Fool studies for Priesthood -The Ship of Fools, 1497


 An incunable leaf with woodcut from Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools



Recto:  Woodcut and Gothic text printed on laid paper. Red underlining and capitals touched in red.


Verso:   Text only.     


Printer:   Georg Stuchs, Nuremberg.               


Date:  1497


Content:  This English translation is by Professor Edwin Zeydel who uses verse form, like the original.  He titles this chapter ‘Of Becoming a Priest’.


A section of his verse is:


Another type I’d have you mark

That on the fool’s ship should embark

Has recently been much increased

For every peasant wants a priest

Among his clan, to doge and shirk 

And play the lord but never work;

It’s not done out of veneration

Or for the sake of soul’s salvation,

They want a high-placed relative 

On whom the other kin may live.

A youth that enters priesthood’s state

May later execrate his fate.


Notes: Published in 1494 in Basel, Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools was an instant and unprecedented success, and was followed by dozens of other editions, adaptations and translations into Latin, Low German, French, Dutch, Flemish and English. Stultifera Navis is the Latin version of Brant’s famous Das Narrenschiff, (The Ship of Fools). The Latin translation was the work of Jakob Locher (1471-1528), Sebastian Brant’s trusted pupil, at the instigation and with the assistance of the author himself. The Latin translation was published in 1497 in Basel by Johann Bergmann von Olpe who had also been in charge of presenting Brant’s vernacular Narrenschiff to an amazed reading public in 1494.

The title incorporates two ideas already very familiar to readers of the 1490’s. The ship in medieval literature had always signified the Church (specifically ‘the ship of Peter’ the fisherman and forerunner of the papacy).  The fool was the archetypal figure of the world turned upside-down. His traditional appearance as described in Brant’s work and depicted in its illustrations was already well established in Germany. The fool in his garish, multicoloured costume, fool’s cap with ass’s ears and cock’s comb (to which bells were added for the first time in the illustrations of The Ship of Fools) made his public appearances in the celebrations of Shrove Tuesday and New Year,  in the tradition of public mockery as a form of social control.

This leaf is from a rare pirated edition published in 1497 in Nuremberg by Georg Stuchs.   There’s no question that The Ship of Fools would have been such a success had it been published unillustrated. The lively woodcuts, most by a young Albrecht Dürer at the start of his career, perfectly complement Brant’s verse, lampooning the follies and foibles of human nature.   The woodcuts for this edition were borrowed or bought by Stuchs from his fellow Nuremberg printer, Peter Wagner, who had used them for his own pirated edition of the German text in 1494 (GW 5042), printed four months after the original Basel edition. The Wagner cuts are reduced and mostly reversed copies of the Dürer originals. These smaller Nuremberg woodcuts retain the pungency of the originals as well as all the iconographic details, and have a lively, primitive charm of their own. 

The Ship of Fools shows an imagination, wit, and humour rich with insights into human nature. Its commentaries on the boasting, pedantry, false learning, gambling, gluttony, medical folly, adultery, greed, envy, hatred, pride and other failings that mark humanity are sharp and telling, and sadly, as relevant today as they were over 500 years ago. 

Condition:  The leaf is in very good condition with just a very minor edge browning. The leaf is unconditionally guaranteed genuine.


Size:  Size of leaf: approx. 155x105 mm. Text and illustrated area : approx.  105x85 mm.  Presented in a museum quality mat, ready for framing.  Please note that packing and postage is invoiced separately.  Within Australia: $22.50.  Overseas: ask for quote.


References:  Goff B1087; ISTC ib01087000; GW 5055; BMC II:471; Schreiber 3568.


Item No:  PSE077

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