“The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde” (1509), translated by Alexander Barclay from Sebastian Brant’s “Das Narrenschiff” (1494)

The Ship of Fools was as popular in its English dress as it had been in its original German garb.  Here was a new satirical literature, itself a product of the mediaeval conception of The Fool.  But now the figures are no longer abstractions;  they are concrete examples of Folly:  of the bibliophile who collects books but learns nothing from them, of the evil judge who takes bribes, of the procrastinator, of those who eagerly follow fashion, etc…

Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools) by German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) was first printed in 1494, with woodblock prints illustrating each of his 113 varieties of Fool.  In the next decade and a half the book was translated into several European languages – a “popular” book in its day, when the technology of the printing press was in its infancy.

The Ship of Fools’ verses describe sins and vices, really, rather than follies, and Brant’s didactic tone is reflected in Alexander Barclay’s translation.  The Scottish Barclay (1476-1552) took the liberties that only a poet – and a translator – can, in the fact that Barclay translated “oute of Laten, Frenche, and Doche…sometyme addynge, sometyme detractinge and takinge away suche thinges as semeth me necessary and superflue.”

Barclay’s poem/translation is written in the ordinary Chaucerian stanza, using language which was in fact more modern than the common literary English of his day (1509).



Excerpt from Alexander Barclay’s

“The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde”(1509)

“Of tale berers, fals reporters, and prometers of stryfes”



Some ar that thynke the pleasoure and ioy of theyr lyfe

To brynge men in brawlynge to discorde and debate

Enioynge to moue them to chydynge and to stryfe

And where loue before was to cause mortall hate

With the comonty, and many great estate

Suche is moche wors than outher murderer or thefe

For ofte of his talys procedeth grete myschefe

Within his mouth is venym Jeperdous and vyle

His tonge styll laboryth lesynges to contryue

His mynde styll museth of falshode and on gyle

Therwith to trobyll suche as gladly wolde nat stryue

Somtyme his wordes as dartis he doth dryue

Agaynst good men: for onely his delyte.

Is set to sclaunder to diffame and bacbyte.

And namely them that fautles ar and innocent.

Of conscience clene, and maners commendable

These dryuyls sclaunder, beynge full dilygent.

To deuyde, louers that ar moste agreable

His tonge Infect his mynde abhomynable

Infectyth loue and ouertourneth charyte

Of them that longe tyme haue lyuyd in amyte

But he that accused is thus without all faute

And so sclaundred of this caytyf vnthryfty

Knowyth nought of this ieoperdous assaute

For he nought dowteth that is no thynge fauty

Thus whyle he nought feryth comyth sodaynly

This venemous doloure distaynynge his gode name

And so gyltles put to rebuke, and to shame.

Thus if one serche and seke the worlde ouerall

Than a backbyter nought is more peryllous

His mynde myscheuous, his wordys ar mortall

His damnable byt is foule and venemous

A thousande lyes of gyles odyous

He castyth out where he wolde haue debate

Engendrynge murder whan he his tyme can wayt

Where as any frendes lyueth in accorde

Faythfull and true: this cowarde and caytyf

With his fals talys them bryngeth to dyscorde

And with his venym kepeth them in stryfe

But howe beit that he thus pas forth his lyfe

Sawynge his sede of debate and myschefe

His darte oft retourneth to his own reprefe

But nat withstandynge, suche boldely wyl excuse

His fals dyffamynge: as fautles and innocent.

If any hym for his dedes worthely accuse

He couereth his venym: as symple of intent.

Other ar whiche flater: and to euery thynge assent.

Before face folowynge the way of adulacion,

Whiche afterwarde sore hurteth by detraccion.

The worlde is nowe alle set on dyffamacion.

Suche ar moste cherisshed that best can forge a tale.

Whych shulde be moste had in abhomynacion.

And so they ar of wyse men without fayle.

But suche as ar voyde of wysdom and counsayle

Inclyneth theyr erys to sclander and detraccion,

Moche rather than they wolde to a noble sermon.

But euery Sclanderer, and begynner of stryfe.

Lousers of loue, and infecters of Charite.

Unworthy ar to lyue here at large in this lyfe.

But in derke Dongeon they worthy ar to be.

And there to remayne in pryson tyl they dye.

For with there yl tunges they labour to destroy

Concorde: whiche cause is of loue and of ioy.

An olde quean that hath ben nought al hyr dayes.

Whiche oft hath for money hyr body let to hyre

Thynketh that al other doth folowe hyr olde wayes.

So she and hyr boul felawes syttinge by the fyre.

The Boule about walkynge with theyr tunges they conspyre

Agaynst goode peple, to sclander them wyth shame.

Than shal the noughty doughter lerne of the bawdy dame.

By his warkes knowen is euery creature

For if one good, louynge, meke and charitable be.

He labours no debates amonge men to procure.

But coueyteth to norysshe true loue and charite.

Where as the other ful of falshode and iniquyte

Theyr synguler plesour put to ingender variaunce.

But oft theyr folysshe stody retournes to theyr myschaunce

Therfore ye bacbyters that folke thus dyffame

Leue of your lewdnes and note wel this sentence.

Which Cryist hymself sayd: to great rebuke and shame

Unto them that sclandreth a man of Innocence.

Wo be to them whych by malyuolence

Slandreth or dyffameth any creature.

But wel is hym that wyth pacience can indure.