Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Sebastian Brant

German humanist and poet (ca. 1457-1521)

Click to enlarge

Brant, SEBASTIAN, a German humanist and poet, b. at Strasburg in 1457 or 1458; d. at the same place, 1521. He attended the University of Basle where he at first studied philosophy, but soon after abandoned this for law, obtaining in 1489 the degree of Doctor of Canon and Civil Law. Prior to this, from 1484, Brant had begun to lecture at the university, practising his profession at the same time. He wrote a number of poems in Latin and German in which he set forth his religious and political ideals. The election of Maximilian as emperor had filled him and many other patriots with high hope. To see the emperor the supreme temporal ruler of Christian nations, and the Church the supreme spiritual ruler on earth was his one great desire and henceforth colored all his poems. Especially did he hope for the restoration of imperial power in Germany and the strengthening of the realm. But he was doomed to disappointment. In 1499 Basle was separated from the empire and became a member of the Swiss confederacy. Brant’s position here now became untenable, and he decided to change his residence. In 1494 he had published his poem “The Ship of Fools”, which had won him great popularity. Geiler von Kaisersberg, the famous Strasburg preacher, had made it the basis of a series of sermons, and he now recommended the appointment of Brant to the vacant position of city-syndic in Strasburg. The poet accepted the offer, and in 1501 he returned to his native city, where two years later he was appointed town-clerk and soon rose to considerable prominence. The remainder of his life was uneventful. Towards the great religious movement of his time, the Reformation, he maintained an attitude of passive indifference. Repeatedly he served his city in an official capacity, the last time in 1520, as spokesman of an embassy sent to the newly elected Emperor, Charles V, to obtain for Strasburg the usual confirmation of its ancient privileges.

The work to which Brant owes his fame is the “Narrenschiff” (Ship of Fools), a long didactic, allegorical poem, in which the follies and vices of the time are satirized. All the fools are loaded in a ship bound for Narragonia, the land of fools. But this plan is by no means carried out systematically, many descriptions being introduced which have no connection with the main idea. The resulting lack of unity, however, has its advantage; for it enables the poet to discuss all kinds of social, political, and religious conditions. Not only follies in the usual sense of the word are satirized, but also crimes and vices, which are conceived of as follies in accordance with the medieval way of thinking. Hence among the fools appear such people as usurers, gamblers, and adulterers. A chapter is devoted to each kind of folly, and there are one hundred and twelve chapters in which one hundred and ten kinds of fools pass muster. As a work of art the poem does not rank high, though its tone is serious and earnest, especially where the poet pleads for his ideals, as in chapter xcix, entitled “Von abgang des glouben” (on the decline of faith). Knowledge of self is praised as the height of wisdom. The “Narrenschiff” enjoyed a tremendous popularity in Germany, which is attested by the numerous editions that appeared in rapid succession. But its fame was not confined to Germany. It was translated into Latin by Jacob Locher in 1497 (Stultifera Navis), into French by Paul Rivit re in 1497, and by Jehan Droyn in 1498. An English verse translation by Alexander Barclay appeared in London in 1509, and again in 1570; one in prose by Henry Watson in London, 1509, and again in 1517. It was also rendered into Dutch and Low German.

Besides the “Narrenschiff” Brant wrote religious and political poems in Latin and German. He also edited and translated a number of legal and theology cal treatises. The most complete edition of the “Narrenschiff” is that of Father Zarneke (Leipzig, 1854), which contains also selections from Brant’s other works. Other editions are by Karl Gcedeke (Leipzig, 1872) and F. Bobertag (in Kürschner’s Deutsche National Litteratur, XVI). A modern German translation was made by Karl Simrock (Berlin, 1872). A new edition of the English translation of Barclay, by T. H. Jamieson, appeared at Edinburgh in 1874 in 2 vols.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!