Ship of Fools: The Deviant’s Exile and Other Wrecks

In 1494 in Basel, Sebastian Brant published Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff). It is a satirical poem divided into 112 chapters, containing some beautiful woodcuts attributed to Albrecht Dürer.

The image of a boat whose crew is composed entirely of insane men was already widespread in Europe at the time, from Holland to Austria, and it appeared in several poems starting from the XIII Century. Brant used it with humorous and moralistic purposes, devoting each chapter to one foolish passenger, and making a compilation of human sins, faults and vices.

Each character becomes the expression of a specific human “folly” – greed, gambling, gluttony, adultery, gossip, useless studies, usury, sensual pleasure, ingratitude, foul language, etc. There are chapters for those who disobey their physician’s orders, for the arrogants who constantly correct others, for those who willingly put themselves at risk, for those who feel superior, for those who cannot keep a secret, for men who marry old women for inheritance, for those who go out at night singing and playing instuments when it’s time to rest.

Brant’s vision is fierce, even if partly mitigated by a carnivalesque style; in fact the ship of fools is clearly related to the Carnival – which could take its name from the carrus navalis (“ship-like cart”), a festive processional wagon built in shape of a boat.
The Carnival was the time of year where the “sacred” reversal took place, when every excess was allowed, and high priests and powerful noblemen could be openly mocked through pantomimes and wild travesties: these “ships on wheels”, loaded with masks and grotesque characters, effectively brought some kind of madness into the streets. But these celebrations were accepted only because they were limited to a narrow timeframe, a permitted transgression which actually reinforced the overall equilibrium.

Foucault, who wrote about the ship of fools in his History of Madness, interprets it as the symbol of one of the two great non-programmatic strategies used throughout the centuries in order to fight the perils of epidemics (and, generically speaking, the danger of Evil lurking within society).

On one hand there is the concept of the Stultifera Navis, the ship of fools, consisting in the marginalization of anything that’s considered unhealable. The boats full of misfits, lunatics and ne’er-do-wells perhaps really existed: as P. Barbetta wrote, “crazy persons were expelled from the cities, boarded on ships to be abandoned elsewhere, but the captain often threw them in the water or left them on desolate islands, where they died. Many drowned.

The lunatic and the leper were exiled outside the city walls by the community, during a sort of grand purification ritual:

The violent act through which they are removed from the life of the polis retroactively defines the immunitary nature of the Community of normal people. The lunatic is in fact considered taboo, a foreign body that needs to be purged, rejected, excluded. Sailors then beome their keepers: to be stowed inside the Stultifera navis and abandoned in the water signifies the need for a symbolic purifying ritual but also an emprisonment with no hope of redention. The apparent freedom of sailing without a course is, in reality, a kind of slavery from which it is impossible to escape.

(M. Recalcati, Scacco alla ragione, Repubblica, 29-05-16)

On the other hand, Foucault pinpoints a second ancient model which resurfaced starting from the end of the XVII Century, in conjunction with the ravages of the plague: the model of the inclusion of plague victims.
Here society does not instinctively banish a part of the citizens, but instead plans a minute web of control, to establish who is sick and who is healthy.
Literature and theater have often described plague epidemics as a moment when all rules explode, and chaos reigns; on the contrary, Foucault sees in the plague the moment when a new kind of political power is established, a “thorough, obstacle-free power, a power entirely transparent to its object; a power that is fully exercised” (from Abnormal).
The instrument of quarantine is implemented; daily patrols are organized, citizens are controlled district after district, house after house, even window after window; the population is submitted to a census and divided to its minimum terms, and those who do not show up at the headcount are excluded from their social status in a “surgical” manner.

This is why this second model shows the sadeian traits of absolute control: a plagued society is the delight of those who dream of a military society.

A real integration of madness and deviance was never considered.

Still today, the truly scandalous figures (as Baudrillard pointed out in Simulachra and Simulation) are the mad, the child and the animal – scandalous, because they do not speak. And if they don’t talk, if they exist outside of the logos, they are dangerous: they need to be denied, or at least not considered, in order to avoid the risk of jeopardising the boundaries of culture.
Therefore children are not deemed capable of discernment, are not considered fully entitled individuals and obviously do not have a voice in important decisions; animals, with their mysterious eyes and their unforgivable mutism, need to be always subjugated; the mad, eventually, are relegated abord their ship bound to get lost among the waves.

We could perhaps add to Baudrillard’s triad of “scandals” one more problematic category, the Foreigner – who speaks a language but it’s not our language, and who since time immemorial was seen alternatively as a bringer of innovation or of danger, as a “freak of nature” (and thus included in bestiaries and accounts of exotic marvels) or as a monstrum which was incompatible with an advanced society.

The opposition between the city/terra firma, intended as the Norm, and the maritime exhile of the deviant never really disappeared.

But getting back to Brant’s satire, that Narrenschiff which established the ship allegory in the collective unconscious: we could try to interpret it in a less reactionary or conformist way.
In fact taking a better look at the crowd of misfits, madmen and fools, it is difficult not to identify at least partially with some of the ship’s passengers. It’s not by chance that in the penultimate chapter the author included himself within the senseless riffraff.

That’s why we could start to doubt: what if the intent of the book wasn’t to simply ridicule human vices, but rather to build a desperate metaphore of our existential condition? What if those grotesque, greedy and petulant faces were our own, and dry land didn’t really exist?
If that’s the case – if we are the mad ones –, what caused our madness?

There is a fifth, last kind of “scandalous-because-silent” interlocutors, with which we have much, too much in common: they are the corpses.

And within the memento mori narrative, laughing skeletons are functional characters as much as Brant’s floating lunatics. In the danse macabre, each of the skeletons represents his own specific vanity, each one exhibits his own pathetic mundane pride, his aristocratic origin, firmly convinced of being a prince or a beggar.

Despite all the ruses to turn it into a symbol, to give it some meaning, death still brings down the house of cards. The corpse is the real unhealable obscene, because it does not communicate, it does not work or produce, and it does not behave properly.
From this perspective the ship of fools, much larger than previously thought, doesn’t just carry vicious sinners but the whole humanity: it represents the absurdity of existence which is deprived of its meaning by death. When faced with this reality, there are no more strangers, no more deviants.

What made us lose our minds was a premonition: that of the inevitable shipwreck.
The loss of reason comes with realizing that our belief that we can separate ourselves from nature, was a sublime illusion. “Mankind – in Brecht’s words is kept alive by bestial acts“. And with a bestial act, we die.

The ancient mariner‘s glittering eye has had a glimpse of the truth: he discovered just how fragile the boundary is between our supposed rationality and all the monsters, ghosts, damnation, bestiality, and he is condemned to forever tell his tale.

The humanity, maddened by the vision of death, is the one we see in the wretches embarked on the raft of the Medusa; and Géricault‘s great intuition, in order to study the palette of dead flesh, was to obtain and bring to his workshop some real severed limbs and human heads – reduction of man to a cut of meat in a slaughterhouse.

Even if in the finished painting the horror is mitigated by hope (the redeeming vessel spotted on the horizon), hope certainly wasn’t what sparked the artist’s interest, or gave rise to the following controversies. The focus here is on the obscene flesh, the cannibalism, the bestial act, the Panic that besieges and conquers, the shipwreck as an orgy where all order collpases.

Water, water everywhere“: mad are those who believe they are sane and reasonable, but maddened are those who realize the lack of meaning, the world’s transience… In this unsolvable dilemma lies the tragedy of man since the Ecclesiastes, in the impossibility of making a rational choice

We cannot be cured from this madness, we cannot disembark from this ship.
All we can do is, perhaps, embrace the absurd, enjoy the adventurous journey, and marvel at those ancient stars in the sky.

Brant’s Das Narrenschiff di Brant si available online in its original German edition, or in a 1874 English translation in two volumes (1 & 2), or on Amazon.

Lanterns of the Dead


In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.




Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).


A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.



But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.


One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.


Cellefrouin, lanterne des morts

This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)