well. The absence of specific references to Brant in the books of those days may mean merely that, being still an unknown tyro, he worked anonymously.
Among his oldest extant literary works are Latin exercises in distich form—broadsides—commenting on unusual happenings of the day. Several fairly early efforts of this kind, though in all likelihood not the earliest, are...
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SOURCE: Gaier, Ulrich. “Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff and the Humanists.” PMLA 83, no. 2 (1968): 266-70.
[In the following essay, Gaier discusses the reception of The Ship of Fools by Brant's contemporaries.]
The place of Sebastian Brant in the intellectual currents of his time is far from settled. Many scholars1 view him as an essentially medieval mind,2 longingly and resignedly looking towards the past, and only accidentally helping to usher in the new age.3 Others, however, stress his desire to act immediately upon his time,4 even though several of his ideas are rooted in the past. Some consider him a Humanist,5 some a rationalist,6 some utterly medieval. Because of the divergence in the views of modern scholars, it seems appropriate to ask how he and his work were looked upon by his contemporaries. This brief discussion is limited to the reception of one of his works by a relatively small group of Humanists.
Brant, who lived between 1457 and 1521, published his Narrenschiff in 1494. This book consists of 113 chapters, most of which describe and satirize different kinds of human folly. The unprecedented number of editions and subsequent versions by other writers show that it was a best seller in its time.7
But it was not only the general public that liked the work:...
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SOURCE: Zeydel, Edwin H. “Sebastian Brant and His Public.” In Germanic Studies in Honor of Edward Henry Sehrt, edited by Frithjof Andersen Raven, Wolfram Karl Legner, and James Cecil King, pp. 251-64. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1968.
[In the following essay, Zeydel surveys Brant's more important works as a writer and editor before discussing his use of language, both Latin and the vernacular German he used to reach a wider audience.]
We may assume that Sebastian Brant's oldest writings, dating from his early student days in Basel during the late fourteen seventies, consisted of Latin prose and poetry on topics of the day and subjects of interest to a young incipient humanist gradually turning his attention to the study of law. He may even have worked as early as this period as a tyro for some of the Basel publishers. Johann Heynlin a Lapide, who had come to that city in 1474 and was instrumental in promoting the art of printing there, may well have recommended young Brant, whom he had soon befriended, for that type of work. But these writings have been lost, and we can only conjecture about them. We do know, however, that later he furnished verses and prose as prefaces and epilogues to such works as Amerbach's edition of St. Augustine's De civitate Dei (1489) and to the same publisher's edition of the works of St. Ambrose (1493), to mention only two.
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SOURCE: Skrine, Peter. “The Destination of the Ship of Fools: Religious Allegory in Brant's Narrenschiff.” Modern Language Review 64, no. 3 (July 1969): 576-96.
[In the following essay, Skrine analyzes The Ship of Fools as a commentary on the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.]
In Canto III of the Inferno the souls of the damned gather waiting
alla riva malvagia ch'attende ciascun uom che Dio non teme
to be ferried by Charon across the dark waters of the Acheron
all'altra riva nelle tenebre etterne
and Virgil explains to Dante:
quelli che moion nell'ira di Dio tutti convengon qui d'ogni paese: e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio, ché la divina giustizia li sprona, sí che la tema si volve in disio. Quinci non passa mai anima bona.
In the course of his Narrenschiff Brant appears to prove conclusively that virtually all humanity is in some way, be it trivial or serious, guilty of folly: the human head seems made to fit the fool's cap. Thus every type of human being seems destined to be a passenger on the ship...
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SOURCE: Wilkie, J. R. “Brant and The Ship of Fools: An Introduction.” University of Leeds Review 16 (1973): 212-33.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1973, Wilkie presents the historical context in which Brant lived and wrote, describes the contents of The Ship of Fools, reviews the critical approaches that have been taken to the poem, and offers his own views on its importance.]
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to have in my audience tonight his Excellency the Ambassador of the German Federal Republic. I welcome him and his party on behalf of the German Department—and hasten to assure him that my title, ‘Brant and The Ship of Fools’, has no topical reference. My Brant lived in the fifteenth century … and as for shiploads of fools, these are universal and we have no need to cross the North Sea to find them. I leave each of you to decide which of our fellow-countrymen might be offered an assisted passage on a voyage of that kind …
On this thirty-sixth day of our membership of the EEC I further hasten to reassure you all—or disappoint you—by saying that my title is not a disguise for a subject like ‘The Future of German Studies’ or ‘German Studies and the Common Market’. These highly technical matters are best discussed in the decent privacy of departmental meetings or developments committees. I...
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SOURCE: Dünnhaupt, Gerhard. “Sebastian Brant: The Ship of Fools.” In The Renaissance and Reformation in Germany: An Introduction, edited by Gerhart Hoffmeister, pp. 69-81. New York: Ungar, 1977.
[In the following essay, Dünnhaupt offers an overview of the composition, influences, content, themes, and literary success of The Ship of Fools.]
No other work of German literature before Goethe can match the resounding popular success and lasting influence both at home and abroad of Sebastian Brant's The Ship of Fools—or, to give it its original name, Das Narrenschiff. The phenomenal speed with which this book became known and popular throughout Renaissance Europe is as astonishing as the variety of genres in which its influence may be felt to this day.
As early as 1494, the year of the first Basel printing, pirated versions of the High German original of The Ship of Fools appeared in Nürnberg, Reutlingen, Strassburg, and Augsburg. No less than five authorized editions were published in Basel within the first fifteen years, not counting further pirated printings. Several Low German and Latin translations began to make their appearance from 1497 onward. The Latin version by the humanist Jacob Locher—personally supervised by Brant—received high praise, quickly became a European best seller, and was subsequently reprinted and translated all over Western...
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SOURCE: Nordenfalk, Carl. “The Moral Issue in Sebastian Brant's The Ship of Fools.” In The Humanist as Citizen, edited by John Agresto and Peter Riesenberg, pp. 72-93. Chapel Hill, N.C.: National Humanities Center, 1981.
[In the following essay, Nordenfalk explores the liberal humanist ethic of The Ship of Fools, with its focus on the social consequences of human actions.]
It is most unusual for an author to make clear to his readers that he does not care to have his book sold. Yet this is what Sebastian Brant does at the end of his Narren-Schyff:
My fool's book, does it anger you? I beg of you to pass it by I ask no one to come and buy!(1)
As a matter of fact, when the book first appeared in Basel, on All Fools' Day 1494, it sold out almost immediately, and in less than a year the same thing happened to a second edition.2 Even prior to the second edition, a number of pirated reprints had appeared elsewhere in Germany. Within a few years a Latin edition was published; the book was translated twice into French; and this was followed by two English and one Dutch paraphrases. In the history of the printed book no contemporary piece of writing had reaped a similar spontaneous success. It was the first known “best seller.”
There has been some speculation as to why the book appealed to people so much and so...
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SOURCE: Moxey, Keith P. F. “The Ship of Fools and the Idea of Folly in Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Literature.” In The Early Illustrated Book: Essays in Honor of Lessing J. Rosenwald, edited by Sandra Hindman, pp. 86-102. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1982.
[In the following excerpt, Moxey examines The Ship of Fools in the context of moralizing, didactic Netherlandish literature, noting its distinctive voice and serious stance compared to other works of its genre.]
Among the books given to the Library of Congress by Lessing J. Rosenwald are two sixteenth-century Flemish translations of The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant. Following its publication in Basel in 1494, this work went on to become one of the most successful published works of the age. At least twelve German editions appeared before Brant's death in 1521.1 Its translation into Latin by Jacob Locher in 1497 made the book accessible to an international audience, for it was this translation on which subsequent French, English, and Flemish translations were based. The Flemish translation of The Ship of Fools was first published in 1500 by a Flemish printer living in Paris called Guyot Marchand (originally Guide Coopman). John Sinnema has shown that although it is largely based on Locher's Latin translation, it also contains references to earlier French and German editions.2...
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SOURCE: Halporn, Barbara. “Sebastian Brant as an Editor of Juristic Texts.” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 59 (1984): 36-51.
[In the following essay, Halporn discusses Brant's work as an editor of texts used by law students, which, the critic asserts, he did in part because he believed in making the law accessible to more people so that citizens could serve their own interests more effectively.]
Sebastian Brant is best known to the modern world as the author of the didactic and satirical work, the Narrenschiff. Although this may be his most enduring and original work, it is only a small part of Brant's published contribution to the intellectual life of the Holy Roman Empire in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Throughout his adult life Brant worked as an editor for the press, first in Basel where he was a student and professor of law, then in Strassburg where he served as a city official from 1501 until his death in 15211. The moralistic and didactic impulses that inform the Narrenschiff mark most of the Brant's publishing ventures.
Basel and Strassburg define the geographical boundaries of Brant's life. He left Strassburg, his birthplace, in 1475 to attend the University of Basel. He spent a quarter of a century in Basel as a student and professor of law before returning to Strassburg where he spent the last two decades of his life in the service of the...
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SOURCE: DuBruck, Edelgard E. “On Useless Books and Foolish Studies: Sebastian Brant on Accountability in Education.” Fifteenth-Century Studies 22 (1996): 85-95.
[In the following essay, DuBruck examines Brant's attitudes toward books and education.]
In his recent monograph (Sebastian Brant's The Ship of Fools in Critical Perspective. Columbia SC: Camden House, 1993), John Van Cleve asks: “What does The Ship have to offer the modern reader?” (89) and suggests research on its modern relevance. Brant's chapters one and twenty-seven, and even some others, are fraught with significance for those among us who read and study, who teach and have been asked in recent years to justify our activity in terms of objectives and results.1
The Ship of Fools (1494) presents vices and other foolish behavior in a series of 116 chapters, one for each type of foolishness. It is, according to Ulrich Gaier, a satire of social classes, but it is much more, criticizing, as it does, a lack of wisdom, and false conduct in humans generally.2 Perhaps it could be called a negative history of salvation, advice on how to avoid blame here on earth, and damnation at the Last Judgment. Brant discusses the Decalogue, which everyone violates in one form or another, and the Seven Deadly Sins; he brings up fashions, hair, beards, bad eating habits and bad table manners;...
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SOURCE: Classen, Albrecht. “‘Von erfahrung aller land’—Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff: A Document of Social, Intellectual, and Mental History.” Fifteenth-Century Studies 26 (2001): 52-65.
[In the following essay, Classen explores what insights The Ship of Fools provides for understanding the daily mental, social, economic, and political conditions of late medieval life.]
Talking about Sebastian Brant is like discussing one of the many literary giants within the history of German literature, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Oswald von Wolkenstein, Martin Luther, and Andreas Gryphius.1 On the one hand, his didactic texts, poems, and narratives invite ever new criticism and analysis because of the breadth and complexity of his poetic works;2 on the other, almost every aspect of his texts seems to have been discussed in previous scholarship.3 But since his Narrenschiff, which first appeared in print in 1494, examines, as its title indicates, the entire world and human society on a large scale, a wide range of analytic avenues are possible, which readily offer new insights and perceptions regarding the author's messages and ideas. One of the less trodden paths into the Narrenschiff will be explored here. Let us, however, first summarize our basic knowledge of Brant's biography.
Brant was one of the most profound and...
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Bohnert, Christiane. “Early Modern Complex Satire and the Satiric Novel: Genre and Cultural Transposition.” In Theorizing Satire: Essays in Literary Criticism, edited by Brian A. Connery and Kirk Combe, pp. 151-72. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Includes a discussion of The Ship of Fools, focusing on its fusion of religious elements and humanist ideas.
DuBruck, Edelgard. “Sebastian Brant in France: A Ship of Fools by Pierre Rivière (1497).” Revue de Litterature Comparée 48, no. 2 (April-June 1974): 248-56.
Discusses the early French renderings of The Ship of Fools, notably that by Pierre Rivière, tracing the differences between the German original and this version.
Evans, Robert C. “Jonson and the Emblematic Tradition: Ralegh, Brant, the Poems, The Alchemist, and Volpone.” Comparative Drama 29, no. 1 (spring 1995): 108-32.
Explores Ben Jonson's indebtedness to Renaissance emblem writers, including Brant.
Harrison, E. L. “Virgil, Sebastian Brant, and Maximilian I.” Modern Language Review 76, no. 1 (January 1981): 99-115.
Examines the importance of Virgil as a literary influence and Brant's conception of his role in relation to the Emperor Maximilian I.
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