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The Ship of Fools

The Ship of Fools

by Sebastian Brant

Published in 1494 in Basel, The Ship of Fools was soon translated into every major European language. It provoked a vast number of imitations and remained steadily in print through the eighteenth century (with sporadic reprints after that). It still possesses an enormous vigor and vitality.
The book owes its long life to an imagination, wit, and humor


Published in 1494 in Basel, The Ship of Fools was soon translated into every major European language. It provoked a vast number of imitations and remained steadily in print through the eighteenth century (with sporadic reprints after that). It still possesses an enormous vigor and vitality.
The book owes its long life to an imagination, wit, and humor rich with insights into human nature, yet neither bitter nor namby pamby. Its commentary 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 450 years ago.
This translation by Professor Edwin H. Zeydel is the only accurate English translation ever published. (Barclay's version is really a pastiche written in imitation of Brant.) 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.
Published now with the 114 original Renaissance woodcuts and with Professor Zeydel's annotations, a biography of Brant, a publishing history, and a survey of the work's influence, this will unquestionably remain the definitive edition of The Ship of Fools in English. The illustrations are part of Dover's Pictorial Archive Series and may be used by commercial artists free of charge.

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The Ship of Fools

By Sebastian Brant, Edwin H. Zeydel

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1944 Edwin H. Zeydel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14312-5



If on this ship I'm number one
For special reasons that was done,
Yes, I'm the first one here you see
Because I like my library.
Of splendid books I own no end,
But few that I can comprehend;
I cherish books of various ages
And keep the flies from off the pages.
Where art and science be professed
I say: At home I'm happiest,
I'm never better satisfied
Than when my books are by my side.
King Ptolemy did once decree
That he have all the books there be,
And thought he owned a treasure-trove,
But oh, he needed Christian love,
Could not profess the proper creed.
I, too, have many books indeed
But don't peruse them very much;
Why should I plague myself with such?
My head in booklore I'll not bury,
Who studies hard grows visionary;
A Dominie I well could be
And pay someone to learn for me;
Though I may be a vulgar lout
I can when scholars walk about
Say 'ita' when I might say 'yes.'
The man of German tongue I bless;
Although my Latin isn't fine
I know that 'vinum' stands for wine,
'Gucklus' a cuckold, 'stultus' fool,
And I am 'doctor,' that's my rule;
My ears are covered up for me,
If they were not, an ass I'd be.

Who heeds what mighty men have said
And e'er by fickleness is led
Drives sows to vats before they're dead.



Full many exercise their wit
That soon in council they may sit,
Not knowing right or wrong at all
They blindly grope along the wall.
Hushai, alas, has long been dead,
Ahithophel has got ahead!
Wouldst others with advice delight,
Then counsel but what's fair and right,
So you will not be like a slat
That drives the sow into the vat.
I truly say it is not fair,
Let judgment be a lesser care,
For it alone does not make right,
One must be searching, must be quite
Inquisitive of evidence,
Else right is wrong and bare of sense,
Else God will not accept your plea;
I give the warning earnestly.
If we could see the future clear
We'd not be rash with judgment here.
The standard every man's applied
In life, by that he too is tried,
As you judge me and I judge you
Our heavenly Father judges too.
When he is dead a man will find
The judgment he once gave his kind;
Whose judgment injures others may
Expect his own grim Judgment Day.
The judgments spoke by cruel men
Will some fine day rebound on them;
Who does not render justice well
Will meet harsh justice down in hell;
No godless counsel God will praise,
No violent, sly, or crafty ways.

Who sets his heart on earthly ware
And seeks his joy and comfort there,
Inveterate foolishness his share.



A fool who gathers earthly ware
And finds no joy or comfort there
And hardly knows for whom to save
When once he finds his dark, cool grave;
More foolish still is he who spends
To frivolous and wasteful ends
What God once gave for him to own,
What he should husband all alone.
Some day accounting he must make,
Where more than limb will be at stake.
A fool gives liberally to friends,
His own salvation never tends
And dreads the lack of earthly wares,
But ne'er for things eternal cares.
O silly fool, how blind you are,
You fear the mange, invite a scar.
The man who wrongful riches wins
Will burn in hell for all his sins;
To that his heirs pay little heed,
They'd not assist in time of need,
They'd not redeem him for a sou
When once in hell he needs must stew.
For God's sake, give the while you may,
When you've died other men hold sway;
No wise man ever deemed it worth
His while to garner wealth on earth,
He'd rather learn to know himself.
Who's wise has more than trifling pelf;
Crassus did drink the gold, they say,
For which he craved and thirsted ay;
Crates his gold tossed out to sea,
So that for studies he'd be free.
Who piles up goods that evanesce
Inters his soul in filthiness.

Who everywhere would innovate
Arouses scandal, wrath, and hate,
A dunce's stupid traveling mate.



An erstwhile quite disgraceful thing
Now has a plain, familiar ring:
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,
With rings and many a heavy chain,
As though they were in Lienhart's train;
Vile sulphur, resin curl their hair,
An egg white's added too with care,
That curls may form in basket-pan,
The curls amid the breeze they fan,
Or bleach them white in sun and heat,
For lice no ordinary treat;
Their number now would wax untold,
Since modern clothes have many a fold,
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.
The styles change oft, are various,
It proves that we are frivolous.
Shameless and fickle I do brand
Style slaves who live in every land;
Their coats are short and shorter grow,
So that their navels almost show.
Shame, German nation, be decried!
What nature would conceal and hide,
You bare it, make a public show,
'Twill lead to evil, lead to woe,
And then grow worse and harm your name;
Woe's every man who rouses shame,
Woe's him too who condones such sin,
His wages will be paid to him.

My name is on the Reaper's list,
Nor has the knife my buttocks missed,
And yet in folly I persist.



My foolish conduct mocks my age,
I'm very old but am not sage,
A naughty child of hundred years,
A youthful dunce cap o'er my ears;
The children I would regiment
And write myself a testament
That after death I well may rue.
Example bad and counsel too
I give that in my youth I learned
And think that praise I've thereby earned,
And dare to boast of my disgrace,
That I've deceived in many a place;
Clear water I have turned to slime
And practiced evil every time.
That I'm no longer quite as bad
As once I was, that makes me sad;
But pranks that I must leave undone
I'll teach to Henry, he's my son,
He'll carry on my evil stock,
For he's a chip from off this block;
Such conduct suits him perfectly,
And if he lives, a man he'll be.
'Tmust be confessed that he's my son
If justice would to him be done,
His talents never stinting, sparing,
We'll find him in the fool's ship faring.
When I am dead 'twill give me cheer,
I've left some good successors here;
Old age has such a recompense,
Old age today is bare of sense.
Susanna's judges showed us why
On older men we can't rely;
An oldish fool spares not his soul,
A sinner cannot change his goal.

Whoe'er his children's mischief bears
Indulgently and always spares
The rod, will later suffer cares.



A fool is he and blind indeed
Who ne'er to children pays much heed
That properly they may be reared
And in the right direction steered;
He must not suffer them to err
Like sheep that have no shepherd's care,
And if to mischief they're addicted
Chastisement due must be inflicted.
That they are young is no excuse,
They should be taught that for abuse
There's punishment discreet, severe.
O fool, I beg you, lend your ear,
Since youth has ready memory
The child can learn quite easily.
The liquid poured in brand-new tubs
Will leave a smell howe'er one scrubs;
A youthful shoot can well be bent,
But old shoots curved with such intent
Will very often snap or shatter;
Fit punishment's no grievous matter,
The rod will drive without a smart
All folly from your youngster's heart.
He seldom learns who's never cuffed,
And evils grow when not rebuffed.
Eli was righteous, never bad,
But since he punished not his lad,
God punished him and did destroy
In wrath the father with the boy;
Since children are not reared betimes
We now have many Catilines.
Our children too'd be better trained
If they had teachers like the famed
Phoenix whom Pelëus admired
And for his son Achilles hired,
And Philip scoured Greece till he'd won
The ablest teacher for his son;
The greatest king that ever reigned,
By Aristotle was he trained,
And he did sit at Plato's knees,
While Plato learned from Socrates.
But fathers, oh, of nowaday,
When greed and stinginess hold sway,
Engage such teachers for a son
Who'd make a fool of anyone
And send him home again (for shame!)
More foolish now than when he came.
It's little wonder that a fool
Has foolish children as a rule.
Old Crates said, if 'twere allowed
And proper he would loudly shout:
You fools, who think of getting rich
And have this constant burning itch
And ne'er to children pay much heed,
Since riches are your only need!
But retribution hastens then
When once your sons are councilmen
And strive for honor, high renown,
Then each will play the stupid clown
As he had learned in early youth.
Their father soon will hear the truth
And eat his very heart and rue
That he has reared a bugaboo.
Some join a brutal ruffian's horde,
Blaspheming they malign our Lord,
Some go about with slattern whores,
Some gamble, losing shirt and horse,
Others carouse by day and night,
That, mark you, that's our children's plight
If once in youth they've been neglected,
By teachers never well directed.
From start to finish honor's prize
Derives alone from precepts wise.
A noble mind's a precious stone,
Your sacred trust, but not your own,
For from your parents it doth flow,
And riches also blessings show,
But that depends on fortune's call,
And fortune bounces like a ball;
An asset too is worldly fame,
But gross inconstancy's its name;
But beauty too's a great delight,
Enduring scarcely over night;
Good health is also very lief,
But it escapes like any thief;
Great strength of body too doth please,
With age and illness though it flees.
But one thing's constant, never dies
In this wide world: Good precepts wise.
Gorgias asked: "Does happiness
The mighty Persian monarch bless?"
Spake Socrates: "The answer's yes,
If wisdom, virtue he confess."
He meant that power and gold are vain
If virtue does not guide the twain.

Who 'twixt two millstones puts his frame
And many people would defame
Will suffer hurt, will suffer shame.



Full many a man takes great delight
In causing other men to fight
And pitting neighbor 'gainst his neighbor,
So that in hate and spite they labor;
With slander too and many lies
His neighbor's fortitude he tries,
Who only later finds it out;
He treats his friends as would a lout,
And that his proof the better be,
He magnifies indignity
And treats it like a church confession
That no one blame his indiscretion,
Pretending that to you alone
His whispered secret now is known.
'Tis thus they'd curry friends and please,
The world is full of feuds like these.
Tongues carry tales to every place
Much faster than a coach could race.
Thus Absalom and Korah did
When for adherents once they bid,
But only grief resulted thus.
In every land an Alcimus
Who'd cheat his friends with discord sore
And jam his fingers in the door,
And often doth his fingers maim
Like him who riches hoped to claim
When old King Saul he put to death,
Like those who murdered Ish-bosheth,
Like him who 'twixt two millstones pines
And causes discord oftentimes.
Just watch him act and soon you'll see
Of what base quality he be.
Conceal a fool behind the door,
His ears are salient as before.

Who cannot answer no or yes
And spurns advice as valueless
Must bear his own unhappiness.



A fool who with the wise would go
Yet reason, measure cannot show,
And e'en when speaking wisdom's word
A cuckoo is his fowling bird.
Some men are wise in what they say
But hitched to folly's plow they stay;
The reason is that they rely
Upon their shrewdness keen and sly
And heed to no one's counsel pay
Until misfortune comes their way.
Thus Tobit always taught his son
That sage advice he should not shun;
Because Lot's wife good counsel spurned
And looked in back of her and turned,
The Lord chastised this grievous fault
And changed her instantly to salt.
When Rehoboam once declined
Wise teachings, caring more to mind
The idiots, ten tribes he lost
And stayed a fool at any cost.
If Nebuchadnezzar had not ceased
Obeying, he'd not be a beast,
And Maccabeus, hero bold,
Of whom great deeds are often told,
If he had done what Joram said,
He would not have been stricken dead.
The man of stubborn, willful mind
To prudent counsel's ever blind,
Of gracious fortune he is void
And prematurely is destroyed.
Friends' counsel value every hour,
Good counsel oft spells fortune, power.
Ahithophel soon after died
When his advice King Saul decried.

Who's crude and rude from skin to core
And plays the fool's part evermore,
He drags his cap along the floor.



Who wears full robes with haughty stare,
Who struts with head held high in air,
To this side, then to tother side,
Now back again in circles wide,
Now moving fast, now ambling slow,
To me his conduct oft will show
This man doth sport frivolity,
And that avoided it should be.
The man who brains and breeding shares
Will never feign affected airs,
And what he does or what he tries
Seems good to people truly wise.
Real wisdom starts with modesty,
It's decorous, acts peaceably,
It is a friend of goodness too,
Which brings God's blessing unto you;
The man whose breeding knows no dearth
Owns more than riches here on earth.
Good breeding seen in men of parts
Reveals their nature, shows their hearts;
The man whose manners seem but poor
Shows he was trained to be a boor,
Ill-bred, uncouth the arrant knave,
That like a cow he doth behave.
The noblest, finest traits there be
Are breeding, manners, modesty;
Good breeding Noah'd always prize,
But Ham, his son, was otherwise.
If you've a prudent, well-bred son,
Who sense and wisdom would not shun,
Then saying thanks to God is meet
For showing you the mercy seat.
His father's nose Albinus ate
For rearing him in shameful state.

Who cuffs and beats his human brother
That nothing did to harm or bother
Offends the sense of many another.


Excerpted from The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, Edwin H. Zeydel. Copyright © 1944 Edwin H. Zeydel. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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