Stultiphonic Soundscapes and the Ship of Fools

by Alyssa Steiner, University of Bamberg

‘Lyplep, Cris Cras, Rrrrrrrr!’ Sounds carry meaning and in the world of Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494) more often than not they mark foolishness. This blog post explores the distinct ‘stultiphonic’ soundscape the humanist poet creates against the backdrop of the highly codified and ritualised use of sounds in the medieval church. Fools turn sacred sound into foolish noise, thereby subverting the sanctioned order of sound, and ultimately putting at risk the promise of salvation. How, then, does late medieval didactic literature try to turn down the volume on this stultiphonic cacophony?

Fig. 1: Title page (detail) of Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494).

In his European best-seller, the Ship of Fools published in Basel in 1494, the Strasburg-born humanist Sebastian Brant compiles a rag-tag band of fools which he puts on a fleet of eponymous vessels onwards to ‘Narragonia’ where they meet their soteriological demise. The fools do not go quietly: listen closely and foolish noises resound from the woodcuts and poems in the 100+ chapters of this didactic tome. In Chapter 31, the woodcut depicts a fool surrounded by three crows, joining into their bird song. Brant impassionedly warns: ‘Whoever sings Cris Cras like a crow | will remain a fool until the grave’. The angry fool in Chapter 35 growls furiously, ‘knowing no letter but the R’, the littera canina. In Champ fleury (1529), Geoffroy Tory explains: ‘When dogs are angry, before they begin to bite each other, contracting their throats and grinding their teeth, they seem to be saying R, for which reason the poet Persius, the most pleasant of caustic satirists, calls it Litera canina, the canine letter’ (trans. by George Ives). By making them produce sounds normally uttered by irrational animals, Brant marks the fools’ moral slip. However, as I will show in the following, while the association with animals is central for Brant’s notion of foolishness, stultiphonic subversion is most effective when it is reminiscent of settings and soundscape normally associated with piety and religiosity.

For instance, the title woodcut, designed by a young Albrecht Dürer, depicts fools merrily singing the Gaudeamus omnes (Fig. 1): Lyric and notation inscribed in the woodcut correspond to a Gregorian choral widely popular in the medieval church (see Cantus Index 501004.5). The introitus was not only used at the All Saint’s Feast, but was also part of the liturgy for a number of other Feast days. The fools’ para-liturgical rendition of the Gaudeamus omnes points to the fundamental metaphorical reversal of order at the heart of Brant’s moral didacticism: The Ship of Fools is an inversion of the ‘Church ship’, a popular metaphor for the Church that dates back to the Church fathers. This inversion has a literal implication as well: instead of congregating in the nave, the central part of a church, the fools’ nave is part of a foolish fleet leading to peril. In singing parts of the liturgy while en route for ‘Narragonia’, the fools demonstrate their fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian promise of salvation. Outside of their usual ritualistic context where they are codified as part of the liturgy, the sounds produced by the fools are miscordant and stultiphonic.

The stultiphonic sound produced by the fools is especially jarring as the medieval church is a highly ritualised and codified soundscape. It is where religious rituals are negotiated, institutionalised, and performed. The liturgy, in particular, provides a set of codes which structures the ways congregation worship communally and the individual participates in sacraments. As such, the church is particularly susceptible to foolish interjections. While the above example illustrates how liturgical sounds escape the confines of the church, the latter can also become the site of foolish sound production itself.

Fig. 2: Chapter 44 ‘Noise in church’ in Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494).

A case in point is the Ship of Fools chapter dedicated to the issue of making noise in church (Chapter 44). In this didactic vignette, the normative process governing sound-producing behaviour, e. g. chatting, crying, singing, or shouting, is laid bare: noisy fools are named and shamed, highlighting both the social and soteriological consequences of unsanctioned noise-production.

By bringing along barking dogs and hawks, whose bells attached to their talons (Fig. 2) resound loudly, church fools make prayer and song impossible (‘Vnd duͦt syn schaͤllen so erklyngen | Das man nit betten kan noch syngen’, V. 5-6). The stultiphonic cacophony drowns out the theologically sanctioned soundscape thereby distracting from the true purpose of worship. According to Brant, these fools stand in direct opposition of Jesus Christ as exemplified by the episode of the Cleansing of the Temple transmitted by all four Evangelists: Christ gave us the example | he drove the merchants from the temple (‘Christus der gab vnß des exempel | Der treib die wechßler vß dem tempel’, V. 25-26). In Jakob Locher’s Latin translation Stultifera navis (1497), Brant’s added marginalia specifically references the passage in Mark, Luke, and John, neither of which centre the issue of noise. Instead, they highlight the state of moral degradation the temple suffers as it is used as a marketplace. For instance, in John we read:

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ (NKJV John 2,13-16)

Meanwhile, Brant in Chap. 44, focusses the noise of animals used for entertainment and sports purposes. He aligns the moral responsibility of the fools to the one Jesus assigns to the merchants thereby delineating the church / temple as a space which ought to be both free from immoral behaviour and the sound output it conditions. This sound is moralised and codified as ‘noise’. This moral judgement is especially striking when we consider that throughout the Ship of Fools examples from the New Testament are rather scarce compared to the plethora of references to Greek mythology, ancient history, or the Old Testament. In this context, drawing on an example form Jesus’ life exacerbates the moral misdoing at hand.

The Ship of Fools proved to be a great publishing success – not least because of its many entertaining woodcuts: Within five years, several other High and Low German, Latin, French, and Dutch versions were published. In the early 1500s two English followed. 11 of these translations and adaptations have recently been edited by a team of German and French literary scholars at the University of Würzburg and are now available online (see Narragonien digital). As the Ship of Fools underwent numerous medial transformations in the decades that followed its editio princeps, Brant’s rebuke of noisy church fools saw one particularly interesting adaptation.

Inspired by the Ship of Fools, the 15th-century preacher Johann Geiler von Keysersberg wrote a year-long sermon cycle which he preached at the Strasburg cathedral in the late 1490s. While the closest textual witness of the sermons is a 1510 Latin translation, I will be using Johannes Pauli’s 1520 German translation thereof as Geiler himself preached the sermons in the vernacular. 

Fig. 3: Easter Sunday sermon on the ‘Church Fool’ (1520).

Here too, we encounter the church fools (Fig. 3). The importance attributed to the issue of noise disturbance is indicated by the corresponding sermon’s place in the liturgical calendar: the church fools were the topic of discussion at the midday service on Easter Sunday, which commemorates the resurrection of Christ. Geiler describes the fools ‘defile the holy site, make noise at church, and confuse ministers’ (‘kirch narren die/die heilig stat vervnreinigen/die ein gefert in der kirchen machen/vnd goͤtliche empter irren’). While Brant had mostly focussed on setting a negative example, the preacher provides the congregation with ‘seven bells’ (‘süben schellen’), i.e. characteristics, by which they can recognize such fools (Fig. 3). Brant had blended the converging issues of noise and immorality, the latter being the central focus in the biblical intertext, in his typically succinct style. In contrast, the sermon enumerates and comprehensively unfolds various aspects argumentatively. For instance, the first characteristic of a church fool is that they sin or give cause for sin at church (‘sünden yn der kirchen/oder vrsach geben der sünden in der kirchen’). This clearly points to the moral implication of their wrongdoing. In contrast, the second ‘bell’ states that church fools are known to cause a raucous which confuses the minister and prevents the congregation from praying. This highlights the practical difficulty of high sound levels in a confined space. Similarly, the fourth ‘bell’ warns from using a church as a meeting place to discuss worldly matters; the sixth takes its cue directly from the Evangelists and rebukes doing trade in church.

All of these arguments work towards maintaining a theologically sanctioned pious soundscape, which eliminates any source of sounds, that are not religiously codified. At the same time, this ensures the moral high ground established through the imitatio Christi. This is particularly salient as this is a sermon. The congregation listening would have found themselves in the exact soundscape outlined by Geiler. This gave the congregants the immediate opportunity to moderate and reprimand each other’s behaviour. The stultiphonic sound is not moderated through a call to self-reflection as it is in the Ship of Fools. Here, the sermon directly increases the social control amongst the congregants with everyone given the chance to turn away from church fools right then and there.

Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the Strasburg congregation really ended up any quieter than churchgoers anywhere else. However, in their rebuke of ‘noise’ Brant and Geiler compellingly explore the diverse stultiphonic soundscapes, that permeate early modern Fool’s literature. These fools might have been noisy, but in being so they made sure recipients lent them an ear. Indeed, if you listen carefully, you might still hear a fool’s bell ringing in the distance today!

Fig. 4: The first ‘bell’.

Editions & Sources

Sebastian, Brant, Das Narrenschyff (Basel, 1494),

http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:14-db-id3095394715 .

Burrichter, Brigitte and Joachim Hamm (eds), Narragonien digital (Würzburg, 2021), https://www.narragonien-digital.de/exist/apps/narrenapp/home.html

Tory, Geoffroy and Ives George Burnham (trans.), Champ Fleury (New York, 1927), www.loc.gov/item/28004222/ .

Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg, Des hochwirdigen doctor keiserspergs narrenschiff so er gepredigt hat zuͦ straßburg in der hohen stiffte daselbst Predicant zuor zeit. 1498. Dis geprediget. […], übers. v. Johannes Pauli. Straßburg (Strassburg, 1520), http://data.onb.ac.at/rep/10B252E5 .

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