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Sebastian Brant (1457-1521)

Brant, a humanist and lawyer, was one of the most famous German-speaking writers of the early modern period. Remarkable for the range and quantity of his literary production, it is nonetheless a single satirical work for which he remains known to this day: Das Narrenschiff; The Ship of Fools (1494).


Brant was born in Strasbourg and attended university in Basel from 1475, where he then taught law (both canonical and Roman) for several years. Brant was also a practising lawyer and judge, and had a busy career as a writer. In 1500 he returned to the city of his birth, where he remained until his death. Here, he became a legal counsellor to the city and occupied high office on the city council. During his Basel years, Brant was an active writer, publishing learned treatises as well as religious works, broadsheets, poetry (in both Latin and German), translations, and carrying out a lively correspondence with some of the most important humanists of the day. Indeed, his publications on law were among some of the most reprinted textbooks of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. His deliberate exploration of the new possibilities for communication and learning at the end of the 15th century through innovations in publishing, combined with the new ideas of humanism (amongst other things), make Brant a typical example of a proficient communicator in the so-called ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ in this period (see Brant, Das Narrenschiff, ed. by Knape, p. 17). It was during Brant’s Basel period that his historically most influential satirical work was published: Das Narrenschiff; The Ship of Fools (1494). Upon his return to Strasbourg, Brant’s literary activity altered and he published less of his own work, concentrating instead on promoting the work of others.

Das Narrenschiff; The Ship of Fools (1494)

Das Narrenschiff or The Ship of Fools was a publishing phenomenon. It was extraordinarily popular with contemporaries, though for years literary scholarship struggled to harmonise this with the book’s supposed lack of literary quality (see below, Van Cleve, 1993). The ‘ship’ forms a loose central metaphor for this illustrated satirical work of 112 chapters describing and discussing different types of folly. In the first chapter, ‘Eine Vorrede zu dem Narrenschiff’ (A preface to the Ship of Fools), Brant explains the purpose of the book to be didactic, exhortative and persuasive by highlighting and discussing a catalogue of human folly and urging humans to look to the good of their souls. The ship of fools metaphor is also set out, though it apparently breaks down as a unifying concept for the book almost immediately : there are so many fools ignoring the plethora of good religious texts available to them and trying to get to the fictional land of ‘Narragonia’ that they have to pile into as many kinds of vessel as will sail, and some are so desperate to get there, they throw themselves into the water and swim. The metaphor is thus more of a ‘Navy of Fools’, although Beat Mischler (see below, 1981) has argued that the book is structured as a ship of 47 chapters with a fleet of smaller chapters behind it (see also Van Cleve, 1993: 79). Other scholars have also pointed out that to see the work as formless is too simplistic and that it is more useful to view Das Narrenschiff as satire (Gaier, 266-67).

All land syndt yetz voll heylger geschrifft

Vnd was der selen heyl antrifft /

Bibel / der heylgen vätter ler

Vnd ander der glich bůcher mer /

In maß / das ich ser wunder hab

Das nyemant bessert sich dar ab /

Ja würt all gschrifft vnd ler veracht

Die gantz welt lebt in vinstrer nacht

Vnd důt in sünden blint verharren

All strassen / gassen / sindt voll narren

Die nüt da mit dorheit vmbgan

Wellen doch nit den namen han

Des hab ich gdacht zů diser früst

Wie ich der narren schiff vff rüst

Galleen / füst / kragk / nawen / parck

Kiel / weydling / hornach / rennschiff starck

Schlytt / karrhen / stoßbären / rollwagen

Ein schiff möcht die nit all getragen

Die yetz sindt jn der narren zal

Ein teil kein fůr hant überal

Die stieben zůher wie die ymmen

Vil vnderstont zů dem schiff schwymmē

Ein yeder der wil vorman syn

Vil narren / doren kumen dryn

Der bildniß jch hab har gemacht.

Alle Lande sind jetzt voll heiliger Schrift

Und was der Seelen Heil betrifft:

Voll Bibeln, heiliger Väter Lehr

Und andrer ähnlicher Bücher mehr,

So viel, daß es mich wundert schon,

Weil niemand bessert sich davon.

Ja, Schrift und Lehre sind veracht't,

Es lebt die Welt in finstrer Nacht

Und tut in Sünden blind verharren;

Alle Gassen und Straßen sind voll Narren,

Die treiben Torheit an jedem Ort

Und wollen es doch nicht haben Wort.

Drum hab ich gedacht zu dieser Frist,

Wie ich der Narren Schiff' ausrüst:

Galeeren, Füst, Krack, Naue, Bark,

Kiel, Weidling, Hornach, Rennschiff stark,

Auch Schlitten, Karre, Schiebkarr, Wagen:

Denn ein Schiff könnt nicht alle tragen,

So groß ist jetzt der Narren Zahl;

Ein Teil sucht Fuhrwerk überall,

Der stiebt herbei gleichwie die Immen,

Versucht es, zu dem Schiff zu schwimmen:

Ein jeder will der erste sein;

Viel Narren und Toren kommen drein,

Deren Bildnis ich hier hab gemacht.

All lands are now full of holy scripture

And everything that concerns the soul’s salvation:

Full of Bibles, teachings of the Christian Fathers

And many other similar books;

So many, indeed, that I am surprised

Nobody betters themselves through this.

Yes, Scripture and Law are scorned,

The world lives in darkest night

And blindly persists in sinning.

All the alleys and streets are full of fools,

They pursue their folly in every town

And yet will not call it by its name.

That is why now I have thought about

How I would equip the Fools’ Ships:

Galleys, galliots, barges, little barges, barques,

Keelboats, fishing boats, dredgers, fast warships abound,

Also carriages, carts, barrows, wagons:

For one ship could not carry them all,

So great is now the number of fools;

Some frantically seek a conveyance anywhere they can,

And they swarm like bees,

Try to swim to the ship:

Every one of them wants to be the first;

Many fools and asses get in

Whose likeness I have made here.,+Sebastian/Satire/Das+Narrenschiff/Ein+vorred+in+das+narren+schyff

The book is also described as a mirror – a common trope in this period – anybody will find their own foolish likeness in it and Brant makes reference here to the lively woodcut images that accompany each chapter. Those who insist they are already wise are in fact the most foolish, for they are blind to their folly. Brant defends his work against detractors, saying the truth about the folly of the world must be spoken and that the work was comprised with a great deal of thought and care.

Wer yeman der die gschrifft veracht

Oder villicht die nit künd lesen

Der siecht jm molen wol syn wesen

Vnd fyndet dar jnn / wer er ist

Wem er glich sy / was jm gebrist /

Den narren spiegel ich diß nenn

In dem ein yeder narr sich kenn

Wer yeder sy wurt er bericht

Wer recht in narren spiegel sicht

Wer sich recht spiegelt / der lert wol

Das er nit wis sich achten sol

Nit vff sich haltten / das nit ist /

Dan nyeman ist dem nütz gebrist

Oder der worlich sprechen tar

Das er sy wis / vnd nit ein narr


Sie müssen hören worheit all

Ob es jnn joch nit wol gefall


Dar vmb acht ich nit / ob man schon

Mit worten mich wirt hindergon

Vnd schelten / vmb myn nutzlich ler

Ich hab der selben narren mer

Den wißheit nit gefallet wol

Dyß büchlin ist der selben vol

Doch bitt jch yeden / das er mer

Wil sehen an vernunfft vnd er

Dan mich oder min schwach gedicht

Warlich hab jch on arbeit nicht

So vil narren zůsamē bracht

Wär jemand, der die Schrift veracht't,

Oder einer, der sie nicht könnt lesen,

Der sieht im Bilde wohl sein Wesen

Und schaut in diesem, wer er ist,

Wem gleich er sei, was ihm gebrist.

Den Narrenspiegel ich dies nenne,

In dem ein jeder Narr sich kenne;

Wer jeder sei, wird dem vertraut,

Der in den Narrenspiegel schaut.

Wer sich recht spiegelt, der lernt wohl,

Daß er nicht weise sich achten soll,

Nicht von sich halten, was nicht ist,

Denn niemand lebt, dem nichts gebrist,

Noch der behaupten darf fürwahr,

Daß er sei weise und kein Narr.


Sie müssen hören Wahrheit alle,

Ob ihnen es auch nicht gefalle.


Darum beacht ich, was man spricht

Mit Worten hinterm Rücken, nicht,

Noch wenn man schmäht die gute Lehr:

Ich habe solcher Narren mehr,

Denen Weisheit nicht gefället wohl,

Von solchen ist dies Büchlein voll.

Doch bitt ich jeden, daß er mehr

Ansehn wolle Vernunft und Ehr

Als mich oder mein schwach Gedicht.

Ich hab fürwahr ohn Mühe nicht

So viele Narrn zu Hauf gebracht […]

If there are any who scorn writing,

Or any who could not read it,

They will clearly see their own nature in the images

And in these will see who he is,

Whomsoever he might be, will see what he lacks.

I call this the fool’s mirror,

In which every fool can see himself;

Who each is will be made known to he

Who looks in the fool’s mirror.

Whoever reflects properly will soon learn

That he should not consider himself wise,

Should not believe of himself what is not the case,

For there is no-one alive who is not deficient,

Nor who may claim at all

That he is wise and no fool.


They must all hear the truth,

Even if they don’t like it.


That is why I do not take notice of what people say,

Of their words spoken behind my back,

Nor even when good wisdom is reviled:

I have a great many more such fools

Who do not like wisdom much,

Of such is this little book full.

But I beg everyone that they should

Regard more highly reason and honour

Than me or my poor poem.

Truly, it was with no little effort that I

Brought together so many fools [...],+Sebastian/Satire/Das+Narrenschiff/Ein+vorred+in+das+narren+schyff

There follows a catalogue of fools and foolish behaviour. Fools are men and women of all ranks and stations of society. The folly exhibited by the fools covers all manner of social ills, from the seemingly banal to the clearly morally corrupt: begging, adultery, venality, vanity, usury stand alongside critique of travel and scholarship, among other themes, as potential worldly distractions from the greater wisdom of thinking about service to God, one’s soul and the afterlife. Examples are not negative throughout: there are positive and negative examples from the Bible, ancient history and myth.

The greatest fool of all, though, as the introduction has already intimated, is the fool who does not recognise his or folly, believes that they are exempted from Brant’s satirical critique of society and that they may criticise with impunity. Thus the author does not exclude himself from the parade of fools and dedicates one of the final chapters to declaring his own status as a fool – chapter 111, ‘Entschuldigung des Dichters’; ‘Justification of the author’;,+Sebastian/Satire/Das+Narrenschiff/111.+entschuldigug+des+dichters).

It also continues the justification found in the introduction for writing the book: that had Brant been merely concerned with financial remuneration (and been paid in advance), he would not have done such a thorough job. Instead, he is concerned with the good of his soul and others’, and the reward is a future one. The image associated with this chapter shows a figure (perhaps the author) kneeling before an altar, his fool’s cap slipping back off his head. Significantly, though, the cap is not entirely absent, a telling indication that folly is extremely difficult to shake off, even with the best of intentions (a similar idea is expressed by Hans Sachs in his 1557 carnival play Das Narrenschneiden; The Foolectomy). In combination, the introduction, the final justification and even the first fool brought forward in the book – the scholar who does not read his many books (‘Von unnützen Büchern’ ; ‘Of useless books’;,+Sebastian/Satire/Das+Narrenschiff/1.+Von+vnnutze+buchern) – are an example of the authorial humility topos common to early modern literature.

Brant originally wrote the work in German and then translated it into Latin; the Latin version, however, was not an afterthought, as Brant had always intended to publish his text in two languages. Its popularity was such that it went through at least 21 editions between 1497 and 1572 in several European countries. It was also translated into French, English, and Dutch.

Das Narrenschiff is in many senses a multimedia work: it addresses both old and new forms of communication (the Messenger and Scribe on the one hand, the Printer and Book Market on the other), while it references oral traditions, as well as being a textual and pictorial work. The work is notable for its woodcuts in particular, a high proportion of which were commissioned from Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), an artist and engraver of international renown in his own day and beyond.

The rich complexity of the work means that Das Narrenschiff resists a single, satisfactory interpretation. It combines the literary traditions of the moral treatise and the satire with popular content about its audience’s world, using images familiar from daily life as well as classical and biblical examples of good (wise) and bad (foolish) behaviour. Viewed as a reaction against perceived behaviours and conditions in contemporary society, however, Brant’s work presents an extremely useful social and historical document on the ideals and values of his time (see below, Classen, 54-55).


Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff. Studienausgabe, ed. by Joachim Knape (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005)

Further Reading

Albrecht Classen, ‘“Von Erfarung aller Land” – Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff: A Document of Social, Intellectual, and Mental History’, Fifteenth-Century Studies 26 (2001), 52-65

Ulrich Gaier, ‘Sebastian Brant’s “Narrenschiff” and the Humanists’, PMLA 83 (1968), 266-70

E. L. Harrison, ‘Virgil, Sebastian Brant, and Maximilian I’, Modern Language Review 76:1 (1981), 99-115

Carl Nordenfalk, ‘The Moral Issue in Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools’, in The Humanist as Citizen, ed. by John Agresto and Pieter Riesenberg (Chapel Hill: National Humanities Center, 1981), pp. 72-93

Siegrid Schmidt, ‘Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools and Its Woodcuts’, in Behaving Like Fools: Voice, Gesture, and Laughter in Texts, Manuscripts, and Early Books, ed. by Lucy Perry and Alexander Schwarz (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), pp. 81-108

Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau, ‘Sebastian Brant, 1457-1521’, in Literature Criticism from 1400-1800: Critical Discussion of Fifteenth-, Sixteenth-, Seventeenth-, and Eighteenth-Century Novelists, Poets, Playwrights, Philosophers, and Other Creative Writers, ed. by Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2005), pp. 1-94

Eli Sobel, Sebastian Brant, Ovid, and classical allusions in the ‘Narrenschiff’ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952)

John Van Cleve, Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools in Critical Perspective, 1800-1991 (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1993)

John Van Cleve, ‘Sebastian Brant’, in German Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 1280-1580, ed. by James Hardin and Max Reinhart (Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997), pp. 14-22

Edwin H. Zeydel, Sebastian Brant (Twayne: New York, 1967)

Further Reading in German

Beat Mischler, Gliederung und Produktion des „Narrenschiffes“ (1494) von Sebastian Brant (Bonn: Bouvier, 1981)

Thomas Wilhelmi (ed.), Sebastian Brant: Forschungsbeiträge zu seinem Leben, zum ‘Narrenschiff’ und zum übrigen Werk (Basel: Schwabe, 2002)