And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 11. juni 2013

The Mystery of the Maastricht Monkeys, part II - The Ship of Fools

Laughter abounds in the mouth of the fool
- Latin proverb (my translation)

For fools a mirror shall it be
Where each his counterfeit may see
- The Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brant (translated by Edwin Zeydel)

Frontispiece to The Ship of Fools, Master of Hainz Narr, courtesy of this website

In the previous blogpost I took as my starting point an illumination, shown below, from the early 14th-century book of hours MS. Stowe 17, examining its execution in view of the beast-fable tradition of medieval literature, reaching back into the mid-11th century and going up to the 14th. In this instalment, I wish to look at another literary tradition - the topos of the ship of fools - and contemplate this illumination as a possible precursor to this topos. This is not to say that I postulate a direct connection between the illumination and the ship of fools; I do not believe such connections can easily be established and I will not attempt it here. However, what I seek to do is to position this illumination at the onset of a tradition that informed Sebastian Brant's satire Das Narrenschyff, or The Ship of Fools, from 1494, suggesting that the same current which informed this illumination may have laid the groundwork for what later grew into a clearly discernible literary topos of its own. To do this, I will first bridge the gap between the early 14th-century illumination and Brant's satire by giving an overview of literary influences from the 14th century and up to 1494. I will then explain the concept of the ship of fools topos, and afterward conclude with some summary remarks.

Again I want to thank Johan Oosterman and Sarah J. Biggs for their invaluable contributions to this blogpost.

MS. Stowe 17, early 14th century, Liège, courtesy of British Library (with thanks to Sarah)

Background - Early 14 century to 1494

Medieval satire often attacked, and sometimes sought to redress, various vices termed as follies, and this was, as Edwin Zeydel points out, a commonplace in medieval literature (1). What constituted such behaviour could vary according to the author's emphasis. Nigel Wireker's late-12th-century
Speculum Stultorum, the Mirror of Fools, specifically targeted ambitious and hypocritical clerics, while Fiore di virtù - attributed to Tommaso Leoni and adapted by Hans Vintner in 1411 as Pluemen der Tugend - made a showcase of several types of fools.

The archetypal fool was of course the Biblical fool referred to in psalms 14 and 53 who "saith in his heart, there is no God", and at the medieval court the jester's bauble - his "rod of office (...) carved with an elaborate head with the ears of an ass" (2) - was a stark contrast to the king's rod and sceptre, making the jester akin to a mirror image of the wise king of medieval kingship, based on the
rex sapiens of Proverbs and Wisdom (3).
Dixit insipiens in corde suo: Non est Deus
Hague KB78D38, 15th century, with thanks to Erik Kwakkel

Fool in yellow, with thanks to Johan Oosterman

Medieval kingship contributed another counterpart to the fool, namely the king who dared humiliate himself in the eyes of God like King David had done when he stripped naked and danced, mocked by his wife Michal (2. Sam. 6:20). This was frolicking of a pious kind, and stood in contrast to the insipid revelry of the fool.

David and Fool, MS. Egerton 2652, France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century, courtesy of British Library

Medieval satirists employed various conceits to convey their message, and an important conceit was the foundation of a religious order, comprising foolish clergy. This occurs both in Speculum Stultorum and John Lydgate's Order of Fools, and although both Wireker and Lydgate were English, it is believed that the latter brought this conceit back into England via France (4). Lydgate ordered his satire as a "catalogue of isolated traits" (5) and made a showcase of them, much in the manner of Brant's 1494 satire. Sebastian Brant, however, allegedly knew neither of these works (6), but they are both important stepping stones in the tradition which later burgeoned into the Ship of Fools.

While Wireker and Lydgate placed their fools in cloistered communities, other satires employed the conceit of the ship freighting a merry band of delinquents and Zeydel remarks that "the idea of placing careless livers, rakes, drinkers, and the like together upon a ship was widespread from Holland to Austria before Brant's time" (7). How the image of a ship became used in this fashion is a matter of some contention. Early critics of Brant's Narrenschyff probably drew on a false etymology when they conjectured that it might stem from carnival floats, which did transport "various types of comical or fantastic characters", yet not solely in the guise of ships but also wagons and other types of vessels (8). It may also be that the image of a ship of fools served as an inversion of the Ship of God, i.e. the Church.

Prefatory vignette, courtesy of this website

The idea of a host of fools brought together in a ship and setting off for a promised land of their own, appeared in several satirical works of the Later Middle Ages. This paradise of fools had roots in the Goliardic poetry, and one the early-14th-century Kildare poems satirises over the corrupt monks living in luxury in the land of Cockayne. This conceit entered the various languages of Western Christendom. In German the land was known as Schluraffenland or Schlauraffenland (rendered in modern Norwegian as Slaraffenland), in French Pays de Cocaygne, in Italian Cuccagna and in Holland it was known as dat edele Lant van Cockaenghen (9).

The paradise of fools as imagined by Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Het Luilekkerland, 1567

Having considered the destination of the ship, it is time to say a bit more about the ship itself as a tradition of medieval satirical imagery. One example close to the date of the Maastricht illumination is the Renart-le-Nouvel, the new Reynard, a late-13th-century continuation of the Reynard Romance by the Flemish troubadour Jacquemars Giélée which retained significant popularity into the 16th century (10). Here the ship metaphor is merely suggested (11), but later works featured it more heavily. An important example is the Austrian Heinrich der Teichner's satire Das Schif der Flust from c.1360, which tells of a ship filled with gamblers, adulterers and the like sailing from Linz (12). Their destination is Hungary, not an imaginary realm, but the conceit is the same as later used by Sebastian Brant.

The ship laden with moral outcasts continued into 15th-century literature and appeared in Jacob van Oestvoren's
Die Blauwe Schute, a Dutch Shrovetide verse from 1413. Here it is stated that Ende alle ghesellen van wilde manieren / (...) Te comen in die Blauwe Scuut (all the wild lads come with you in the blue ship - my translation) (13). Parsons and Jongenelen states that this blue ship is probably based on the carts of Dutch Shrovetide plays (14). It is also interesting to note that Pieter van der Heyden - emulating Hieronymus Bosch - gave The Blue Ship as the title for his 1559 rendition of this topos.

Hieronymus Bosch, c.1490-1510, from wikimedia commons

Pieter van der Heyden, 1559, from wikimedia commons

However, Edwin Zeydel identifies some lesser known sources as the more immediate antecedents for Brant's satire. The probably oldest of these is the anonymous Die acht Schalkheiten (c.1450) which comprised eight woodcuts with rhyming texts (15). Next in the chronological order is a sermon from the 1460s or 1470s which treats dem geistlichen narrenshiff, i.e. the clerical ship of fools, held on St. Ursula's day and therefore nicely contrasted with the saint's iconic ship (16). Two more immediate sources are Felix Hemmerlin's Doctoratus in stultitia, which Brant himself edited (17), and finally the academic humorous oration Monopolium et societas vulgo des Lichtschiffs, held by Jodocus Gallus in Heidelberg late in the 1480s and published in Strassburg in 1489 at the behest of one of Brant's friends. This oration appears to have drawn from both Teichner and van Oestvoren (18), and it is through this work we finally arrive in 1494 by the time of Brant's own satire.
Cart and boat, courtesy of this website

The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant

Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) was born in Strassburg and educated at the University of Basel, an important centre for humanism. He became a teacher and practicioner of canon law, and later entered the realm of book-printing (19). In 1494 he wrote his most famous work, The Ship of Fools, a satire on various fools and expounds in humorous detail the ways in which they err and miss the mark. The satire is described as a compilation of what may have been fliegenblätter, leaflets, focussed on one particular topic and here bound together in one unit (20). The book is divided into 112 chapters, each introduced by a woodcut vignette depicting the foible specific to the chapter (although sometimes the same woodcuts are used for two chapters). In the prologue he devises how he would equip a vessel to gather up the many fools of the world, commenting snidingly that one ship would not be sufficient due to their great number. The ship imagery itself, however, recurs fairly seldom - only in chapters 48, 75, 103, 108 and 109 - and this strengthens the supposition that many of the chapters were written prior to the application of this conceit.

Of Bad Marksmen, chapter 75 (courtesy of this website)

Brant's satire is rife with humanistic ideal, and irreligion and contempt of wisdom are some of the most frequent targets for his verbal barrages. The first chapter, for instance, is dedicated to fools who collect books they do not understand, and feign learning by replacing certain native phrases with Latin ones. Sebastian Brant is, however, not a distant judge. He acknowledges his own folly and dedicates chapter 111 to the poet's apology, judging himself the way he judges others.

Of Heedless Fools, chapter 12 (courtesy of this website)

In Brant's contemporary language there were many words for fools, such as narr, tore, affe, esel and gouch (21). This diversity in nomenclature can be said to be reflected in the wide variety of fools inhabiting Brant's satire, and he ruminates on such subjects as teaching of children (chapter 6), taking offense at fools (chapter 40), dancing (chapter 60) and gamblers (chapter 77) to mention only a few. Despite this diversity, however, the fools aboard the ship have some important aspects in common: they are all fools, although their foolery comes in various guises, and they are all dressed to emphasise this.

My ears are covered up for me,
If they were not, an ass I'd be
- The Ship of Fools (chapter 26), Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)

However, although the satire is a general attack on fools, it appears that Brant treats some fools harder than others. These fools are the schluraffen, the lazy-apes inhabiting the land of indolence and luxury, the German rendition of Cockayne. However, although denizens of this fabled country, this is not their final destination. Rather, they're heading for Narragonia, a land invented by Brant himself, and in chapter 108 Sebastian Brant states that "this ship a wreck will be", prophesying a particularly bad end to the fools who also are lazy-apes, "the lazy, carefree carousers of the Land of Cockayne" (22).

You fellows, come and be on hand,
We're headed for Schluraffen land
And yet we're stuck in mud and sand
- The Ship of Fools (chapter 108), Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)
Courtesy of this website

The Antichrist versus Saint Peter, chapter 103, courtesy of this website

Concluding remarks

What, then, is the connection between the Maastricht monkeys and the ship of fools topos? If there is any such connection, I believe it must be sought in the literary works which combine the various satirical currents of medieval literature, such the beast-fable exemplified by Jacquemars Giélée, the idea of an inverted paradise exemplified by The Land of Cockayne and the idea of a ship manned with the inversive elements of medieval society exemplified by Jacob van Oestvoren. This is not to say that there is a direct connection between the illumination and Brant's satire. Nor is it to say that the Maastricht monkeys can be placed in squarely in these traditions. Rather, we see here how certain currents and ideas permeated the medieval conscience and resulted in various expressions and various media. What all these currents and depictions have in common is a focus on subversive elements who go contrary to the ideals of the satirists, often seeking to rectify these elements, but sometimes merely using them for a humorous story. What connects the Maastricht monkeys and the Ship of Fools is that they both have this focus and that they are informed by satirical currents prevalent in medieval literature. These currents drew on a common stock of iconography, which is why we sometimes find several elements recur in widely different works of literature and art, exemplified by the illumination from the Austrian Ulrich von Pottenstein's Spiegel der Weisheit (c.1430), seen below. By examining the traditions which informed the makers of these works we find ourselves in a wonderful world of mirror-images and mockery through which we may acquire a more complex understanding of the ideals of medieval society.

Into the fool's ship toss the ape
- The Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)
MS. Egerton 1121, c.1430, Austria, Spiegel der Weisheit, Ulrich von Pottenstein
Courtesy of British Library, with thanks to Damien Kempf

Blind fools can only see this earth
- The Ship of Fools, Sebastian Brant (transl. by Edwin Zeydel)
16th-century print, with thanks to Erik Kwakkel


1: Zeydel 1962: 9

2: Corèdon and Williams 2007: 35

3: Gaposchkin 2010: 106-07

4: Schirmer 1979: 95

5: Zeydel 1962: 10

6: Zeydel 1962: 10

7: Zeydel 1962: 12

8: Zeydel 1962: 11

9: Heuser 1904: 141

10: Houdoy and Roussel 1874: 14-15

11: Zeydel 1962: 12

12: Pleij 1983: 182


14: Parsons and Jongenelen 2012: 37-38

15: Zeydel 1962: 9

16: Zeydel 1962: 13

17: Zeydel 1962: 9

18: Zeydel 1962: 13

19: Zeydel 1962: 3

20: Zeydel 1962: 15

21: Zeydel 1962: 9

22: Zeydel 1962: 15

German woodcut, 1549, from wikimedia commons



Brant, Sebastian, The Ship of Fools, translated by Edwin Zeydel, Dover Publications, 1962

Corèdon, Christopher and Williams, Ann, A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases, D. S. Brewer, 2007

Gaposchkin, Cecilia, The Making of Saint Louis, Cornell University Press, 2010

Heuser, Wilhelm,
Die Kildare-gedichte; die ältesten mittelenglischen denkmäler in anglo-irischer überlieferung von Dr. W. Heuser, 1904

Houdoy, Jules and Roussel, Henri (eds.), Renart-le-Nouvel: roman satirique composé au XIIIe siècle, 1874

Parsons, Ben and Jongenelen, Bas (eds.), Comic Drama in the Low Countries, C.1450-1560: A Critical Anthology, 2012

Pleij, Hermann, Het gilde van de Blauwe Schuit: literatuur, volksfeest en burgermoraal in de late middeleeuwen; met een nabeschouwing van de auteur, Amsterdam University Press, 1983

Schirmer, Walter Franz, John Lydgate: A Study in the Culture of the XVth Century, Greenwood Press, 1979


DISCLAIMER: I have taken most of the woodcut images from The Public Domain Review, where it is stated that these woodcuts were made by Albrecht Dürer. This is a matter of contention and due to lack of evidence I myself do not subscribe to this theory.

2 kommentarer:

  1. Our sources of the fraternaty of the Blauwe Scuten (your note 14) are not very reliable. I suggest that you remove the passage about this fraternaty. A reference to this fraternaty will not make it to the reprint of 'Comic Drama' (if there will ever be a reprint).

    1. Thank you, the passage has now been removed. I greatly appreciate your correction.