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The Ship of Fools – Sebastian Brandt

Ship of Fools is a satyrical allegory in German verse published in 1494 in Basel, Switzerland, by the humanist and theologian Sebastian Brant

Brant takes up the ship of fools trope, popular at the time, lashing with unsparing vigour the weaknesses and vices of his time. Here he conceives Saint Grobian, whom he imagines to be the patron saint of vulgar and coarse people.

The concept of foolishness was a frequently used trope in the pre-Reformation period to legitimise criticism, as also used by Erasmus in his Praise of Folly and Martin Luther in his “An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung” (Address to the Christian Nobility).

The work immediately became extremely popular, with six authorised and seven pirated editions published before 1521. Brant’s own views on humanism and the new, revolutionary views on Christianity emerging in the sixteenth century are unclear. The debate still continues whether the Ship of Fools is itself a humanist work or just a remnant of Medieval sensibilities

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