Sebastian Brant Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.