The Ship of Fools (Brant)

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Title page from Sebastian Brants Narrenschyff
The love foolishness: Cupid shoots blind, death greets.

The Ship of Fools (alternatively: That Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam ) by Sebastian Brant (1457–1521), printed in 1494 by Johann Bergmann von Olpe in Basel, became the most successful German-language book before the Reformation . It is a late medieval moral satire that drafts a typology of over 100 fools on a boat trip to the fictional land of Narragonia and thus holds the mirror up to the world in a critical and satirical way through an entertaining description of its vices and idiosyncrasies . The work was translated into Latin in 1497 translated and distributed throughout Europe through further translations in various languages.


The book is divided into a vorred and 112 chapters, which in most cases each describe a typical human error or vice and present it as an outgrowth of foolish unreason. For example, greed , fashions in clothing, gossip or adultery , also warned against the Ottoman Empire taking Constantinople and the near end of the world ; Rulers receive good advice, and a new saint named St.  Ruffian acts like a flail. The final chapter contrasts this round of fools with the wise as an ideal of a reasonable way of life and ends in the closing rhyme with the name of the author, followed by a rhymed explicit and a protestation added in later editions that complains about unauthorized plagiarism and extensions.

If the fool is a continuous leitmotif, the ship of fools appears only a few times as a frame-defining motif; for this purpose, the author invents new word compositions, such as B. Fools dance and fools mirror that perhaps familiar title of religious writings as Totentanz and Bußspiegel should parody. In addition, the pulp is stirred or membership in the order of fools is described. Brant does not leave out any area of ​​life and knowledge that cannot be assigned a category of folly:

“Yes, all would be written and despised / The whole world lives in a dark night / Vnd dût remain blint in sins / All streets / alleys / are full of fools.” - “Yes, all scriptures and teaching are despised; [then] the whole world lives in a dark night; And remains blind in sins ; All streets and alleys are full of fools. "

According to Rothkegel (1988), the path to wisdom does not lead for Brant through “immature piety”, but through his early Virgilium , that is, human reason . Brant grasps "the problem of human behavior" on the basis of the biblical psalms and wisdom writings and the ancient philosophy: "Brant's ideal is the wise of the Stoics ". In Narrenschyff it reads like this in the chapter Der wyß man ("The wise man"):

“He doesn’t pay attention to what the nobility says / Or the common people shouted / He’s rotund / just like an ey.” - “He does not pay attention to what the nobility / aristocrat says; Or the cries of the common people; He is round; just like an egg (probably translated as: as smooth as an egg, so that everything slides off it) "

Reception in the 15th and 16th centuries

Stultifera Navis. Grüninger, Strasbourg 1497: title
Doctor Murner's fool's weight. Matthias Hupfuff, Basel 1512
In Geiler's Navicula fatuorum : woodcut by
Albrecht Dürer adopted from B. von Olpe's first print of Narrenschyff from 1494

The Narrenschyff was immediately praised in the highest tones by his contemporaries, especially by the early humanists of the Upper Rhine, with whom Brant was probably acquainted. He probably planned to translate his work into Latin himself, but then entrusted this task to his pupil Jakob Locher , whose work was published in Basel on March 1, 1497 under the title Stultifera Navis , printed like the German edition by Johann Bergmann von Olpe. This edition quickly spread across national borders and made Brant's work an international success. Locher's translation is not a literal, but rather a Latin adaptation, which (according to the result of a text comparison by Rupp, 2002) took into account the expectations of the audience who knew Latin and their traditional educational background.

A Middle Low German edition was printed in 1497 by Hans van Ghetelen in Lübeck under the title Dat narren schyp .

The Strasbourg preacher Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg was not unreservedly about Brant's parodies; Although he also castigated grievances and decay of morals, he built on education, humor and folklore. In 1498 he began drafting sermons about the ship of fools, in which he processed the current satire quite critically.

When Geiler died in 1510, his pupil Jakob Otter had the sermon cycle printed by Matthias Schürer in Strasbourg based on notes and transcripts; they appeared under the title Navicula sive Speculorum Fatuorum in January 1511.

Thomas Murner , Franciscan, writer and a pupil of Jakob Locher, published two satirical writings in 1512, for which he was inspired by Brant's Narrenschyff and Geiler's fool's sermons: the Schelmenzunfft and Doctor Murner's Fool's Weighting . In 1519 a Low German edition of Narrenschyff appeared in Rostock, printed by Ludwig Dietz , with the title: Dat Nye Schip von Narragonien .

In the course of the 16th century, the fool figures of Sebastian Brant continued to enjoy great popularity, but they were no longer welcomed by church institutions; they printed in a small format, which was also cheaper and ensured sales. In March 1572 appeared in Basel, from the Offizin : an edition of Sebastian Henric Peter, of punch Latin translation Stultifera Navis Mortualium , one with small engravings richly illustrated octave .


The Ship of Fools is part of the popular literature shape of fools stories , a satirical literature that the teaching about the human weaknesses and the criticism of the zeitgeist has to content; their expressions are caricature and exaggeration. According to Brant's ship of fools , Erasmus von Rotterdam's praise of folly (1509) as well as Till Eulenspiegel (1515) and the Schildbürger (1597) should also be mentioned.

Even if Brant says at the end of the first edition of Narrenschyff from 1494 that it was created vff the vase night / which is called the fool's kirchwich , it does not mean that he could have won his fools from the carnival customs that continue to this day turn solid citizens into exuberant partying fools for a few days a year. It is more likely that at the end of the Middle Ages the fool was known long before Brant as a god-negating, sinful figure who had nothing to do with the actual carnival festival; the figure of the fool was the perfect choice for moral satire. It is therefore not a coincidence. Instead, the author adopted a symbolic figure that was understood by all strata of the population. So it is not surprising if Sebastian Brant's examples of fools in the illustrations all have the typical fool attributes - fool's caps , dog-ears and bells, etc. - being represented.

However, it is also certain that Sebastian Brant and his ship of fools suddenly made the allegory of the fool the most popular figure of the late Middle Ages across Europe.

The illustrations

The appealing and lively illustrations contributed to the success of the ship of fools and its follow-up publications. For Bergmann von Olpe's printing in 1494, the master of Bergmann's office , possibly identical to Albrecht Dürer , who was on his wandering in Basel, made 73 woodcuts out of a total of 103 as main master . 15 further woodcuts are attributed to the so-called Haintz-nar master and 3 to the gracious master ; 11 others are from an unknown hand. The Nuremberg printer Peter Wagner (before 1460 – after 1500) provided the work with 114 woodcuts in his edition. In the edition of Geiler's Navicula these illustrations have been taken over with expressive composition and linework. The woodcuts in Locher's Stultivera Navis gain their effects through the ingenious cut of the surfaces in order to achieve a light-dark contrast.

Since philology only recognized the value of the Ship of Fools Parade in the 20th century , which had previously been viewed as a rather worthless compilation, the authors of the illustrations also seem to have only recently come into the interest of art historians; many have not yet been determined. Some woodcuts in Doctor Murner's Fool's Weight are ascribed to Urs Graf . The illustrations in the Low German edition, which was published by Ludwig Dietz in Rostock, bear the signature of different artists.

It is also unknown who made the copperplate engravings for the octave edition of the Locher translation from 1572, which are distinguished by the fact that they show the fools and their entourage dressed in elegant contemporary fashion.

The ship of fools in culture


The motif of a pilotless ship or a ship unqualified due to the skirmish of competence can be found in Plato's book Der Staat in Book 6.

Visual arts

To this day, artists have taken up the work for independent productions; For example, at the age of 17, Hans Holbein the Younger produced a series for the marginal drawings in Erasmus' In Praise of Folly . The painter Hieronymus Bosch also dealt with the subject of the ship of fools in one of his paintings . A sculpture by Jürgen Weber placed it in the pedestrian zone of a city in the way of the strollers. Ehingen an der Donau erected a ship of fools memorial to its most famous citizen Sebastian Locher in 2002.


The ship of fools was also a theme in music, including in 1980 in the song of the same name by the group Karat ( Swan King ) , as well as the song of the same name by Reinhard Mey on his album Bottle Post from 1998. The Belgian Bal Folk group Naragonia was named after the destination of the Ship of Fools.

From the 1970s onwards, numerous rock and pop artists and bands published pieces entitled "Ship of Fools": The Doors (1970), The Grateful Dead (1974), John Cale (1974), Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band ( 1976), Van der Graaf Generator (1978), Soul Asylum (1986), Echo & the Bunnymen (1986), World Party (1986), Erasure (1988), Robert Plant (1988), The Residents (1992), Sarah Brightman (1993), Scorpions (1993), Secret Chiefs 3 (2001), Yngwie Malmsteen (2002), Alphaville (2003), Ron Sexsmith (2006), Doves (2009).

The work also served as a stimulus for the Narrenschiffe - In-transit actions after Sebastian Brant project by the Roman composer Lucia Ronchetti in collaboration with the Express Brass Band from Munich as part of the 2010 Opera Festival.


  • Kurt Klutentreter: All about the ship of fools. Memories of an established 77 year old Nuremberg “idiot”. Almost a novel . Papyrus, Nürnberg 1988, ISBN 3-9801901-0-2 (416 pages).
  • Katherine Anne Porter : Ship of Fools , 1962; German The Ship of Fools , translated by Susanna Rademacher. Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1963. New edition, translated by Susanna Rademacher, revised and commented edition, with an afterword by Elke Schmitter. Manesse Verlag, Zurich 2010, ISBN 978-3-7175-2220-1 .
  • Jürgen Weber : The Ship of Fools. Art without a compass , autobiography, Universitas Verlag, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-8004-1311-6 (480 pages).


The carnival society of the city of Regensburg is called Narragonia.

Work editions

  • Sebastian Brant: The Ship of Fools, lat. By Jakob Locher. Johann Bergmann von Olpe, Basel 1497 (March edition).
  • Sebastian Brand's Ship of Fools. A house treasure for replacement and edification , renewed by Karl Simrock. With the woodcuts from the first issues and the portrait of Brands from Reusner's Icones. Berlin 1872 ( digitized version , Internet Archive ).
  • Sebastian Brant: Welt-Spiegel or fools-ship, in it all status and vice, lavish life, coarse fictional customs and the course of the world, as if seen in a mirror ... Selection and re-rhyming made by V. O. Stomps together with a preliminary remark. With old woodcuts vers. and handwritten by Kurt Radloff. Ähren-Verlag, Heidelberg 1947 (18 sheets).
  • Sebastian Brant: The Ship of Fools. Text and woodcuts of the first edition 1494. Additions to the editions 1495 and 1499. , Verlag Philipp Reclam jun. , Leipzig 1979 ( Reclams Universal Library , Vol. 793).
  • Sebastian Brant: The ship of fools: with all 114 woodcuts of the printing Basel 1494 , ed. by Joachim Knape. Study edition, Reclam, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-15-018333-2 (Reclams Universal-Bibliothek, vol. 18333).
  • Sebastian Brant: The Ship of Fools . Transferred from HA Junghans. Through and with notes and an afterword newly edited. by Hans-Joachim Mähl . Bibliogr. supplementary edition. Reclam, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-15-000899-9 (Universal Library; No. 899) (536 pages).
  • Sebastian Brant: The Ship of Fools . After the first edition (Basel 1494) with the additions of the editions from 1495 and 1499 as well as the woodcuts of the German original editions. Edited by Manfred Lemmer. 4th, exp. Edition. Niemeyer, Tübingen 2004, ISBN 3-484-17105-7 (reprints of German literary works; NF, vol. 5) (LII + 377 pages, in Fraktur).
  • Sebastian Brant: The Ship of Fools. Wiesbaden 2004, ISBN 3-937715-03-7 .

Digital copies


  • Annika Rockenberger: Production and printing of the editio princeps of Sebastian Brant's »Ship of Fools« (Basel 1494). A media historical pressure analysis study. Frankfurt / Main 2011 (European University Theses. Series I: German Language and Literature. 2009).
  • Martin Rothkegel : Stultifera navis, Navicula sive Speculum fatuorum . In: U. Andersen (Ed.): Treasures of the library . Association of Friends of the Christianeum, Hamburg 1988 ( digitized version), pp. 27–34.
  • Michael Rupp: "Ship of Fools" and "Stultifera Navis". German and Latin moral satire by Sebastian Brant and Jakob Locher in Basel 1494–1498 . Studies and texts on the Middle Ages and early modern times, Vol. 3. 2002, ISBN 3-8309-1114-9 .
  • Friederike Voss: The Middle Low German ship of fools (Lübeck 1497) and its High German templates. (Low German Studies 41) Böhlau, Vienna 1994 ( full text as .pdf ).
  • Ulrich Gaier Studies on Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools. 1966
  • Matthias Luserke-Jaqui : German literary history in 10 steps . UTB, 2017, ISBN 9783825248291 , pp. 21-36
  • Volkhard Wels: Sebastian Brant's “Ship of Fools” as a collection of arguments in the sense of Rudolf Agricola's “De formando studio” . In: Sebastian Brant and the culture of communication around 1500 . Ed. Klaus Bergdolt, Joachim Knape, Anton Schindling and Gerrit Walther. Wiesbaden 2010, pp. 273–292 ( available on academia )

Web links

Commons : Ship of Fools  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. see Rothkegel, 1988, p. 29
  2. A preface to the fool schyff , vv. 8-11
  3. Rothkegel, 1988, p. 31
  4. In more recent art and book history studies, Dürer's participation in the first edition of the Narrenschiff is reasonably questioned; cf. for example Anja Grebe: Albrecht Dürer. Artist, work and time. 2nd ed. Darmstadt 2013, 32 as well as in detail Annika Rockenberger: Albrecht Dürer, Sebastian Brant and the woodcuts of the first print of the "Ship of Fools" (Basel, 1494). A research critical objection. In: Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 86 (2011), 312–329.
  5. Friedrich v. Zglinicki : Uroscopy in the fine arts. A study of the history of art and medicine on the urine examination. Ernst Giebeler, Darmstadt 1982, ISBN 3-921956-24-2 , pp. 62-65; here: p. 65.
  6. [1] , page 5
  7. Lucia Ronchetti: Ships of Fools. In: Lucia Ronchetti's website. June 14, 2014, accessed September 10, 2019 .