Brant, Sebastian (1457–1521)

views updated May 21 2018


BRANT, SEBASTIAN (14571521), German author and jurist. Sebastian Brant, the celebrated author of Das Narrenschiff (1494; Ship of fools), was born sometime in 1457 to Strasbourg innkeeper Diebold Brant and his wife, Barbara, née Picker. The eldest of three sons, Brant proved a talented pupil and, following his father's death in January 1468, his mother labored to provide him with private tutors. Beginning in 1475, he attended the University of Basel, where he developed a conservative brand of humanism under his mentor, the theologian Johannes Heynlin von Stein (a Lapide). After receiving his baccalaureate in 1477, Brant focused on legal studies, obtaining his licentiate in 1484 and becoming doctor of canon and civil law in 1489. At the same time, he continued his study of Latin authors and began teaching literature at the university around 1486. In 1485, he married Elisabeth Burg, the daughter of a Basel cutler. Together they had seven children.

With his deep piety and firm belief in the letter of the law, Brant applied his classical learning toward the preservation of social mores and political order. This underlying concern unites his diverse production of texts, not only those he wrote himself, but also the far more numerous works edited by him for local printers, as many as one-third of all books printed in Basel at this time. He was furthermore a translator, producing German editions of Latin conduct literature throughout the 1490s. As a jurist, Brant wrote the highly successful Expositiones (1490), an introductory legal textbook that frequently appeared in later editions together with his turn-of-the-century redaction of Giovanni Battista di Gazalupis's De Modo Studendi in Utroque Jure (1467; On studying both civil and canon law). He also edited the Decretum Gratiani (1493), one of the cornerstones of canon law, and the proceedings of the Council of Basel (1499).

Beyond his work on folly, the literary production of Brant's Basel years consisted mainly of Latin verse. A volume of devotional poetry, In laudem Marie Carmina (Songs in praise of Mary), appeared in 1494, followed by the Varia Carmina (Various poems) of 1498. The latter volume reproduces much of the earlier collection, but additionally contains dedicatory verse created by Brant for editions of his own works or for those of friends and acquaintances. Further preserved are poems on meteors, freakish births, and other natural sensations. Brant regarded such wonders as divine portents with consequences for the Holy Roman Empire, and he sought to influence popular opinion by discussing the same events in German in several illustrated broadsides addressed to Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 14931519).

It is difficult to overstate the phenomenal success of Brant's lasting literary achievement, Das Narrenschiff. Published during Carnival by Johann Bergman von Olpe on 11 February 1494, the original edition presents in 112 brief chapters a veritable taxonomy of fools, each representing a particular human foible. The work moralizes against sins such as sloth and adultery, but also against indulgent parents, bad marksmen, and those who talk in church. Specific chapters touch upon contemporary issues, admonishing the German princes to support Maximilian (chapter 99), or, in the first literary reference to Columbus's discoveries, criticizing explorers who seek gold (chapter 66). The work went through nine German editions, some pirated, before Brant's former pupil Jacob Locher produced his Latin adaptation, Stultifera Navis (1497), which served as the basis for translations into French (1497), Dutch (1500), and English (1509).

Although many scholars find the Narrenschiff 's image of humanity still largely medieval, the design of the book belongs wholly to the Renaissance and its new medium, printing. Each chapter is prefaced by a three- to four-line motto and a large woodcut that illustrates or expands upon some aspect of the following text. Brant takes credit for the images in the work's preface, and it is likely that he collaborated with as many as five contributing artists on the illustrations. Based on stylistic analysis, it is nearly certain that Albrecht Dürer created the majority of the work's woodcuts during his period as journeyman in Basel (14921493). We know that Brant and Dürer collaborated on illustrations for a planned edition of Terence at this time.

In his later years, Brant returned to Strasbourg, becoming legal councillor to the city on 13 January 1501 and advancing to the position of municipal secretary two years later. He continued to edit a variety of texts, producing editions of Aesop (1501), Boethius (1501), Virgil (1502), and Terence (1503), as well as of the gnomic Bescheidenheit (1508; Prudence) by the thirteenth-century vernacular author Freidank. He further helped publish two practical law books, Ulrich Tengler's Laienspiegel (1509; Legal handbook for laymen) and the anonymous Klagspiegel (1516; Handbook of lawsuits), although his actual contribution to these editions is disputed. In 1512 and 1513, Brant directed performances of his "Hercules at the Crossroads"; the corresponding text, entitled Tugent Spyl (Play of virtue), appeared posthumously in 1554. Culminating Brant's multimedial collaborations is the so-called Freiheitstafel (c. 1513; Mural of freedom), a cycle of fifty-two poems accompanying a series of paintings in the Dreizehnerstube, the meeting room for the thirteen-member inner circle of Strasbourg's town council. The surviving manuscript contains Brant's instructions for an emblem-like pictorial program, a union of text and image not unlike that of the Narrenschiff, but serving explicit political ends much like the author's broadsides of the 1490s.

Brant died in Strasbourg on 10 May 1521.

See also Dürer, Albrecht ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; German Literature and Language ; Humanists and Humanism ; Maximilian I (Holy Roman Empire).


Primary Sources

Brant, Sebastian. Das Narrenschiff. Edited by Manfred Lemmer. 3rd ed. Tübingen, 1986.

. The Ship of Fools. Translated by Edwin H. Zeydel. New York, 1944.

Secondary Sources

Knape, Joachim. Dichtung, Recht und Freiheit: Studien zu Leben und Werk Sebastian Brants, 14571521. Saecula Spiritalia, vol. 23. Baden-Baden, 1992.

Knape, Joachim, and Dieter Wuttke. Sebastian-Brant-Bibliographie: Forschungsliteratur von 1800 bis 1985. Tübingen, 1990.

Rupp, Michael. "Narrenschiff" und "Stultifera navis": Deutsche und lateinische Moralsatire von Sebastian Brant und Jakob Locher in Basel, 14941498. Studien und Texte zum Mittelalter und zur frühen Neuzeit, vol. 3. Münster, 2002.

Van Cleve, John. Sebastian Brant's "The Ship of Fools" in Critical Perspective, 18001991. Columbia, S.C., 1993.

Wilhelmi, Thomas. Sebastian-Brant-Bibliographie. Arbeiten zur mittleren deutschen Literatur und Sprache, vol. 18/3. Bern and New York, 1990.

Wilhelmi, Thomas, ed. Sebastian Brant: Forschungsbeiträge zu seinem Leben, zum "Narrenschiff" und zum übrigen Werk. Basel, 2002.

Zeydel, Edwin H. Sebastian Brant. New York, 1967.

Glenn Ehrstine

Sebastian Brant

views updated Jun 11 2018

Sebastian Brant

The German writer Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) was the author of the "Narrenschiff, " or "Ship of Fools, " one of the most famous secular works in European letters.

Sebastian Brant, born in Strassburg, lost his father as a child and was reared by his mother. He probably inherited a testy, sensitive nature from her. In 1475 he entered the University of Basel and received a baccalaureate degree in 1477. Though interested in the humanities and teaching them briefly, Brant studied law and taught and practiced it in Basel. He was also adviser and editor for several pioneer Basel publishers. In 1501 Brant returned to Strassburg as a legal adviser, and in 1504 he became municipal secretary, a post he held until the end of his life, while continuing publication and editorial work.

Brant was an admirer and confidant of Emperor Maximilian I. He was also a confirmed humanist, a staunch adherent of Catholicism, and an arch conservative, becoming ever more pessimistic about the future of the Holy Roman Empire, especially after 1517. He died in 1521.

Brant's masterpiece, the Narrenschiff, was published in 1494. It was illustrated by woodcuts, most of which are now recognized as being the work of Albrecht Dürer. A long, satirical narrative written in doggerel verse, this work influenced French and English as well as German works. Written in the vernacular, it was the first German work to pass into the stream of Western literature.

The Narrenschiffis not an allegory; instead it catalogs all types of fools in a direct satirical manner. From adulterers to mere fops, they risk eternal salvation and mar the image that the subjects of the Empire must maintain if the vulnerable Empire is to survive. A Latin translation (1497) by Brant's disciple Jacob Locher was responsible for the dissemination of the work in France and England. Thomas Shelton, Robert Copland, Richard Tarlton, and Thomas Dekker were among English writers of the 16th and 17th centuries unwittingly in Brant's debt. His work helped turn English literature from moral satire to satire of manners.

Brant wrote and edited numerous other works in Latin and German in religion, law, didacticism, and exhortation. He also published a volume of Latin verse.

Further Reading

Edwin H. Zeydel. The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, Translated into Rhyming Couplets with Introduction and Commentary (1962), contains all the woodcuts; his Sebastian Brant(1967) is the only biography. Recommended for general background is Aurelius Pompen, The English Versions of the Ship of Fools: A Contribution to the History of the Early French Renaissance in England (1925). □