Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Taxonomy of Fools

Das Narrenschiff or "Ship of Fools" (1494) is considered Sebastian Brant's most famous work. It is a long satirical poem written in humorous verse, accompanied by comical woodcuts, each with a different fool, describing assorted vices and folly. The chapters in the book draw upon a central theme, which is of a ship laden with and navigated by fools on their way to the fools' paradise of Narragonia. Some scholars argue that the popularity of Brandt’s work paved the way for a new type of satirical literature, signifying a stylistic change from medieval satirical allegory to contemporary satire.

Shown here is a two volume set of Alexander Barclay’s Ship of Fools originally written in 1509. It is an English adaptation mostly derived from Jacob Locher's Latin's adaptation, Stultifera Navis (1497) based on Brandt's medieval satire Das Narrenschiff (1494). Barclay modified and translated Locher’s Latin text. Barclay's version proved no less popular than prior versions. It is cited as one of the first international bestsellers, owing to its style of English that was easily readable by a growing literate audience and because of its beautiful and humorous woodcuts. Many of these woodcuts have been attributed to Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, one of the great Renaissance artists and wood cutters of the time.

Much of Brant's satire is also directed against the clergy in reaction to the abuses of the Holy Roman Church that culminated in the Reformation movement. Brant’s satire, however, falls short of supporting the Reformation movement. Instead, he was a devout Catholic who supported Maximilian I, the German king who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1491. Brant believed that his satires could help instruct German citizens and modify their behavior as the new torch bearers of the Roman Catholic Church.

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