The theme of lunacy and its binary opposite, common sense, has a long tradition in European art. The fool may have no reason, but represents that other side of human experience: a hidden knowledge that the sane don't have. Insanity also has a vertical meaning since it goes beyond earthly cognition and reaches a holy wisdom of fools: the mad are not taken seriously, but seem to possess an extraordinary talent. Folly was brought to light in modern times by Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilisation (1961) which resurrected the ship image present in Brand's Das Narrenshif (Ship of fools) published in 1494.
In his book Foucault discusses the metaphor of the Stultifera Navis insisting on its influence on both literature and the visual arts in the 15th. and 16th. centuries. He suggests that when leprosy disappeared at the beginning of Renaissance times, it was replaced by madmen as the new outcasts. Just as lepers had gained salvation through exclusion, so the insane reached heaven through ostracism.
The ship of fools had a function of purification akin to the scapegoat since the sea distances the fools and removes the community's sin. Foucault asserts that the madmen sail for the other world in their boat. They are both prisoners in their craft and free from societal constraints, because they are offshore.
At the end of the 15th. century the ship of fools metaphor was exploited in art and literature. Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly (1509), Bosch painted The Cure of Folly (1494) and The Ship of Fools (1490-1500), Sebastian Brandt wrote his Das Narrenschiff (1494). The allegory of the ship of fools originates from Book IV of Plato's Republic. It tells the story of a ship with a dysfunctional crew and represents the difficulties of governance by those without expert knowledge.
The Ship of Fools is organised as a Prologue, 112 Satires and an Epilogue, all with woodcut illustrations.
It is a parody on the foolishness and immorality of medieval political, social and religious life. It was written in Swabia, a German dialect, and became an instant success, possibly due to the new printing press and its authorship in a vernacular language, not Latin. Its woodcut illustrations, created by Albrecht Dürer, also attracted those who could not read
Brant was a professor of Canon Law and his didactic allegory centres on a ship of 110 people searching for a fool's paradise, Narragonia, but who ultimately die because of their erratic behavior. Brant presents his story in the form of 100 fools who represent contemporary failings. The social satire includes criminals, drunkards, ill-behaved priests, lecherous monks, spendthrifts, corrupt judges, gossips, and voluptuous women. Brant aims to improve his fellow believers and regenerate the church and empire.
The poem is a taxonomy of fools, that is, people's vices. The chapter on churchgoers denounces those who attend the services just to gaudily show off their fine clothes, their new dog or their hawk. The chapter on dancing underlines its dangers and that on adultery, satirises flirting.
Some find Brant's images of humanity basically medieval but the book's design, language, illustrations and printing are Renaissance.
The success of the book depends on several factors. One was the narrative content which told stories of contemporary events and people instead of battles and knights in armour. Though satirical it talks of the present, to which readers could connect. Another was its vernacular language, coupled with the woodcut illustrations which facilitated its comprehension by a mainly illiterate public.
The poem encouraged a novel genre of literature: “fool's literature” and Brant became a very popular German writer, yet his works are not much studied today. However they foreshadowed themes in later ships of fools such as his humanist interest in education and his belief that reason and self-knowledge are key to progress.
The Ship of Fools is a moralistic poem which equates its varied follies with vices and depicts fools as immoral people.
The procession of fools in the work is led by the foolish reader who is satirised by Brant as being convinced of his own learning. He is shown as chasing the flies away from his pile of books but he does not open the books to seek knowledge. The criticism is not so much the fact of being foolish, but rather remaining foolish by not recognising your own imperfections.
Das Narrenschiff and Dante's Divina Commedia
Dante leads his readers through Purgatorio and Inferno to Paradiso, but Brant's Ship of Fools has a more uncertain destination. The foolishness in the ship appears to be another way of expressing sin and its port might be Hell with Charon at the helm. Dante travels through Hell describing his passage and how divine grace allows him to learn about sinfulness. Brant takes a less religious approach and judges sin from this side of Hell, without divine help. He represents, 250 years later, the Northern Renaissance response to Dante's pre-Renaissance.
Brant and Erasmus
Brant's Ship of Fools (1494) and Eramus' Praise of Folly (1509) approach foolishness differently, particularly as regards religion. Brant, though a layman, was a defender of the Church; Erasmus was a clergyman and he tends to analyse religious practices in detail. Brant's poem was a reference work for the Reformation and influenced Erasmus. The 15 years that separated both writers's compositions also showed a distinction between pre-Reformation and its sequel.
One major difference between the two texts is their readers. Erasmus wrote his book as a scholar for scholars; Brant wrote his poem to appeal to a wider audience, as indeed was the case since it became a best seller.
However, both texts are satirical and their exaggerations for the sake of effect may not reflect the reality of religious life in per-Reformation times.