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From A Literary Source-book of the German Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 39-41.



Sebastian Brant (1458-1521) was born at Strasburg, studied at the university of Basel, became doctor of civil and canon law, and taught at Basel until 1501, when he returned to his native town. There he held several municipal offices and in 1521 was given charge of an embassy to Ghent by the emperor, Charles V.

Brant’s Narrenschiff, or Ship of Fools (Basel, 1494) was one of the most popular books of the sixteenth century. The work passed through numerous editions and was translated into many modern languages. Alexander Barclay’s Ship of Fooles (1509) is based upon Brant’s work, but is so expanded and diluted that the vigor of the original is lost. The Narrenschiff has no purpose, other than that of a satirical presentation of the weaknesses and foibles of society. Along with other classes of society it handles somewhat roughly the shortcomings of the clergy, and in this wise furnished material for the opponents of the church. Brant, however, was thoroughly orthodox, and wrote without polemical motive and without hostility to the religious institutions of his time.


FROM THE Narrenschiff.*

The foremost rank they’ve given me,
Since I have many useless books,
Which I neither read nor understand,

(1) Of Useless Books.

That I sit in this ship foremost
A special meaning has in truth,
And is not done without a cause.
For I rely upon my books,
Of which I have a great supply,
But of their contents know no word,
And hold them yet in such respect,
That I will keep them from the flies.
When people speak of knowledge, I say
I have a lot of it at home;
And am content with this alone,
To see a lot of books about.
King Ptolemy, he so contrived,
That he had all the books in the world,
And held them for a treasure great.
Still he had not the law of truth,
Nor knew well how to use his books.
So I have many books as well,
And very few of them peruse.
Why should I break my head on them,
And bother myself with lore at all?
Who studies much becomes a guy.
Myself, I’d rather be a man,
And pay people to learn for me.
Although I have a clownish mind,
Yet when I am with learned folk,
I know how to say “ita” for yes.
Of German orders I am proud,
For little Latin do I know.
I know that vinum stands for wine,
Cuculus for gawk, stultus for fool,
That “Domine Doctor” I am called.
41 If my ears were not hid for me
A miller’s beast you’d quickly see.


Who studies not the proper art,
He surely wears the cap and bells,
Is led forth on the string of fools.

(2) Of Useless Studies.

The students I cannot neglect;
They too are taxed with cap and bells,
And when they put their headgear on
The point may somewhat backward hang.
For when they ought to study hard,
They’d rather go and fool about.
To youth all learning’s trivial.
Just now they’d rather spend their time
With what is vain and of no use.
The masters have the selfsame fault,
In that true learning they despise
And useless trash alone regard:
As to whether it’s day or night
Or whether a man a donkey made,
Or Socrates or Plato walked.
Such learning now the schools employ.
Are they not fools and stupid quite
That go about by day and night,
Among themselves and other folk?
For better learning they’ve no care.
Of them it was that Origen
Speaks, when he says that they are like
The frogs and grasshoppers that once
Th’ Egyptian land reduced to waste.
And so the young men get them hence
While we at Leipzig, Erfurt, Wien,
Heidelberg, Mainz and Bâle hold out.
But come back home and although with shame,
The money by that time is spent.
And then we’re glad to turn to trade,
And then one learns to bring in wine,
And soon turns out a serving-man. —
The student cap will get its bells.


*  Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff, herausgegeben von F. Zarnke. Leipzig, 1854.

[One of his Reuchlin’s learned friends was Johannes Butzbach whose incredible autobiography is also on Elfinspell, translated by Seybolt and Monroe, click HERE to read his early life as a wandering scholar in the fifteenth century. — Elf.Ed.]

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