Sebastian Brant Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Ship of Fools, one of German literature’s most influential moral satires and its first international literary sensation, exposes human vice and folly prevalent in late medieval European culture. A majority of the renowned woodcut illustrations adorning the text are thought to have been designed by Albrecht Dürer.

Summary of Event

Sebastian Brant, son of a Strasbourg innkeeper, was a lawyer by profession. He obtained a doctorate in civil and canon law from the University of Basel in 1489 and remained there as a professor of law, working also as an editor in local print shops, until shortly before the city joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501. He then returned to his hometown, where he formed associations with Strasbourg printers and occupied the office of town syndic (magistrate) for approximately twenty years. Ship of Fools, The (Brant) Brant, Sebastian Dürer, Albrecht Bergmann von Olpe, Johann Locher, Jakob Barclay, Alexander Bergmann von Olpe, Johann Dürer, Albrecht Schongauer, Martin Locher, Jakob Barclay, Alexander Brant, Sebastian

During the course of his career in law and letters, he published illustrated broadsides, miscellaneous Latin poetry, editions ranging from Aesop’s fables to Petrarch’s Latin prose, textbooks on civil and canon law, translations, and sundry other works. Today he is remembered almost exclusively as the author of Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde, 1509; Latin, Stultifera nauis, 1570; better known as The Ship of Fools). A masterpiece in the early art of illustrated printing, Printing;illustrated it helped establish Early Modern German as a cultural language.

The first edition of The Ship of Fools was published in Basel by printer Johann Bergmann von Olpe during Shrovetide in 1494, a time when revelers traditionally engaged in the carnivalesque celebrations that preceded Lent. Written in the author’s native Alsatian dialect, the work contains 112 independent chapters in doggerel verse, each satirizing one particular variety of Narr (the German expression for fool). Its purpose, stated in a prologue to the work, is to encourage the pursuit of wisdom by exposing human folly. Brant’s gallery of transgressions and transgressors embraces, under the banner of folly, all social registers and all professions. Chapter by chapter the vices, foibles, and moral failings of men and women, doctors, lawyers, merchants, besotted lovers, rich and poor, young and old, are all inexorably exposed to public ridicule.

The primary textual sources for Brant’s gnomic satire include the Old and New Testaments, Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Juvenal, the writings of the church fathers, canon law, fables, and proverbial wisdom, but he also drew inspiration from the late medieval tradition of clerical satire, the German Shrovetide plays prominent in fifteenth century Nuremberg, and the popular French soties, short satirical plays involving fools and their foolish behavior.

Similar in structure to sixteenth century emblems, each chapter is accompanied by a finely executed woodcut illustrating the poem’s general theme, its textual metaphors, or moral aphorism. In all, the first edition of The Ship of Fools contains 105 original woodcuts, some used more than once, and close to six thousand verses. Recent scholarship attributes somewhere between seventy-three and seventy-six of those woodcuts to the artistry of an anonymous “German master,” usually identified for reasons of style and chronology as Albrecht Dürer. The remaining illustrations, likewise anonymous, are believed to be the work of three, perhaps four different artists. Woodcuts, German

There is indeed good reason to believe that Dürer designed a majority of the work’s woodblock prints. There is no doubt he spent time working in Basel prior to publication of The Ship of Fools. Leaving Colmar shortly after the death of the German painter and engraver Martin Schongauer, in 1491, he went to Basel and remained there until sometime around August or September of the following year. A Basel edition of Saint Jerome’s letters, published on August 8, 1492, contains a woodcut illustration of Saint Jerome verifiably prepared by Dürer.

Other work generally attributed to the young artist during his stay in Basel includes woodcuts for Michael Furter’s edition of the fourteenth century Der Ritter vom Turn (The Book of the Knight of the Tower, 1862), by Geoffroy de La Tour Landry, published in collaboration with Bergmann in 1493, and some 130 blocks for a projected edition of the Latin comedies of the second century b.c.e. Roman playwright Terence, an edition in which Brant was also involved. The latter, however, was never published. Thomas Wilhelmi, a specialist in early German literature, believes that Dürer’s work in Basel was interrupted when a deadly pestilence broke out there, killing more than three thousand of the city’s inhabitants between September, 1492, and March, 1493.

Dürer’s abrupt departure, reasons Wilhelmi, probably left Brant with an incomplete set of illustrations for The Ship of Fools and so delayed its publication until 1494. Not surprisingly, some of the motifs employed in the artwork of The Ship of Fools have been traced back to earlier illustrated books published in Augsburg and Ulm during the 1470’s and 1480’. Typically, critics of artwork of The Ship of Fools praise the German master’s style—Dürer’s style—for its attention to natural decor, architectural detail, character portrayal, and spatial perspective.

The appeal of The Ship of Fools to Brant’s contemporary readership cannot be overrated. Within months of its initial publication, unauthorized editions appeared in Reutlingen (1494), Nuremberg (1494), Augsburg (1494, 1495, 1498) and Strasbourg (1494, 1497), prompting Brant to add a final chapter to his third edition in protest of those who would abuse his intellectual property. Brant issued no less than six authorized editions of The Ship of Fools in German (1494, 1495, 1499, 1506, 1509, 1512).

Major international recognition came in 1497 when Brant’s colleague and former student, Jakob Locher, adapted and translated the work into Latin. Working perhaps in conjunction with Brant, but certainly with his approval, Locher rearranged the order of certain chapters, condensed passages, added scholarly references, and developed the work’s underlying allegory of a ship teeming with fools bound for Narragonia, a paradise of folly and fools. For more than one hundred years, Locher’s Latin text was the preferred scholarly edition for numerous translations and adaptations.

By 1500, versions of Brant’s catalog of folly were available in Latin, German, Low German, French, and Flemish. The British poet Alexander Barclay first adapted it for the English public in 1509 using Chaucerian stanzas and an early edition of Locher’s Latin text as his model. Later that year the Englishman Henry Watson published a competing translation in prose based on a French edition. By the middle of the sixteenth century, more than fifty editions of The Ship of Fools had been published in various European languages.


The influence of The Ship of Fools on European culture, although hard to measure with any degree of precision, was certainly immense. It remains one of German literature’s major international successes, and it laid foundations for the popular genre of fool’s literature that flourished in sixteenth and seventeenth century Germany, France, and England, and in the Low Countries.

Beneath the apparent simplicity of the author’s poetic style lay a wealth of commonsense learning that appealed to readers from all walks of life. From the striking irony of its first chapter “On Useless Books” to its closing encomium of “The Wise Man,” Brant’s ship of fools navigates an uncharted course between the shoals of Humanistic satire and the terra firma of Catholic conservatism. Hence, over the centuries critics confident in their ability to decipher the author’s stern humor have branded him now a conservative, now a precursor of radical reform, when in fact he was perhaps neither or both.

In addition to its appeal strictly as a work of literature, the first Basel edition of The Ship of Fools stands out as one of the great achievements in the early history of illustrated printing, not only for the artistic quality of its woodcuts but also for its successful integration of text and image. As such, it may be considered a forerunner to the highly popular emblem books published throughout Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Clifford, ed. Fools and Folly. Kalamazoo: Michigan Medieval Institute Publications, 1996. The chapter “Forgotten Fools: Alexander Barclay’s Ship of Fools” examines Barclay’s translation in comparison to the German original.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lettieri, Dan. “Some Sources and Methods for the Illustration of Narrenschiff.” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 69 (1994): 95-105. Examines motifs from The Ship of Fools and compares them to woodcuts published by Swabian printers during the 1470’s and 1480’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sagarra, Eda, and Peter Skrine. A Companion to German Literature, from 1500 to the Present. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. The first chapter of this book situates Brant’s Narrenschiff within the sociocultural context of sixteenth century German satire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Cleve, John Walter. “Sebastian Brant, 1457?-1521.” Dictionary of Literary Biography 179, German Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 1280-1580, edited by James Hardin and Max Reinhart. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Provides an overview of Brant’s life and work, with special emphasis on The Ship of Fools.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Cleve, John Walter. Sebastian Brant’ The Ship of Fools in Critical Perspective, 1800-1991. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. Reviews close to two centuries of research on Brant’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilhelmi, Thomas, ed. Sebastian Brant: Forschungsbeiträge zu seinem Leben, zum “Narrenschiff” und zum übrigen Werk. Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe, 2002. German-language publication oriented toward the specialist. Four of this publication’s seven chapters concentrate on The Ship of Fools; one examines events surrounding Dürer’s stay in Basel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zeydel, Edwin H. Sebastian Brant. New York: Twayne, 1967. The standard English-language reference devoted to Brant’s life and work, with special emphasis on The Ship of Fools.

1456: Publication of Gutenberg’s Mazarin Bible

1490’s: Aldus Manutius Founds the Aldine Press

1499-1517: Erasmus Advances Humanism in England

Categories: History