Sebastian Brant Essay - Critical Essays

Brant, Sebastian


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.

Principal Works

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 conversatione bonorum Regum: et laude Civitatis Hierosolymnae: cum exhortatione eiusdem reuperandae [On the Origin and Conversion of Good Kings and in Praise of the State of Jerusalem: With an Exhortation to Reconquer It] (essay) 1495

Concordantiae maiores Bibli [editor] (theology) 1496

Liber Faceti docens mores hominum: praecipue Iuvenum, in supplementum illorum, qui a Cathone erant omissi: per Sebastianum Brant in vulgare noviter translatus [translator] (etiquette book) 1496

Liber Moreti [translator] (etiquette book) 1496

Varia Sebastiani Brant Carmina. Ad nobilem et splendidissimum virum dominum Heinricum de Büno [Diverse Lyric Poems] (poetry) 1498

Aesopus appologi sive Mythologi cum quibusdam carminum et fabularum [editor] (fables) 1501

Boetius de philosophico consolatu sive de consolatione philosophie [The Consolations of Philosophy] [editor; of the work by Boethius] (philosophy) 1501

Der heilgen leben nüw mit vil me Heilgen, und clarz der Passion und die Grossen fest, das lessen, mit figuren zierlich and nutzlich den menschen [Lives of the Saints, New and with Many More Saints, and in Addition the Passion] [editor] 1502

Virgilii Opera [editor; of works by Virgil] (poetry) 1502

Layen Spiegel [editor, with Jacob Locher, of the work by Ulrich Tengler] (legal text) 1509

Der richterlich Clagspiegel [The Legal Case Book] [editor] (legal textbook) 1516


Edwin H. Zeydel (essay date 1967)

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.]


Perhaps soon after he had secured his baccalaureate in 1477 Brant began...

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Ulrich Gaier (essay date 1968)

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...

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Edwin H. Zeydel (essay date 1968)

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...

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Peter Skrine (essay date July 1969)

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

(l. 107)

to be ferried by Charon across the dark waters of the Acheron


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J. R. Wilkie (essay date 1973)

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...

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Gerhard Dünnhaupt (essay date 1977)

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...

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Carl Nordenfalk (essay date 1981)

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...

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Keith P. F. Moxey (essay date 1982)

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....

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Barbara Halporn (essay date 1984)

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...

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Edelgard E. DuBruck (essay date 1996)

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...

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Albrecht Classen (essay date 2001)

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...

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Further Reading


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,...

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