17 March, 2006

I've been found out!

I am the first fole of all the hole navy
To kepe the pompe, the helme and eke the sayle
For this is my mynde, this one pleasoure have I
Of bokes to have grete plenty and aparayle.
I take no wysdome by them; nor yet avayle
Nor them preceyve nat: and then I them despyse;
Thus am I a foole and all that sewe that guyse
That in this shyp the chefe place I governe
By this wyde see with folys wanderynge;
The cause is playne, and easy to dyscerne.
Styll am I besy bokes assemblynge
For to have plenty it is a plesaunt thynge
In my conceyt and to have them ay in honde;
But what they mene do I nat understonde.

— Alexander Barclay, Ship of Fools (1509)

A typical trope of satire: the poet-scholar admits his own folly as a prologue to his observations of the follies of others. No doubt we academics and proto-academics can all relate to this passage; I, for one, suspect on a daily basis that I am just such a foole, chief with my incomprehensible books among the others.

This particular satire, hugely popular in its day, is a late Middle English translation and adaptation of the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant (1494), retaining the woodcuts of the original, allegedly by Dürer. (Above, the standard mediaeval Jerome, patron saint of librarians and translators, is conflated with a motleyed fool.) The 'ship of fools' theme was common in the late Middle Ages, a product of what Auerbach labelled the 'creatural realist' sensibility of Northern Europe in the 15th century; compare Huizinga's description of the Waning of the Middle Ages. Hieronymus Bosch, a classic artist in this mould, produced a painting of the theme.


neha said...


I am afraid I could not make much sense of the poem above. (I guess, you do not really expect everyone to.) However, the picture on the top is rather beautiful.

Would you mind mentioning something about it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I've just updated this post with a little information. You can purchase a Dover edition of the woodcuts here: http://store.yahoo.com/doverpublications/0486257916.html. Hope this helps.

neha said...

Thank you very much.