Transformation of men into asses in The Ship of Fools, 1509


Printed in London, The Shyp of foyls (1509) is an English and Latin version of the highly popular German work by Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff (1494), printed in Basel, Switzerland.

The idea of the ship of fools – a ship without a pilot, filled with oblivious, irrational and silly humans – goes back to Plato. Brant uses the allegory as the basis for a moral satire on many different types of foolishness.

Digitised here are two extracts. The first (sig. l2r-l3r) is from the section ‘Of improfytable and vayne prayers vowes and peticyons’ (i.e. of unnecessary wishes). The woodcut (the original attributed to the Master of Haintz-Narr) depicts Midas with the ears of an ass, praying amongst the rushes. The second extract (sig. o4v-o5r) is from the section ‘Of the mutabylyte of fortune’. The woodcut (the original attributed to Albrecht Dürer) depicts the wheel of fortune with three fools at various stages of transformation between man and ass. Thought-provokingly, the fool that is fully ass is at the top of the wheel, in the position of best fortune. Another section in the book, ‘Of the ende of worldy honour & power and of folys that trust therin’, that meditates on the brevity of life, also uses this woodcut.

The English translation (in a blackletter typeface) is by Alexander Barclay, a Devonshire priest. The Latin text (in a roman typeface) is reproduced from Stultifera Navis (1497), a translation by Brant’s student Jakob de Locher. The English text comes after the Latin for each section. Barclay produced his English translation using de Locher’s Latin text as well as French and Dutch translations. The 1509 work contains numerous illustrative woodcuts that are copied from those of the 1494 edition.

Asinine transformation and Shakespeare’s Bottom

These depictions of men transformed or transforming into asses show a clear link between the trope of asinine transformation and folly. The ass was long associated with stupidity and folly, and donkey ears were often incorporated into the hood of a fool. The ass also had other connotations. In the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers, 12) the ass becomes a symbol of both suffering and wisdom. The ass could also have sexual connotations with a pun on ‘ass’/‘arse’ and, by extension, ‘tail’, as well as being an instrument of humiliating sexual punishment for women – prostitutes in medieval France were punished by being made to ride naked on an donkey.

Bottom’s transformation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream encapsulates a number of these ideas. He is a fool, yet there is also some strange fool’s wisdom to some of his philosophising. There is also a sexual undercurrent to his relationship with Titania, which takes a darker, punitive form when we remember that her desire for Bottom is a result of having been drugged by Oberon and Puck for not letting Oberon have his way.

Full title:
The Shyp of folys of the worlde
1509, London
Book / Folio / Woodcut / Illustration / Image
Sebastian Brant, Alexander Barclay [English translator], Jakob de Locher [Latin translator]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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