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Book of the Month

March 2002

Ship of Fools  

London: 1509

Sp Coll Bn6-d.9 

The book of the month for March is an English adaptation of Brant’s Narrenschiff which satirises examples of late fifteenth century folly. Often cited as being one of the first international bestsellers, the work’s comic woodcuts are considered a major contributor to its popularity.

Folio 122r
  Of lepynges and dauncis and folys that pas theyr tyme in suche vanyte

Originally written by the distinguished humanist Sebastian Brant (1458-1521) in 1494 and published in Basel, the Narrenschiff was one of the most successful published works of its age. Also known as the Stultifera Navis or Ship of Fools, the work was first published in German, but there was a gradual demand for it to be translated into all the leading European languages of the time. Jacob Locher adapted it into Latin in 1497. It appears that subsequent translations into French and English were based upon this edition. The first Flemish translation was published in 1500 by Guyor Marchand, a Flemish printer living in Paris. Although Marchand’s edition draws on the earlier German editions, for the most part it is based on the Locher translation. Alexander Barclay was responsible for the original English translation, or adaptation, of the Ship of Fools, which was first published in 1509. Such a demand for widespread accessibility, especially when printing was still so new and expensive, is evidence of the work’s great popularity
The work describes a ship laden with fools setting sail for the "fool’s paradise" of Narragonia. The author identifies the many varying examples of folly separately, including the corrupt judge, the drunkard, and the untrained physician. Some of the condemned vices are more surprising than others. The modern reader might expect to see the usual suspects of lust and slothfulness, but the moral failure in unfinished buildings or "unprofytable bokes" is less obvious. This illustration depicts the foolishness of procrastination: "Of them that prolonge from day to day/to amende themselfe".

Folio 67r
Of them that prolonge from day to day to amende themselfe

SM 1923 Folio 65r
Of advoutrie, and specially of them that are bawdes to their wives

Special Collections holds several versions of the Stultifera Navis. One edition is held in the Hunterian Collection (Bw.3.9), printed in Latin in 1498. The woodcut shown to the right is taken from its opening page. There are also various editions held in the Stirling Maxwell Collection: this illustration to the left is from a copy printed in 1570, in Latin and English. It depicts the folly of being  cuckolded by a misbehaving wife. In this case, even when the cat is not away the mice appear to play….  

Hunterian Bn.3.9 Folio 1r
Opening page

Folios 161v-162r
Of the extorcion of knyghtis great, offycers, men of war, scribes and practysers of the lawe 

The edition which we have chosen for this exhibition is from the Old Library, that is the collection of 20,000 books acquired by the Library by the end of the 18th century. On folio 35r there is an old pressmark beginning AKf2.  In the 1691 manuscript library catalogue there is a reference to a book of poems in Latin and English in an old character, which is possibly referring to this copy.  Of the various copies of the Stultifera Navis lodged in Special Collections, this edition is by no means the "best" example aesthetically. Tidemarks reveal at least two occurrences of water damage, and the book suffers from a fair amount of (often inappropriate) repairwork, probably made in the nineteenth century. The pages have been carelessly cropped, and there are clearly some pages missing at the beginning of the book. Even the late binding - added around the mid-twentieth century - is not of the highest quality.
Yet this edition is still very interesting despite, or perhaps because of, its imperfect state. Published in 1509, it is an early example of Barclay’s English adaptation of the work. It uses re-cut copies of the original Basle woodcuts. Furthermore, there are quite a lot of later marginal annotations to be found in the edition, written in a Secretary hand. Some seem to have been added to make the book more navigable such as inserted chapter headings; others provide comment on the subject of the text, such as "the vice" or "deth". The annotation shown here is one of several autographs found scattered round the volume, providing evidence of early ownership of the book: it is not known when the book was acquired by the library.  The book’s shabby appearance indicates that it has been well thumbed throughout its life, as well as being open to the elements.

Folio 193r
Signature of Patrik Scott

Folio 121v
Black letter and Roman typefaces

This edition was printed by Richard Pynson. Pynson is considered one of the finest printers of his time. He employed a fine range of types and used superior press-work to his contemporaries, combined with more effective illustration and decoration. According to Binns, Pynson introduced Roman type into England in 1509.  In this edition of the Stultifera Navis he used a Roman typeface for the Latin, but gothic ‘black letter’ type for the English. This reflects the earlier scribal practice for medieval manuscripts whereby the more expensive, Latin works would often be written using Roman lettering.  The choice of typefaces can therefore be very important; the Roman type gives the book authority, the gothic provides popular appeal.

Many credit a great part of the book’s success to its illustrations. The woodcuts are claimed to be the first examples of intentionally comic illustration in the printed book. The fools themselves are depicted with ass-eared head-dresses, laden with bells, and occasionally carrying a "fool-stick" which has a replica fool’s head on its end. They are often depicted talking to animals. These features correspond with D.G. Gifford’s definition of the fifteenth century fool.

Folio 111r
Of the ende of worldly honour and power and of folys that trust therin

Folio 177v
Of folys that despyse deth makynge no provysion therfore

Folio 103v
Of yonge folys that take olde wymen to theyr wyves for theyr ryches

While it was first thought that Brant himself was the fundamental contributor to the design of the cuts, the bulk of the work is now most commonly attributed to Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg. Dürer is considered a very fine and influential woodcut designer, only faulted for his tendency to exaggerate and over-emphasise. He seldom, if ever, did the actual cutting of his own blocks. This was assigned to a highly skilled Formschneider.  According to David Bland, Dürer "stands at the turning point between the medieval art in which he was nurtured and that of the Renaissance into which he grew."

Folio 121v-122r
Of lepynges and dauncis and folys that pass theyr tyme in suche vanyte

This notion of the "turning point" is an important one when considering the Stultifera Navis. In 1509 it is not art alone which is evolving: the transition from manuscript to print form brings a growing and changing audience. Notions of readership and authorship are in turn developing. As John Harthan observes, "Brant brought together medieval and Renaissance elements, satirizing man’s vices and follies in humorous verses which look back to medieval exemplars…and…to classical modes…but is aimed at a new reading public, urban, sceptical and ready to be entertained."
It has been argued that the work also resembles later emblem books, particularly the English version which provides a verse "motto" as well as a Latin title and summary. The book has been variously labelled as satire, allegory, sermon and complaint, incorporating themes such as the dance of death, memento mori and the wheel of fortune. The Ship of Fools may be thought of as a blend of tradition and innovation. Edwin Zeydel sees it as a move away from traditional concepts like allegory, and towards drama, the essay and the novel.

Other editions of the Stultifera Navis in Special Collections: Hunterian Bw.3.9 and BD16-e.4 (Latin) Basel: 1498; S.M. 220 (Latin) Lyon:  "1488" [i.e. 1498];  BD16-i.11 (Latin) Basel: 1554; S.M. 1923 (Latin & English) London: 1570; BD1–g.32 & S.M. 221 (Latin) Basel: 1572; S.M. 222 (Dutch) Amsterdam: 1635; BG59-l.13 (Latin) London: 1807
See also: S.M. 136 Badius Stultifere navicule seu scaphe fatuarum mulierum: circa sensus quincz exteriores fraude navigantium Strasbourg: 1502 (an appendix to Brant's Stultifera navis)

The following books and articles have been useful in compiling this article:
A history of book illustration: the illuminated manuscript and the printed book by David Bland (London: Faber, 1969)
'Forgotten Fools: Alexander Barclay's Ship of Fools' by Robert. C. Evans (quotes Zeydel) in Fools and folly edited by Clifford Davidson (Kalamazoo: Michigan Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1996)
The history of the illustrated book: the Western tradition by John Harthan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981)
'Iconographical notes towards a definition of the medieval fool' by D.J.Gifford in The fool and the trickster  edited by Paul V.A. Williams (Cambridge: Brewer 1979)
An introduction to historical bibliography by N.E. Binns (London: Association of Assistant Librarians 1962)


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Rebecca McKellar (Placement student from Strathclyde University) March 2002