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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ship of Fools

If you are familiar with the story of Jesus Christ performing miracles, then you may recall that the Bible tells the story of Jesus healing a leper.

"When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” - Matthew

About 2 hundred years following Jesus' miracle, leprosy - which is a contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves, causing discoloration and lumps on the skin and, in severe cases, disfigurement and deformities - was still some what rampant, and during the High Middle Ages, "Leprosariums" were built as a place to house the sick and afflicted.  It is interesting to note that by the end of the Crusades, there were over 2,000 leper facilities in France (1226) - - 43 leprosariums in Paris alone!

By the 15th Century, these buildings were empty as the disease dissipated, and very naturally - "social outcasts" or "fearful figures" such as beggars or vagabonds, criminals, the insane and otherwise "dangerous minds" began to occupy the empty houses. Other facilities were turned into hospitals or homes for the poor.  Another point that should be made is that townspeople did not want to house criminals or "madmen", they were often expelled to these houses.  

But the stigma of those afflicted with leprosy would remain, "With an altogether new meaning an in a very different culture, in the form of a rigorous division which is social exclusion but spiritual reintegration." 

A literary creation was hence born.  "Ship of Fools" - a satire or allegory - was written by Sebastian Brant, who was a German theologian,  in 1491 was published from Basel, Switzerland.  The "Ship of Fools", a.k.a. "Narrenschiff" [German].

During this era, it was not uncommon for "madmen" to be dropped off at various ports, where they tended to congregate at shrines where they were often arrested, publicly whipped or tortured in some manner, or simply ran out of cities.  

In his fabled work of religious satire, Brant suggests that the these "fools" [madmen] were from a country of fools known as  "Narragooni", or "Narragonia" where the fools had existed in a sort of paradise. 

Apparently, a ship laden with fools and steered by fools sails to the fools' paradise of Narragonia. He further gives wings to this alleged paradise by deliberately contriving a fictional Saint which he imagines to be the Patron Saint of the "vulgar and coarse", known as Saint Grobian.  [The word "grobian" has thus passed into the English language as an obscure word for any crude, sloppy, or buffoonish person.]

The book's status was actually an unprecedented best seller and the author's own social status as a licensed juristic, enabled him to teach Canon Law and Roman Law; thereby giving this work literary value.  

Though he was a wealthy, devout Christian, Brant was compelled to explore mankind's behavior in a "fallen world,"  believing that the causes of what he deemed "foolishness" was another word for ungodliness; and that 'God had given people reason, and people who were "foolish" gave rise to having lax moral views which undermined the mission that God asks of mankind'. 

Brant set out to write a collection portraying foolish behavior, writing 112 chapters of rhyming texts, (complete with the same number of woodcut illustrations by a renowned artist) where he describes the effects of having strayed from God and engaging in irrational behavior(s).  

His work is laden with satire, believing that the world would end and that in the Second Coming of the World, people must have a willingness to repent sins, to take absolution and to live out one's life in complete faith, to avoid Divine Damnation; thus, the Ship of Fools gives the reader a tragically comical perspective of foolish behavior, and sailing off to Narragonia - a fool's paradise or utopia - and that by living under the rule of God will defeat 'foolish conduct," meaning that by following God's law, one could ultimately find the path to Salvation.

Another aspect of the book, is that by casting people into a boat, that the water itself would represent a "cleansing"; thereby helping those afflicted to become free of sin.

The debate still continues whether the book "Ship of Fools" is humanist work or just a reminder of Medieval sensibilities.

Illustrative Woodcuts from the "Ship of Fools",  by artist-engraver Albrecht Dürer, along with translated quotes from the book: 

"Who puts himself between two stones, / And twisting words with glee condones, / Will soon earns ills and moans."

"Some men with plows are very spry, / Yet end in trouble by and by, / The cuckoo finds their eggs on high."

"My rope pulls many fools about, / Ape, cuckold, ass, and silly lout,,/ Whom I seduce, deceive, and flout."

"He merits future poverty / Who always lives in luxury, / And joins the spendthrifts' revelry."

"Who to wisdom steadily pays heed, / And accordingly directs his every need, / Eternal honor shall be his meed."

"Who never learns the proper things / Upon his cap the dunce bell rings, / He's led by idiot's leading strings."