In 1494 a book entitled Ship of Fools was published in Basel. Written by Sebastian Brant, the profound masterpiece was to have an impact on Europe's cultural climate. The book's status as an unprecedented bestseller can be explained when one aligns the author and his intention, the reception of the book, and the consequences of his work.
Brant's beginnings are found in Strasbourg, where he was born in 1457. He was raised in a wealthy household and was afforded an education that would eventually permit him to study at the University of Basel. Between 1483 and 1484, Brant received his juristic license, which enabled him to teach canonical and Roman law.
A devout Christian, Brant felt prompted to explore the range of reasons pertaining to mankind's behavior in a fallen world. The causes, so Brant believed, are related to foolishness, whereby foolishness, depending on circumstances, is another word for ungodliness. According to Brant, the effects of this condition promote rebuke from God and from Christians. Brant felt that God endowed mankind with reason, and that the willful apathy toward reason gives rise to lax moral views, which undermine the mission that God asks of mankind: to live in agreement with God's will.
Brant set to work at compiling material for a book that would illustrate a panoply of foolish demeanor. He must have been a keen psychologist, for the detailed rendition of his findings demonstrate a deep insight into human nature. Brant intended his book to be a didactic work that would guide mankind toward and along the path to salvation. The author, like many of his contemporaries, believed that the end of time was near, that the imminence of the Second Coming required a willingness to repent of sins, to acquire absolution, and to live the rest of life in a state of incorruptible faith. In order to suffocate the prospect of divine damnation, it was essential for human beings to retaliate against that demon known as foolishness.
Brant was a preacher of words set to rhyme. In 112 chapters, he describes the effects of having strayed from God and of engaging in irrational circumstances. Brant laced his work with satirical observations, thus the "Ship of Fools" offers readers an often tragicomic perspective on the effects of the protagonists conduct. The fools would like to sail for Narragonia (from German Narr for "fool"), a fool's paradise, a desired utopia. Nevertheless, the author also suggests how foolish conduct can be defeated: by living the life that respects the will and the demands of God.
Well-versed in Biblical topics, Brant relied heavily on the insight of Solomon, alluding to the wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes. Other Biblical sources include excerpts from the Gospel of Matthew. But Brant also drew referential sources from the works by Ovid, Juvenal, and Horace. (It must be remembered that scholars of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance were fond of antiquity).
Upon the book's first printing, "Ship of Fools" was an enormous success, which launched a new literary genre known as fool's literature. Initially, the book was written in German. Soon, however, Brant's effort was translated into Latin, the language of choice for humanistic scholars. They, in turn, lauded the book to such an extent that it was translated into other European languages, thus sending the work on a further journey of fame. The chapters' introductory woodcuts served as a visual guide for the illiterate. Most of the woodcuts are credited to Albrecht Dürer, who was perhaps the greatest Renaissance artist of Germany.
Although more than 500 years have elapsed since Brant wrote the book, it continues to demonstrate actuality. Ship of Fools will humble, entertain, and instruct readers.