Ship of fools

Ship of fools
The ship of fools, depicted in a 1549 German woodcut

The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious, passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept makes up the framework of the 15th century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, which served as the inspiration for Bosch's famous painting, Ship of Fools: a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel to the paradise of fools. In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools also served to parody the 'ark of salvation' (as the Catholic Church was styled).

Michel Foucault, who wrote Madness and Civilization, saw in the ship of fools a symbol of the consciousness of sin and evil alive in the medieval mindset and imaginative landscapes of the Renaissance. According to Jose Barchilon's introduction to Madness and Civilization,

"Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then 'knew', had an affinity for each other. Thus, 'Ship of Fools' crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors."

A 1962 novel by American writer, Katherine Anne Porter of the same name, set in the autumn of the year 1931, also uses the device of the allegory, and can be seen as an attack on a world that allowed the Second World War to happen.[1] The novel was the basis for a 1965 film starring Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin.

Ship of Fools is also the title of a 2002 science fiction novel by Richard Paul Russo (NOT the same author who wrote Empire Falls) where the Ship of Fools is, not surprisingly, a space ship on which no one knows the destination.

In addition, Ship of Fools was used as the title of a book by the Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole on the causes of the financial crisis in Ireland, the metaphor being used to describe the Irish political establishment and their self-deception regarding the economic situation in the country.

In popular music

In the song "We Built This City" by Starship, the group croons "Don't tell us you need us, 'cause we're the ship of fools, looking for America, crawling through your schools".

The Doors, John Cale and Grateful Dead have all had a song called "Ship of Fools" in their respective albums Morrison Hotel (1970), Fear (1974) and From the Mars Hotel (1974).

Van Der Graaf, the late 1970s incarnation of Van Der Graaf Generator, had a song called "Ship of Fools" that was the opening track on the live album Vital and a studio version of the song was the B-side on the final single released by the band.

In the song "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" by Wang Chung the group croons "On the edge of oblivion, all the world is Babylon, and all the love and everyone, a ship of fools sailing on."

The group World Party also released a "Ship of Fools" song, in 1986. Two years later Robert Plant recorded a song by this name on his album Now and Zen; in the same year Erasure also released a song called "Ship of Fools".

German doom metal band Mirror Of Deception included a track entitled 'The Ship Of Fools' on their 2004 album release "Foregone".

Mad Sin released the song "Houdini's Pool" in 2005, which mentions the Ship of Fools multiple times.

Fucked Up released "Ship of Fools" as a free single to their 2011 rock opera David Comes to Life.


In the second season of Mad Men, Betty Draper can be seen reading the book 'Ship of Fools' by Katherine Anne Porter.


  1. ^ "Katherine Anne Porter". Educational Broadcasting Corporation. September 2002. Retrieved 8 October 2010. 

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