Littell's Living Age/Volume 146/Issue 1891/"The Ship of Fools"

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"The Ship of Fools"

Nothing perhaps more distinctly marks the gulf between our mode of thought and that of our forefathers than the total disappearance of allegorical writing from modern literature. Parables or apologues have furnished in all nations the primitive exercise of the inventive faculty; and their universal use, whether as a vehicle of instruction or a source of entertainment, proves their power of appealing to some common instinct of humanity. Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" is the last of this class of compositions which has attained to anything like widespread popularity, but in the preceding centuries all productions addressed to the taste of the masses, whether in poetry, art, or drama, took this symbolical or representative form. Unadorned human nature was considered too mean and common a thing to occupy the attention of author or public; the stage was filled by impersonal abstractions who discoursed in dialogue as insipid as it was edifying poets personified nature instead of describing her; painters were not satisfied to portray a woman without symbolizing a virtue; Folly was held up to derision, and Wisdom spoke her trite moral, amid the mummeries of carnival masquerade; and the skeleton grinning from the wall reiterated in still more emphatic language the preacher's lesson of the vanity and brevity of life.

But the irrepressible human element thus studiously excluded from the higher realms of art was apt to assert itself in the most unforeseen directions, and the secondary episodes in which it was admitted, as it were on sufferance, developed an astonishing tendency to growth and expansion quite out of proportion to the humble place assigned to them. Gods and goddesses, vices and virtues, and all the exalted though shadowy train of abstractions and personifications found themselves unexpectedly eclipsed by some unworthy intruder on their Olympic society; and the occasional touches of broad caricature, or interludes of comic buffoonery, introduced by the appearance on the scene of clowns and ostlers, tavern-keepers and assassins, proved more interesting to the public than the heroic platitudes they interrupted.

The famous satire of Sebastian Brant no doubt owed its universal and unprecedented popularity to the happy inconsistency of its author, who, while adopting for it the form of an allegory, out of deference to the prevailing fashion of the age, immediately cast aside the restrictions imposed by symbolical composition, and set himself in downright earnest and straightforward simplicity to stigmatize the vices of his contemporaries. The ship of fools appears, indeed, in the frontispiece with disordered rigging and motley crew all jabbering and gesticulating, but we do not follow the incidents of her voyage, or learn how those on board comported themselves on the high-seas, passing instead to a descriptive catalogue of the various classes of men whose departure from the ways of wisdom might entitle them to wear the cap and bells, distinctive of her passengers. We may be sure that it is the failings prevalent among the poet's fellow-citizens that are here enumerated, and that the good burghers of Basle and Strasburg easily recognized the errors of their neighbors in pages where they never detected any allusion to their own.

Brant, thus outraging the prescriptions of high art as understood in the fifteenth century, wrote a poem which made an epoch in German literature, marking the transition from the formal conventionalities of mysticism to the free interpretation of homely nature. Its publication created an immense sensation not only in Germany, where it ran through several editions, but all over Europe. It was translated into Latin, French, English, and Dutch, was published in various adaptations and followed by innumerable imitations, was used as a text by preachers and a theme by moralists, being looked on almost in the light of a new religious revelation, and won for its author the enthusiastic admiration of Erasmus, whose most famous work, the treatise entitled "The Praise of Folly," it is believed to have suggested.

Sebastian Brant led a prosperous and active life, and made a conspicuous figure of that homely burgher type which comprised all that was best in mediæeval Germany. He was born at Strasburg in 1457 (or 1458,) the son of Diebolt Brant, a well-to-do citizen, and went in 1475 to study philosophy at the University of Basle, then only fifteen years established. Here he was plunged into that atmosphere of theological controversy which the famous council had bequeathed as a legacy to the scene of its discussions. Party feeling in society still ran high on the points debated by the fathers, and the university was divided into two sects, the Realists, headed by Johannes à Lapide, and the Nominalists, a more advanced school of thinkers, who advocated philosophical progress and ecclesiastical reform. Our young student became an ardent disciple of the former, or more conservative, party, and was all his life a zealous upholder of divinely constituted authority in Church and State.

Like Dante, his dream of an ideal society was based on the dazzling conception of a restored and perfected Roman Empire, and he dedicated a number of works both in prose and verse to the service of the hero of his Utopia, Maximilian, king of the Romans, under whom he hoped to see his scheme for the reunion of Christendom carried into effect. Thus imbued with the political passions of his day, he early abandoned the abstractions of philosophy for the more practical study of jurisprudence, and taking his degree in canon law in 1484, married in the following year Elizabeth Burg, and established himself in Basle for the practice of his profession. He was an active publicist as well as author, for he edited many works of eminent writers on civil and ecclesiastical law, and had a share in preparing the celebrated edition of the Bible, in six folios, with the commentary of Nicholas à Lyro.

His political dreams and aspirations were shattered by the battle of Dornach in 1498, when his hero Maximilian was defeated by the Swiss; and as Basle then ceased to form a portion of the empire, he left it in disgust, and removed with his family to his native town of Strasburg. He soon took a prominent part in its affairs, becoming in 1501 syndic and public advocate, and, two years later, Stadtschreiber, or city notary. He calls himself by the more dignified title of chancellor, and held indeed an office of considerable importance, as he was charged with the keeping of the archives, the record, in the shape of protocols, of the sittings of the civic council, and the maintenance of its correspondence with foreign States. Amid these avocations he found time to compile from ancient documents the annals of the town, which were kept in the public library, and destroyed, with other valuable records, by the great fire produced by the Prussian bombardment in 1870.

The emperor Maximilian recognized Brant's services by creating him a councillor of the empire. Nor was the title a mere illusory one, as he was more than once summoned to the imperial camp while the Concordat with the Holy See was being negotiated, that he might take part in the deliberations on it. Unlike most of the poets of his age, he received a larger share of appreciation from his contemporaries than from posterity; and the celebrated Erasmus, among other critics, paid a public tribute to his genius when, during his visit to Strasburg in 1514, he repeatedly expressed to the assembled citizens his admiration of "the incomparable Brant."

His popularity was probably due in some degree to his personal qualities, as the portraits of him prefixed to the various editions of his works are not without a certain fascination. We see him there in furred cap and civic robes, with a type of face more Italian than German, and suggesting aristocratic lineage rather than the respectable third estate from which he sprang. The nose is long but delicately cut, and on the slight, mobile lips hovers an incipient smile, in which a touch of sarcastic humor is tempered by sweetness and geniality.

The "Narrenschiff" was first published in Basle, in 1494, and quickly attained a European celebrity. It is divided into one hundred and ten chapters, each describing a separate type of human folly, and each illustrated by a woodcut, of which the poet is supposed to have suggested the design to the artist. In the execution of these illustrations critics believe they can detect the work of five several hands, representing as many different degrees of skill, and some are attributed to Martin Schön of Colmar. They are full of spirit and vigor, and the action in them is conveyed with such dramatic efficiency that they have the interest of a series of scenes in a comedy of manners. They represent the humorous side of the satire much more strongly than does the text; where the author's earnestness in enforcing his moral overpowers the comic view of the subject in his mind, and makes him rather a censor than satirist. The composition doubtless owed its popularity as much to its pictorial as to its poetical merits, and we may safely presume that the mere literary work would long since have passed into oblivion had it been separated from its artistic embellishments. In asking the reader then to follow us in turning over its pages, we shall direct his attention principally to these, as the more entertaining portion of the subject, giving only a few short extracts as a sample of the poem.

The frontispiece represents the Narrenschiff as a top-heavy galley, with high poop and prow, about to start on her voyage "ad Narragoniam," as the motto declares, with an obvious pun on Narr, a fool. Streamers are fluttering from masts and rigging, and the crew, all wearing the livery of folly, the hood with jangling bells and projecting horns in the shape of asses ears, are vociferating "Gaudearnus omnes" with exaggerated gestures of hilarity. One standing on the prow beckons, meantime, to a smaller boat, whose crew, with outstretched hands, are imploring the ship to wait, har noch. "Zu schyff, zu schyff, brüder; ess gat, ess gat!" (On board, on board, brothers; it goes, it goes!) are the words put into the mouth of the spokesman of the larger vessel, to hurry their arrival. In the upper half of the page a cart is seen conveying another company of fools by land to the same destination. In the text, sledges and wheeled vehicles are classed with boats and galleys, as equally coming under the definition ship.

This confusion of terms, and other hints in the poem, have given German commentators the idea that the ship of fools was not altogether a creation of the author's imagination, but had an actual existence as part of the popular shows and mummeries at carnival-tide. They trace the institution as far back as the ancient Teutonic worship of Isis as the spring goddess, whose car or ship, borne along the rivers or into the mountains, was supposed to carry peace and fruitfulness in its train. The image of the goddess, those of other divinities, and the priests consecrated to her service, were at first the sole occupants of her mystic car, but later it was invaded by the people, and doubtless originated some forms of Shrovetide revelry. Somewhat farfetched, however, seems the suggested derivation of carnival from car navale, notwithstanding the coincidence that the Greeks and Romans were accustomed to offer a ship to Isis on March 5.

A monkish chronicle records a strange procession as having taken place in the year 1133, seemingly showing that the memory of the elder worship still lingered in the popular mind through the Middle Ages. On the occasion in question, a ship was built in a forest in the district of Aix-la-Chapelle, placed on wheels, and drawn through the country escorted by singing and dancing crowds of both sexes. At Maestricht it was provided with a mast and sail, and so continued its way by water, received with acclamation and rejoicing by the inhabitants of each town it passed, and by them forwarded the next stage in its progress. The monk who chronicles this singular celebration speaks of it in terms of the strongest reprobation as an act of pagan worship, while a line in Brant's poem, saying that the Narrenschiff was to be found in the neighborhood of Aix, seems to indicate the survival of a similar custom down to his own days, and its embodiment in the framework of his allegory.

The framework only, or rather the introduction, for all nautical symbolism is dropped after the first page, and the subsequent illustrations of the various types of folly are not in any way wrought into the original design. The action portrayed in the woodcuts is, on the other hand, generally figurative or emblematic in independent fashion, so that we follow, in point of fact, a series of pictorial allegories, with explanatory texts. Some of these are conceived in a highly poetic and imaginative spirit, like that which personifies the presumptuous and reckless fool as a man looking idly out of an upper window, while his roof is smitten by the thunderbolts of heaven. The way in which the calamity shattering his dwelling is made visible, in the shape of a hammer wielded by a gigantic hand stretching from the clouds, is not without a certain rude force of expression, while its effects are shown in the flames bursting from doors and windows on the ground floor. In contrast to this type of overweening carelessness we have in the next page the picture of the meddlesome and officious fool, who is seen in the attitude of Atlas, bowed down by the self-imposed burden of the universe, the circle of the sphere resting on his shoulders, framing like a vignette a panorama of trees, towns, estuaries, and mountains.

In the illustration prefixed to the chapter on worldly ambition, Fortune's wheel is seen, guided in its revolution by a hand extended from the sky, while three asses, decked with Folly's cap and bells, represent, in their different positions, the various stages of a human career. One is being borne rapidly upwards, the second is triumphantly but insecurely perched on the temporary summit, grasping in his forepaws the orb of sovereignity, and the third is whirled downwards in precipitate descent. There is both humor and vigorous design in the variety of attitudes and expression assigned to the aspiring quadrupeds, and the moral is pointed by a skull and gravestone in the foreground, suggesting the common end of all Fortune's changes. It is worthy of remark that this design is almost a facsimile, with the substitution only of asses for apes and dogs, of the wheel of fortune as represented on the old tarots, or emblematical playing-cards, although they are not supposed to have been much used in Germany.

The lesson of remaining uninfluenced by empty and foolish talking is enforced by a singular image: a bell standing on the ground, mouth upwards, has a fox's brush in the place of a clapper, to signify at once the impotence and malignity of evil speakers; while the hopelessness of attempting to stop their mouths by kindness is indicated by a man taking flour with both hands out of a sack. The figure holding a balance in his hand, the heavier scale containing a turreted feudal castle, the lighter the celestial sphere, emblazoned with sun, moon, and stars, is emblematical of the folly which consists in preferring temporal to eternal happiness.

In another woodcut a fool is seen riding on a cray-fish, his hand pierced by a reed he has leant on, his mouth gaping for a dove flying towards him ready roasted; and the text explains this allegory as signifying those who expect rewards they have not earned either in this world or the next. The figure who appears complacently playing the bagpipes, while a harp and lute lie neglected at his feet, is, we find, intended for those empty-minded prattlers who prefer their own frivolous babble to anything better or more improving. Samson, shorn by Delilah, is, as we see at a glance, a type of that numerous class who cannot keep their own counsels; while the group round a table with cards and dice, the vain fool contemplating himself in a mirror, and the officious one who runs to put out the fire in his neighbor's house, leaving his own in flames, point equally obvious morals. One of the most striking illustrations is that prefixed to the section on those who withhold the truth from human respect, and this failing is symbolized with considerable dramatic force by a monk in the pulpit who holds his finger to his lips with a sanctimonious expression, while some of the congregation threaten him with swords and sticks, and others sleep in various attitudes on benches, and on the steps of the pulpit.

The only illustration in which the actual ship, the titular subject of the allegory, reappears, is a sufficiently striking one. In this it is seen capsized in a tempestuous sea, with the gigantic figure of Antichrist seated on its reversed keel; he holds a scourge in one hand, a sack of gold in the other, and a monstrous flying fiend blows into his ear with a bellows. The fools are struggling in the waves, or seeking refuge in a crazy boat, while another, freighted with a pious crew in various attitudes of devotion, and labelled as the bark of Peter, is drawn to the shore by the saint himself, his key serving very opportunely as a boat-hook. The sea is strewn with books, and the text refers to the abuse of the printing-press in spreading heretical doctrines.

If there were any attempt at logical arrangement in the poem, this catastrophe would naturally bring it to a conclusion, instead of occurring, as it does, at a comparatively early stage. The same absence of constructive skill is manifest throughout, and the various vices and failings stigmatized by the author are jumbled indiscriminately together, without any pretence, at classification or general plan, while some of the chapters are so nearly repetitions of subjects already dealt with, that the same woodcut does duty a second time. This failure in artistic symmetry is, however, counterbalanced by lively vigor of language, fluent versification, and inexhaustible fertility of imagery and illustration; the moral of each chapter being pointed by a string of instances, Biblical, classical, and legendary, grouped together with naïve unconsciousness of incongruity. The poem, which was written in the Swabian dialect, contains, in many parts, antiquated and obsolete turns of speech, but the modernized version, published at Berlin in 1872, offers no difficulty of language, while it preserves the racy terseness of the original.

Each chapter begins with a sort of motto in a rhyming triplet, generally explanatory of the accompanying woodcut, as, for instance, the lines on men who are foolishly suspicious and watchful of their wives, which open thus: —

'Twere wiser grasshoppers to count,
Or pour fresh water in the fount,
Than over women guard to mount.
He finds much pain and little pleasure,
Who keeps his wife like hidden treasure
If good, she wants no guide nor pastor,
If bad, will cheat both man and master.

The illustration represents a man carefully tending a flock of grasshoppers, and another energetically pouring a jug of water down a well; while a woman, looking out of an upper window, watches their futile labors, with a slyly sarcastic expression of countenance.

The prologue describes the work as evoked by the general insensibility of the public to other teaching, and after setting forth the author's aim to be a reformer of morals, dilates on the universal applicability of the satire.

We well may call it Folly's Mirror,
Since every fool there sees his error.
His proper worth would each man know,
The Glass of Fools the troth will show.
Who meets his image on the page,
May learn to deem himself no sage;
Nor shrink his nothingness to see,
Since naught that lives from fault is free.
And who in conscience dare be sworn,
That cap and bells he ne'er hath worn?
He who his foolishness descries
Alone deserves to rank as wise,
While who doth wisdom's airs rehearse
May stand godfather to my verse.

The same facile versification and fluent, sententious cadence run through page after page, and chapter after chapter, nor does the metre ever vary from its pithy brevity. It resembles that of "Hudibras;" but Brant falls far short of the point and polish of language achieved by Butler. The following lines, however, taken also from the prologue, have something of his ringing cadence:

For jest and earnest, use and sport,
Here fools abound of every sort.
The sage may here find Wisdom's rules,
And Folly learn the ways of fools.
Dolts rich and poor my verse doth strike,
The bad find badness, like finds like.
A cap on many a one I fit,
Who fain to wear it would omit,
Were I to mention him by name,
"I know you not," he would exclaim.

The "Narrenschiff" is full of indications of the manners of the day, and the woodcuts are a curious study of its costumes. In one a fashionably-dressed lady is coming out of church, and is met in the courtyard by a knight about to enter, his falcon perched on the wrist, his dogs yelping and snarling at his heels. Thus attended, the gallant sportsman's devotions are likely to be a greater source of distraction to his neighbors than of profit to himself, and accordingly the text rebukes this disrespectful fashion of assisting at service. The long peaked shoes which were the prevailing fashion of the time figure universally in the illustrations, and in the chapter on the desecration of feast-days by servile labor, having the toes of these Schnabelschuhe stuffed with cotton so as to make them wearable, is enumerated as one of the unnecessary tasks frequently imposed on servants.

The fifteenth century would seem to have been no whit behindhand in the tricks of trade — a special section is devoted to their reprobation; and false weights, short measure, light money, copper gilt to pass as gold, inferior furs dyed in imitation of real, lame horses fitted with padded shoes to appear sound, are enumerated among the forms of deceit in vogue. Nor is the adulteration of food a modern invention, for in the woodcut we have the wine merchant introducing all manner of foreign substances, "saltpetre, sulphur, bones, mustard, and ashes," into the barrel, while the alchymist, busy with retorts and crucibles, is seen carrying on another form of imposture now happily exploded.

The long chapter which reprehends over-indulgence in the pleasures of the table gives a curious view of the social customs of the time, and the author's naïve hints on good manners imply a considerable lack of them among his contemporaries. Some, he says, are too nice to help themselves to salt with their fingers, but he for his part would prefer seeing a clean hand thrust into the salt-cellar to a knife, which, for aught he knows, may have just been used in skinning a cat. The nice point of etiquette thus raised seems to imply that the simple expedient of a common salt-spoon had not yet been hit upon, while we also infer from the context that each guest brought his own table battery, consisting probably of a large clasp knife. The poet also condemns as a breach of politeness the device of blowing in to a glass to clear away any particles fallen in, as well as the introduction of a knife, or even of a piece of bread to remove them, though the latter passed for the more genteel solution of the difficulty. Among gentlefolk he evidently thinks the correct thing would be to call for a fresh glass, though he considerately remarks that from a poor man such a costly piece of refinement would be too much to expect, and he would apparently give him a dispensation for some slight deviation from the strict laws of good breeding. The carver who in helping his neighbors selects the worse portions for them, reserving the better for himself, he who turns the dish round when it is set before him in order to take a leisurely survey and choose the most inviting morsels, the man who eats too fast, speaks too loud, or monopolizes the general conversation, all come in for their share of reprobation; and these trifling instances show how narrowly the satirist scanned human nature, and how keenly he ridiculed its smallest failings and weaknesses.

This minuteness of detail characterizes the poem throughout, and, while it adds to its interest as an antiquarian relic, undoubtedly detracts from its literary merit. The sense of proportion seems to have been wanting in the author's mind, and he allots no greater space to the denunciation of wickedness than to the analysis of mere social selfishness. Yet this very condescension to trifles, which militated against him as an artist, doubtless increased his usefulness as a preacher; for while actual vice is almost impregnable to satire, the enforcement of the minor moralities comes fairly within its scope. Thus if Sebastian Brant's sententious wisdom helped nothing to the observance of the Decalogue, it might at least hinder breaches of the social code; and if gamesters, cheats, and drunkards were impervious to his ridicule, the man who inconvenienced his neighbors at dinner might fear to find its shafts borrowed by their tongues, in revenge for his greediness or garrulity. At any rate, our author did his best to deprive wickedness of its prestige by classing it with folly, and so far deserved well of his generation.

The English version of the "Narrenschiff" published in 1509, attained to nearly as great a celebrity as the German text. It is rather an adaptation than a translation, and ranks almost as an original poem, but its prolixity of style and tedious versification give no idea of the pithy terseness which gives point and in cisiveness to Brant's satire. Its author, Alexander Barclay, was a Dominican monk or Black Friar, whose conscience in matters of doctrine was evidently as elastic as that of the Vicar of Bray in politics, since he acquiesced calmly in the Reformation, and received preferment under Edward VI. Having travelled on the Continent in his youth, he was familiar with foreign tongues, and was a man of considerable attainments. Besides his translation of Brant, he is best known as the author of a series of eclogues, which held a good place in the literature of the time. Barclay's "Ship of Fools" is chiefly interesting as a study of language, being the only important work in English verse produced in the interval between Chaucer and Spenser. It is written in strong idiomatic vernacular, and embodies many popular proverbial phrases still in use, and here found for the first time in literature, as the earliest collection of English proverbs - that of Heywood - was not published till 1546. Thus we read in its pages, "When the stede is stolyn to shyt the stable door." "Better is a frend in courte than a peny in purse." "A crowe to pull." "Better haue one birde sure within thy wall, or fast in a cage, than twenty score without," while the eclogues are still more rich in the homely wit of the popular idiom.

Barclay's poem furnished Sir Edward Coke's caustic wit with a metaphor for a sneer at his great rival. The first edition of the "Novuin Organum" had on its title-page a woodcut of a ship passing the Straits of Hercules, to signify the new realms about to be explored by philoso phy; and on the presentation copy given to Coke the following doggrel rhyme was inscribed in his handwriting, above the proud device of the author —

It deserveth not to be read in schools,
But to be freighted in the Ship of Fools.

In modern English literature the "ship of fools "is more rarely introduced, and probably the latest allusion to it occurs in a now nearly forgotten novel called "Crotchet Castle," by Thonias Love Peacock, a writer of the last generation. The principal characters of the work are discussing a projected pleasure voyage up the Thames and by the head waters of the Severn into the Ellesmere Canal, when Lord Bossnowl, the butt of the party, expresses a hope that if he's to be one of the company the ship is not to be the ship of fools, thereby, of course, raising a universal laugh against himself. This imaginary expedition had actually been made by Peacock, who here describes it, in company with the poet Shelley, the explorers following the windings of the Thames until, as the former graphically puts it in a letter, its entire volume had dwindled to so narrow a thread as to be turned aside by a cow lying placidly recumbent across its course. It was during this excursion that Shelley visited Lechdale in Gloucestershire, the scene commemorated by the beautiful lines on "A Summer Evening Churchyard," beginning —

       The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
            Each vapor that obscured the sunset's ray;
       And pallid evening twines its beaming hair
            In duskier braids around the languid eyes of day;
       Silence and twilight, unbeloved of men,
       Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.

It would seem that an additional wave of Lethe has rolled over the work of Brant and Barclay in the generation intervening between Shelley's time and our own, for a passing reference like the above would scarcely be understood by the novel-reading public of the present day. The famous satire is at last forgotten, amid the multitude of ephemeral novelties that burden the library shelves, and few care to explore its antiquated pages. Yet the picture parables and homely truisms in verse with which their author seeks to illustrate and enforce his plain, old-world morality might be found more entertaining than the stereotyped conventionalities of many a modern volume.