In 1494, humanist Sebastian Brant published Das Narrenschiff, or The Ship of Fools, a moralistic poem that describes 110 assorted follies and vices as undertaken by different fools. Each sin or vice in the book is accompanied by a finely detailed woodcut that gives either a literal or allegorical interpretation of that particular sin or vice. The digital collection contains almost 120 items.
Originally written in German, The Ship of Fools devotes chapters to such offenses as Marrying for Money, Noise in Church, and Wanting to Escape Consequences of Evil. Most of the woodcuts depict a fool wearing the traditional jester’s cap in a variety of medieval settings, including aboard ships, in villages, in homes, and in the countryside. The majority are attributed to the artist Albrecht Dürer, with the rest attributed to the Haintz-Nar-Meister, the Gnad-Her-Meister, or two anonymous artists.
Born in Strasbourg, Germany around 1457, Sebastian Brant earned degrees in philosophy and law at the University of Basel. Brant was a devout Catholic and loyalist to the Holy Roman Empire, and he felt that in order to maintain Germany’s primacy in the Christian world, the German people would need to cast off decadence and live in a highly moral fashion. To that end, his Das Narrenschiff was an attempt to reach the German people in their own language and use satire to encourage them to discard their sins and vices.
Das Narrenschiff proved so popular that it went through multiple editions and was translated into Latin, French, English, Dutch, and Low German. The first edition of Das Narrenschiff was printed by Johann Bergmann von Olpe, a former fellow student of Brant's at the University of Basel. Bergmann also printed a number of later editions of Das Narrenschiff, including the 1498 Latin edition known as Stultifera Navis which is owned by the University of Houston Libraries. Das Narrenschiff had been translated into Latin in 1497 by a former student of Brant's named Jacob Locher, with full approval from the classicist Brant. Locher did not follow the text closely, but substantially embellished on it in the translation.
This book was a gift of the Rockwell Fund, in memory of James Wade Rockwell.
Brant, Sebastian. The Ship of Fools. Translated by William Gilles and with the original woodcuts. London: The Folio Society, 1971.
The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church. New York: Encyclopedia Press, c1913-c1914.
Die Holzschnitte zu Sebastian Brants Narrenschiff. 121 Bildtafeln Herasgegeben von Manfred Lemmer. [Leipzig] Insel-Verlag, 1964.
Heritage Book Shop (Los Angeles, Calif.). The Antiquarian Book Fair, Olympia 2, London. A Selection of Items on Display in Stand 43, June 7-10, 2001. Los Angeles, Calif.: Heritage Book Shop, 2001.
Zeydel, Edwin H. Sebastian Brant. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967.