Dover Book

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    Ok, so this is a religious book. No, seriously, it is. It was written by a medieval German theologian who was gravely Papist. He foresaw the oncoming Protestant Reformation and looked upon it with dread that the Christian Church should be divided. The Preface to this edition states, "The Narrenschiff [Ship of Fools] expresses the views of a noted forerunner of German humanism, but one who, not in sympathy with the ideas which were paving the way for the Reformation, wanted to conserve and strengthen the status quo throughout the Christian world." Didn't work, did it?
    This book was written to illustrate to people how sinful, or rather "foolish" was their behavior. It was meant to be humorous, but apparently most of the humor was lost on me. I don't really have much in common with an ultra-conservative medieval Catholic. I did find some of it rather funny, but more of it was annoying and tedious. What could have been humorous was spoiled by too much preachiness, which, of course, was the whole idea of the book. Unless you are a far-right Christian who does everything the Bible and your preacher tells you to do without question, you will no doubt find this book outdated. Acceptable behavior has changed a bit since the book was first published in 1494 in Basel, Switzerland, and much of it is not good. But one must find a happy medium between being a slave to religious dogma and not having a sense of right and wrong. Developing rightful behavior and morals is accomplished by meditation and personal spiritual pursuit, not by following the dictates of the Church.
    The book consists of 112 chapters, in rhyming couplets, each accompanied by an appropriate woodcut, which is one of the best aspects of the collection as far as I'm concerned. This Dover edition includes them all, so it is truly a work of art in many respects.
    If you do read this book, and you are an English-speaking person, this is the only edition you should read, at least first. In the blurb on the back cover, it states: "This translation by Professor Edwin H. Zeydel is the only accurate English translation ever published. The form Professor Zeydel uses is verse, like the original, and he even retains the original rhyme scheme and meter. The achievement is remarkable, for it captures all the charm and movement of the original German while sacrificing nothing to readability and fluidity." And I must agree with that. It also contains copious footnotes, that I read along with the text, as I am a big fan of footnotes. They include sources, many of which are from the Bible, along with other historical information. This edition also includes 54 pages of material preceding the text, which contains biographical information on Brant. This was quite interesting in itself, and also helps one to understand the viewpoints on which the book is based. I think if I had read through this book more slowly, and only a few of the chapters at a time, I might have formed a different opinion, and may have found myself laughing rather than snarling. Perhaps I will keep it handy as a reference. Or not. It was actually the most famous book of its time, and was translated into every major European language. As it is, I do recommend its reading, even if not from a religious standpoint, but from a historical one, and I am a huge fan of the medieval period. And certainly the artworks are worth enjoying.
    Most of the chapters begin with three rhyming lines, then the woodcut, then the number and title of the chapter, followed by five lives of verse, which takes up the first page, and is followed by another full page of verse. But there are quite a number that veer from that pattern, some much longer, taking several pages.
    So, in this review, I will touch a bit on Brant and contemporary life when the book was written, then include some bits and pieces from some of the poems I liked and some I really didn't. And last, I will include some of the delightful woodcuts.
     Sebastian Brant was born in either 1457 or 1458 in Strasbourg, which is actually in France, on the border of Germany, but borders have changed a lot since medieval times, switching between French and German rule. In any case, Brant spoke and wrote in German. Check out the link above to see what a lovely city it is, a magnificent mix of ancient and modern. Brant's father died in 1468, and his mother determined that Sebastian, her "pet" would receive the best education possible. The book states that he had a deep respect for good women, "a trait which sets him apart from his contemporaries." In 1475, he began his studies in philosophy at the University of Basel. After earning his baccalaureate he studied law, obtaining his license to teach and practice canon law. Eventually he put his focus on publishing, becoming an advisor for Basel book printers and editing, proofing and writing introductions, prefaces and blurbs. In the early 1500s, he returned to Strasbourg and devoted the remainder of his life to public service. He died in 1521. Here are some quotes from the Introduction.

   Brant was a man of deep religious convictions and of stern morality, even to the point of prudishness. His motives were of the highest. He wanted to elevate his generation, and dreamed too of improving its political condition through moral regeneration. He was a typical fifteenth-century savant, a typical South German, and a typical upper-class burgher, proud of his civic rights. He admired the common people, though chiding the peasants severely for many excesses, and acquired the ability to express himself in the vernacular so popularly and sententiously that even the humblest could understand him.
   Yet he was also nervous and irritable, positive and dogmatic, a carping satirist of the very follies of which he himself may have often been guilty. His tendency to seek weaknesses and flaws in others was congenital. His morality was philistine. What was bad in his eyes, was not bad, per se, but because the authorities—the Bible, the canonical writers, the ancients—said so.

    The Introductory material goes on (and on) about the book itself and its numerous later editions, plus other authors that either inspired Brant or were inspired by him, so there is quite a bit of material to peruse here, but I will skip that and move on to the chapters. The book condenses their content into six general categories: 1) vicious or criminal offenses; 2) insolence; 3) riotousness; 4) sloth; 5) presumptuousness; and 6) perversities. Commentary on the woodcuts is also included. Here is the Wikipedia page for the book. And now, on to the text.
    Brant's text begins with A Prologue To The Ship Of Fools, beneath which he writes, "For profit and salutary instruction, admonition and pursuit of wisdom, reason and good manners: also for contempt and punishment of folly, blindness, error, and stupidity of all stations and kinds of men: with special zeal, earnestness, and labor compiled at Basel by Sebastian Brant doctor in both laws." [That is, canon and civil law.]
    Hmm. Maybe this does apply to people in this day and age! This is also the opening chapter, which contains some humorous depictions of fools. I had to laugh at his description of women's clothing!

Some clothes they wear would put to shame
Full many a man’s unblemished name,
Shoes pointed, bodice cut too low,
So that their breasts might always show,
And rags they wrap into their braids,
And build huge horns upon their heads,
The giant oxen mocking they
Parade about as beasts of prey.

    Can you imagine Brant's reaction to today's clothing? Oh, my. I've seen women use their cleavage as a cell-phone holder! And it's not just women. He pokes fun at men, too, in Chapter 4, entitled "Of Innovations." Here's a bit of that.

An honor ‘twas a beard to grow,
Effeminate dandies now say no!
Smear apish grease on face and hair
And leave the neck entirely bare, . . .

Coat, bodice, slipper, also skirts,
Boots, pants, and shoes and even shirts,
Fur hoods, cloaks, trimmings not a few,
The Jewish style seems smart and new. . . .

Their coats are short and shorter grow,
So that their navels almost show.
Shame, German nation, be decried!
What nature would conceal and hide,

    And here's one I dedicate to Bill Gates, Klaus Schwab, Biden, Trump, and a whole long list to go. It is Chapter 37 and called "Of Chance." May their day come soon.

A fool is he who climbs on high
And shows his shame to every eye,
He hopes to greater heights to go
But fortune’s wheel he doesn’t know.
All things that venture giddy flight
Will tumble down from greatest height;

    This one left me puzzled. Ah living in medieval times must have been an odd mixture of the vulgar and refined. . . . This is Chapter 44 and called "Noise in Church."

One must not ask who they may be
Whose dogs in church bark furiously
While people pray at mass or sing,
Who bring a hawk that flaps its wing
And rings its bell with tinkling gay,
That one can neither sing nor pray.

    And for some reason, Brant had a thing against bagpipes. On behalf of him, I apologize to the people of Scotland! This one is Chapter 54, named "Of Impatience of Punishment." Otherwise, I'm not sure I understood his point.

Bagpipes are dunces’ instrument,
For harps they have no natural bent,
And naught gives fool a greater joy
Than wand and pipe, their favorite toy.

    He thought dancing was sinful, too, as in Chapter 61, "Of Dancing." Of course, this one is ridiculous.

I’d take all those for fools almost
Who skill and joy in dancing boast,
Cavorting, prancing as they must,
With weary feet in dirt and dust,
But later then I called to mind
That dance and sin are one in kind,
That very easily ‘tis scented:
The dance by Satan was invented
When he devised the golden calf
And taught some men at God to laugh,
And Satan dancing still doth use
To hatch out evil, to abuse.

    The next one is about "Of Serenading at Night," but at least they don't play bagpipes. However, their efforts aren't always appreciated! It is Chapter 62. Eww, yuk.

The dance of fools would now be o’er,
Though there’d be something still in store,
For we’ve not mentioned those gallants
Who walk the streets and would entrance
The girls, to whom they’re very sweet,
And wend their way from street to street,
While playing lutes for all to hear
At doors from which a girl may peer,
And do not from the street go dashing
Until a night-pot’s dregs come splashing,

    Oh, my. And this next one is about wealthy members of holy orders who pretend to be paupers. Chapter 63 is called "Of Beggars."

Bold begging charms full many a fool,
For begging has become the rule
And ranks among our best professions:
Church orders teems with rich possessions
And yet lament their pauper state,
Poor cadgers, ah, the pity’s great!
Rank pauperdom, that is your class,
Though heaps of wealth you should amass,
And Prior shouts: “Bring more, bring plus!”
His is a sack that’s bottomless!
Quite similar are the relic-vendors,
The pious dealers and pretenders.
No kermess but they thither fare
And there they advertise their ware:
“In this bag you will find the hay
That once in bygone ages lay
Beneath the crib at Bethlehem.”
“An ass bone here of Balaam.”
“Of Michael’s wing I have a feather.”
“St. George’s steed once wore this tether!”
“See here St. Clara’s laced-up shoes.”
To beg some men will always choose,

    Chapter 85 is "Not Providing for Death." It's sort of like "everything you always wanted to know about death but were afraid to ask," and goes on and on for six pages. It was one of those that I found annoying. And nonsense.

Our first and final hours are mated,
And when the first man God created
He knew then how the last would die.
But folly cheats us shrewd and sly,
That we neglect the truth each day:
That Death won’t let us tarry ay,
Our pretty horse he’ll take away,
Our greening wreaths and garlands fair.
His name is truly Jack Sans Care;
Whom Death would grasp, let him beware,
If he be young or fair or strong
He’ll take to leaping high and long,
And this I call the leap of death,
He’ll sweat, freeze, writhe, and hold his breath
And like a worm will twist and wiggle
And finally will writhe and jiggle.

    As most of the above so far have been on the amusing side, here's one that is more preachy. It's called "Of Torture and Punishment by God," not a subject conducive to humor. It is Chapter 88. Yeah, we're getting all that's listed, but it's due to the climate engineers and the WEF.

“If you destroy what I do raise,
We’ll both regret it all our days
And all our work will be for naught.”
For thus the Lord in wrath has taught:
“If my command you will not hear,
I’ll send you plague and death and fear,
Drought, hunger, pestilence, and war,
Heat, frost, cold, hail, and thunder’s roar,
And make it worse from day to day
And from your prayers I’ll turn away."

    Ok, so you get the idea, and there's 112 of these, remember. But as mentioned above, if you do not fully appreciate it from the religious standpoint, historically, it is an important book, and worth reading. I suggest not reading it through, but only a few chapters at a time.
    Here are just three of the charming woodcuts that accompany each Chapter. I found these easily online, which was better than scanning those in my book because they are too small to appreciate the details. Below is the artwork for Chapter 1, "Of Useless Books;" Chapter 85, "Not Providing for Death;" and a quite magnificent Chapter 16, "Of Gluttony and Feasting." I would imagine the original book had that border included.

Chapter 85, Not Providing for Death

Chapter 1, Of Useless Books

Chapter 16, Of Gluttony and Feasting

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