Readers and Fools

I’m lucky enough to have been spending this summer as a visiting scholar at the Großbritannien-Zentrum (Centre for British Studies), which is part of Berlin’s Humboldt University. Two months of this period was funded by the DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst/ German Academic Exchange Service) as part of a project looking at reader responses to Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), which was first published in 1494.

The Narrenschiff is often described as a work of moral satire. To expand on that, it’s an extremely comprehensive list in verse of the different ways in which humans are fools, which doesn’t necessarily sound like an enticing description to the modern reader. There are over one hundred options, ranging from those who do not raise children properly to ignorant or otherwise inappropriate candidates for ordination, and from adultery to insufficient preparation for death. Each ‘fool’ is illustrated with a woodcut. This was an integral part of the text – Brant explains in his introduction:

Wer yeman der die gschrifft veracht
Oder villicht die nit künd lesen
Der siecht jm molen wol syn wesen
Vnd fyndet dar jnn / wer er ist

If anyone disdains the text, or perhaps cannot read it, he may see his likeness in pictures, and find there who [i.e which fool] he is.

But this is no dry moral text. To give you an early example, from the chapter on useless books, Brant says:

Danñ jch gar wenig kan latin
Ich weyß das vinu[m] heysset win
Gucklus ein gouch / stultus eyn dor
Vnd das ich heyß domne doctor

For I know very little Latin. I know that vinum means ‘wine’, cuculus ‘ninny’, stultus ‘fool’, and that I am called ‘my lord doctor’.

With Brant’s witty use of language and the spectacular woodcuts, it’s no wonder that the Narrenschiff was a bestseller; the online incunacula database, the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, lists all of its fifteenth-century printings, and at the USTC you can get an impression of Brant’s enduring popularity. By the end of the century, as well as being printed eleven times in German, the Narrenschiff had been translated into Low German, French, Latin, and Dutch. 1509 saw two translations into English – a verse translation by Alexander Barclay (the Shyp of folys of the worlde – EEBO link, requires subscription), and a prose translation by Henry Watson (the shyppe of fooles  – EEBO link, requires subscription). Barclay’s version was printed alongside Jacob Locher’s Latin translation, and claimed to be translated out of ‘Laten, Frenche, and Doche’ (although there’s no reason to believe that Barclay ever used the Doche [German] version), while Watson tells us that he based his translation on the ‘frensche’. Neither attempted to produce a ‘worde by worde’ translation, as Watson puts it, but altered the work for their anticipated audiences. Brenda M. Hosington has looked at the changes produced by translation, and you can read much of her chapter on the subject via Google Books.

The ultimate aim for this project is to compare reader responses to the German and English versions of the text by looking at user interaction with surviving copies of the text, primarily in the form of marginalia. At this point, I’ve mostly looked at responses in surviving German copies, and will now need to put the project on hold, but I’d like to share some early findings. I’m able to refer here to a fairly broad range of books because German-speaking libraries have made an impressive range of pre-modern texts available online (but of course it’s always worth flagging up the limitations of digital resources – these three-dimensional objects have become two-dimensional images on a shiny screen). I will be using digitised resources to illustrate my points here, and I won’t be going into great detail, but giving an overview. I’ll also provide both image numbers and foliation wherever possible, both for consistency, and so that it will be easier to find the image in context. Clicking on the images will also take you through to the source.

I’m going to illustrate just three types of user interaction: highlighting, translation, and use of woodcuts. For a marvellous overview of the ways in which readers interacted with their books, have a look at Erik Kwakkel’s ‘Voices on the Medieval Page (1): The Reader’. Book plates and other indications of ownership also represent a kind of user interaction.


This copy (Basel: Nikolaus Lamparter, 1509; Conditions of Use) in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek illustrates lots of different kinds of user interactions by different readers. The simplest way to draw attention to a passage is with a line, and we’ve got examples of that without expansion – perhaps one reader was particularly struck by an image, or a witty turn of phrase. On f. 8v (image 22), the reader has drawn attention to the whole preliminary verse before the title, ‘Uon altten narren’ (on old fools):

wie wol ich vff der grueben gan
Und das schynt messer im ars han
Mag ich myn narrheyt doch nit lan

Although I’m by the grave with the executioner’s knife in my arse, I won’t leave behind my foolishness

BayStaaimg22Brant, Sebastian- Narrenschiff, Basel, 1509 [VD16 B 7066]

And why wouldn’t you want to highlight that?

I’ve not come across many maniculae, but f. 74r in this copy (Basel: Johann Bergmann, 1494; Conditions of Use), in the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt, has two on one page, pointing to the lines:

Wem so gefelt wis / gstalt / vnd werck
Das ist der aff von Heydelberck

Anyone who is very pleased by his/her own appearance and work is the ape of Heidelberg

This is in the section ‘von im selbs wolgefallen’ (on vanity). There is a modern (1970s) statue of a monkey holding a mirror on the Old Bridge in Heidelberg. This is a replacement of a much older statue of an ape which disappeared during the Palatinate War of Succession.

To return to the first book I mentioned (Basel: Nikolaus Lamparter, 1509; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek; Conditions of Use), we can also see attention drawn to a line, accompanied by an explanation (for example, a biblical reference) neatly copied in next to it. Sometimes the annotation appears without anything else to draw attention to the line, but is positioned to make clear that it refers to a particular part of the text. It’s worth pointing out that the hand which copies in most (not all) of the biblical references doesn’t appear to add anything else to the book. We can see three separate biblical references on f. 58r (image 121), for example:

On f. 22v (image 50), a line comes down into the margin from ‘So bezalen sie in vff dem yß’, which is a reference to an idiom, and essentially means, ‘They’ll pay him when hell freezes over’. At the bottom of this line, our reader has added, ‘ad graecas calendas’ – the same idea (that this will never happen), has been explained in Latin.

This brings me onto…


I’ve got two examples of readers translating keywords from the chapter titles. These titles explain the kind of fool that will be described. The first of these (the Conditions of Use are at the bottom of the linked page) translates the titles into French. The edition (GW 5041) was printed in Basel in 1494 and this copy is held by the University of Basel, who also digitised it.

It’s quite badly damaged. The top right-hand corner is missing from every folio, and as far as image 63 (f. 26 or f. 29 – there are two foliations), many folia are missing, and those which survive are simply the text block mounted on a modern sheet, which leaves no space for any marginalia to survive. But from image 64, a later owner of the book has provided a substantial number of translations – for example, here, in image 70 (f. 32v/33v), you can see, ‘des souhaits innutils’, next to the title, ‘von vnnutzem wunschen’ (on useless wishes):

Compare this to our old friend in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Basel: Nikolaus Lamparter, 1509). Here we see the titles translated – again not all of them – into Latin. For example, here’s image 32 (f. 13v). The title is ‘Uon bosen sytten’ (‘on bad habits’), and at the bottom of the page, we see ‘de Indisciplinatis’.

For another twist on translations, there’s image 79 (f. 37r) in the same book. Next to this versified German extract from the Lord’s Prayer

wir betten das syn will der werd
Als inn dem hymel/so vff erd/

We pray that his will will be, in heaven as on earth [i.e. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven]

our usual translation hand has written ‘fiat’, and a later hand has added ‘voluntas tua’ – presumably to clarify the reference.

It’s just worth pointing out, of course, that these translations are into languages into which the whole text had been translated by 1497. The Latin differs from Jacob Locher’s 1497 translation, while the French does not match either Pierre Riviere’s translation (1497) or Jean Drouyn’s translation (1498). But this use of the books bears witness to the multilingual possibilities of the past.


Not many of these copies have had their woodcuts coloured, but we do see some interesting variations. Take this copy again (Basel: Johann Bergmann, 1494; Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek DarmstadtConditions of Use) for example. Every woodcut and border has been coloured, but rather inexpertly. By way of example, here’s f. 13v:

This copy in Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek (Basel: Johann Bergmann, 1494; Conditions of Use) has a bookplate with a woodcut on the pastedown (a variant of this sixteenth-century woodcut), which has been coloured, although nothing else in the book has. It belonged with this Latin version also kept in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (Basel: Johann Bergmann, 1497; Conditions of Use), which has the same woodcut, coloured in the same way. This image comes from the digitised German edition:

Finally, this copy (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1497; Staatsbibliothek zu BerlinConditions of Use) has occasional and fairly random splashes of yellow, blue, bronze, and red, usually (but not always) on the images. On the whole, these do show what seems to be an attempt to colour in at least part of the picture, but when we get to image 20 (f. 9v), the addition of a little red paint has turned a woodcut of fighting children into a bloodbath.

Bonus! Erasing the Pope

An owner of this copy in the SLUB Dresden (Basel: Johann Bergmann von Olpe, 1494; Conditions of Use) made sure to erase this reference to the Pope on images 232 and 233 (no foliation provided) – a relatively common post-Reformation response.



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