This is the story of three young men struggling for fame and fortune in the IT sector; finding one another and building a team, adapting the newest technology, injecting their own creativity, raising venture capital and applying painstaking effort, launching their product, outmanoeuvring competitors and rocketing to success—in the 15th Century! Parallels between the Early Renaissance and our modern Information Age are undeniable. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would have felt right at home.
It begins with a young university teacher watching an Ash Wednesday carnival parade. Amid the drunken carousing a wagon wove through the crowd, decked out as a boat full of revellers masquerading as fools in caps and bells, bashing one another with inflated bladders. It happened every year and he probably knew some of the merrymakers onboard; but this time he had an idea which he knew how to market and through whom. No doubt he rushed home to write it down.
The son of a prosperous innkeeper who valued education, Sebastian Brandt left Strasbourg for modern-day Switzerland’s first university, founded in nearby Basel shortly before his birth in 1457. In that Free Imperial City he studied church (canon) law and remained as a respected young lecturer, but he was now age thirty-six and aspired to more. His father was a magistrate in their equally independent hometown, and both agreed with their active city councils, that self-government needed educated leadership. For that they had a model that was both old and excitingly new—the virtues of civitas described by ancient Romans whose works now enjoyed a rebirth, literally a Renaissance.
With like-minded students and young businessmen he had joined a literary club that discussed art, philosophy and ethics as they imagined that Classical thinkers had. As he finished his doctorate, Brandt prepared a series of undergraduate lectures on the Ancient Roman poet Horace, designed to promote study of the newfound Latin classics, and with them the humanist interpretation of Christianity that inspired his university and city fathers.
Brandt loved the subtly playful Classical poet and rhetorician, of whom the ancient satirist Persius had written “as his friend laughs, Horace slyly puts his finger on his every fault; once let in, he plays about the heartstrings!” That, plus the carnival drunks in motley, showed Brandt how to win a much larger audience to Renaissance thinking. But he needed costly new technology that had barely existed two decades before—he needed a printer. Fortunately his friend and former classmate, John Bergman, was about to become a publishing sensation across Northern Europe.
When he visited Bergman’s printing shop, the entrepreneur and priest was almost certainly typesetting his first bestseller, the letters of Christopher Columbus, and he had to work fast. The explorer had written to Queen Isabella’s court on 14 March, 1493, and his tale of discovery was hastily published there in Barcelona only three weeks later. Less than a month afterward it had been translated into Latin, published feverishly in Rome, and the German cleric received one probably by late summer. Copyright did not exist and the book’s unauthorised publication was already underway in Paris and Antwerp, whether Bergman knew it or not, but he could foresee the public demand. The fledgling publisher was probably exhausted and covered in ink when Brandt brought his finished manuscript: the thirty-three year old’s start-up had never been easy.
My first computer printer, a twenty-five pound metal beast, cost a whopping two-thousand dollars in the early 1980s. New printing technology never came cheap, nor did it for Bergman and his competitors. It was no accident that Johannes Gutenberg came from a family of goldsmiths, for few others had money to spare and no one else the skills to carve tiny individual letters into moulds, into which the inventor poured molten base-metal to cast the world’s first moveable type around 1439. In fact it bankrupted him, but over the next sixty years nearly three hundred European towns acquired one or more printers, altogether producing at least 29,000 different editions across eighteen modern countries. That was almost thrice as long as it took Jobs and Gates to put computers in nearly every office and home, but it was still amazingly fast.
A Renaissance publisher’s start-up costs must have been prohibitive, while the few banks were primitive and lent only to powerful rulers. So Bergman either had family money or other well-heeled investors. A diocesan priest without a religious order to support him, Bergman may still have found venture capital from elsewhere in the Church, which was Europe’s most vigorous institutional supporter of the new technology.
Indeed the German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, an exact contemporary of Gutenberg, saw the implications immediately, imported German printers to Rome and established their first publishing house when Bergman was an infant. A high priority for many Churchmen, who had invented universities over recent centuries, now became spreading Information Technology in order to discuss theology and philosophy, clarify potential misunderstandings, analyse the works of Classical and Arab philosophers and discoveries in Europe, and to promote the cults of saints as role-models. For clerics like the brilliant and pious Nicholas (who presupposed some of Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and even Newton) science was also important. Some defenders of the Reformation, who lay sole claim to the spread of literacy and printing, are mistaken.
But even after Bergman found his funds and hired specialists to carve his moulds, his headaches were many. Skilled print-workers were as rare as computer programmers in 1980. Training assistants took time and money. After a single page of data was laid out in moveable type, the plate had to be treated with homemade ink, a single paper page was put in place, it all went under the hand-cranked press, the now-printed page was removed and it all started again. A two hundred-page book, in an edition of five hundred volumes, required this process to be repeated one hundred thousand times, often taking many weeks or months. Then the pages had to be sewn together and given a leather cover. Hence Bergman and his workers were probably exhausted and ink-stained when Brandt interrupted their work on the Columbus book.
The publisher recognised a bestseller. Written in the breezy, informal German dialect of Swabia, perhaps it seemed as vivid as today’s rap lyrics. It was a reasonably funny and obviously pointed satire—rich or poor, powerful or humble, nobody evaded Brandt’s gimlet, not even the Church (although neither Brandt nor Bergman later ended up supporting the breakaway Reformists). The 112 chapters were short and easy to read. In style and subject it appealed to ordinary readers, while the unspoken message was that of Brandt’s lectures and the similar writings of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus. Bergman found another winner.
Brandt’s Ship of Fools imagines a fully-rigged vessel adrift at sea, going nowhere, crammed with squabbling people representing every kind of folly. Besides the Proud or Lustful, the Greedy or Gluttonous, a supporting cast of idiots contains dreamers and pessimists, misers and spend-thrifts, trouble-makers and the gullible, treasure-hunters, heartsick lovers, senile nitwits, parents with unruly children, and even a scholar obsessed with his vast pile of books. Brandt invented Saint Grobian, the fictitious patron of the coarse, vulgar or buffoonish. Knowing full well that the Catholic Church was likened to a ship, he alluded to the Gospel story of Christ’s miracle during the storm at sea (Matthew 8, 23-7; Mark 4, 36-41; Luke 8, 22-5). However, the foibles of the Church were leavened with other barbs against fools showing “Arrogance toward God,” or who “Distain the Holy Scripture,” who “Prattle in Church” or who ignore good advice. By gently mocking what people are, Brandt implied that they could become less foolish. It was an entertaining lesson in virtue.
It was a kind of self-help book with the appeal of today’s bestsellers on weight-loss, management tips or pop psychology. Rising expectations made the 15th Century’s modern people depressed by old social problems and corruption. Strange cults abounded as they do now. A smaller world saw freak occurrences far away, resembling those we watch on television; and then as now many expected the end of the world – them wrought by God and we by space aliens or ecological disaster. Brandt gave people a distracting laugh by pointing out widespread foolishness overall, while his implied remedy focussed on strengthening an individual’s wisdom and morality, a view shared by Classical Rome and Christianity.
We are misled by the period’s scientific discovery and vast social change, dazzled by nude statues reintroduced; forgetting that renaissance means rebirth rather than birth. Classical virtues were reborn in early Christianity, and the rediscovery of lost books saw it all born again. The Greek origins of science were reborn in Rome, and again in the medieval Church founding universities and promoting technology, and again in the Renaissance. Rather than a unique occurrence, the 15th Century was part of a process, driven by a body of ideas including devout Christianity, largely supported by spiritual and temporal authority whether or not every outcome was anticipated. Rebirth is no revolution, despite what we are told by a shipload of modern fools who want a real revolution every day.
A 19th Century admirer wrote that while Brandt “was yet a reformer in the true sense of the word, he was too much of the scholar to be anything but a true conservative” due to his respect for authority—moral and cultural, Classical, Christian and Renaissance. He was thus a reformer out to preserve virtue and sustainable order, a storyteller par excellence, and first and foremost an imaginative conservative. In this he resembled his friend, Bergman, who was probably growing worried.
Nearby Nuremburg was the Holy Roman Empire’s biggest city, with up to 50,000 inhabitants. There competitors published The Nuremburg Chronicle a few months before, in March of 1493. The purported history of the world, a runaway bestseller, contained 1,809 illustrations, was massively expensive to produce and was years in the making. If printing was the early Internet, this book was Wikipedia. Bergman and Brandt realised that The Ship of Fools needed illustrations to compete; at least one for each chapter. An artist had to design and carve a wooden block from which to print every single picture, and the Nuremburg tome set a high graphic standard. Bergman knew a potential candidate, an artist who had been a lowly apprentice for the competitor volume. He left prematurely to study art in the Low Countries and, recently returned, might welcome his first big break. So they recruited Albrecht Dürer.
The future star of Northern Renaissance art was twenty-two years old, and the hurry to publish gave him insufficient time in which to carve all of the illustrations—he created two-thirds of them and other artists made the rest. Still the pace must have been feverish, perhaps completing one every few days. Meanwhile, Renaissance IT offered other challenges beside an utter lack of computers, graphics programmes and digitalised design.
For example, Bergman had to decide how to spell his name; and it is not as ridiculous as it sounds because there were neither birth-certificates, nor school enrolment forms, nor other records that establish our names long before we reach adulthood. Eventually he went through at least eight variations, some including his hometown to differentiate, no doubt, between the many others named John Bergman. Then Johannes Bergman von OIpe (sometimes using the Frenchified de Olpe) had to consider corporate promotion, which did not exist beyond painted signs hanging over shops. Printing, the new Information Technology, offered more—but it was by no means yet commonplace for a publisher to “advertise” by putting his name at the front or the back of the book. Then, possibly with Dürer’s help, Bergman was one of the first publishers to develop a logo.
His druckermarke featured some mountains; either implying a family connection to Breisach with its coat-of-arms, or a pun on the mountain (berg) in his surname. Over it is a Fleur de Lis symbol for Our Lady whose cult was thriving as never before; both sat atop of an ultra-modern jousting shield with a scooped-out hole for the lance that medieval shields lacked—in terms of advertising modernity, it was rather like putting a rocketship on one’s business card. A lion watches from above, not looking at all fierce and almost anticipating the Cowardly Lion of “The Wizard of Oz.” Above it rests Bergman’s motto, Nihil Sine Causa or Nothing Without Cause—and the reference to Job 5:6 may have been suggested by Brandt. Either way it is fitting for a Renaissance Man supporting science, by which Reason and experimentation reveal Natural Law, and a priest knowing that God does nothing by accident. Bergman was both.
The book came out in the spring of 1494, months after Bergman’s Columbus bestseller and popular translated tales about a French knight. Dürer even drew Brandt as one of the shipboard fools, perhaps as a surprise. Hieronymus Bosch borrowed his title illustration for what is now a famous painting in the Louvre. A 19th Century encyclopaedia recalled:
The Ship of Fools was received with almost unexampled applause by high and low, learned and unlearned, in Germany, Switzerland, and France, and was made the common property of the greatest part of literary Europe, through Latin, French, English, and Dutch translations. For upwards of a century it was in Germany a book of the people in the noblest and widest sense of the word, alike appreciated by an Erasmus and a Reuchlin, and by the mechanics of Strassburg (sic), Basel, and Augsburg; and it was assumed to be so familiar to all classes, that even during Brandt’s lifetime, the German preacher Gailer von Kaiserberg went so far as to deliver public lectures from the pulpit on his friend’s poem as if it had been a scriptural text.
Rather than wickedly funny or self-consciously clever, it was loved. In 1498 Bergman produced a second edition, and public affection spread further across Europe. Books and publishing, public taste and Information Technology would never be the same.
What became of the three? Dürer’s name is legend as perhaps the most important artist of the Northern Renaissance; and his early skill in illustrating The Ship of Fools is said to remain visible throughout his lifelong artistry. He revolutionised printmaking in style and technology, and served as court portraitist to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I and his successor, Charles V. He portrayed both the Humanist Erasmus and the Reformer Melanchthon, and was a vocal admirer of Luther but left no evidence of ever having left the Catholic Church. Dead in 1528 at age fifty-six, leaving a considerable fortune, he lies buried in the Johannisfriedhof graveyard in Nuremburg and his nearby studio is a museum.
Soon after his collaboration with Bergman, Brandt was made a special advisor on education to Maximilllian. He penned a popular book of fables in 1501 but spent the rest of his life as a city councilman in his Strasburg birthplace, remaining aloof from the Reformation. He died in 1521, aged sixty-four, after returning from Ghent to pay homage to the newly crowned Charles V and obtain favours for his city—an assignment of honour. His masterpiece enjoyed multiple editions during his life, but, alas, he went unpaid by pirate publishers just as so much today gets filched online.
Bergman’s final publication was De Patientia by the Carmelite Giovanni Baptista Mantuanus, dealing partly with alleviating the physical ailments sent to try monks, and on meditation, but also mentioning the discoveries of Columbus. This 1499 pioneering book on medicine was the publisher’s last and we are left to guess why.
In 1496 Bergman, a diocesan priest, published a book by his fellow conservative reformer, Jakob Wimpfeling, supporting the semi-independent diocesan priesthood from religious orders that called to abolish it and give themselves a powerful monopoly. No doubt that made him political enemies within the Basel diocese under their Prince-Bishop, from which the Heidelberg professor Wimpfeling would have been protected and far away. So maybe Bergman’s enemies closed him down, for the conservative advocates of prudent reform often lacked friends on both sides. Or perhaps he tired of the smell of ink. Either way, Bergman (possibly my distant relative) seemed to close his successful publishing house only five years after the bestseller by Columbus and two lucrative editions of Brandt. He spent the rest of his working life as a pastor, restoring a church in the small Alsatian village of Sewen where the ossuary he built survives as a chapel. He outlived the others, and in 1532 at around seventy-two years old, he died sixty kilometres east of Cologne, back home in Olpe where a modern plaque commemorates him.
None of them, not even the celebrity Dürer, earned the billions of a modern dot-com tycoon, but there are other rewards. After more than five hundred years in print, the trio’s great work remains readily available. The image of the ship and its foolish crew continues to inspire long after Basel’s carnival was over—in novels, modern art and even in the lyrics of fairly recent pop-songs. Last year, more than half a million wholly new books were released in the English language alone; numbers beyond their wildest publishing dreams.
Their beloved Renaissance survives the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to some degree, in scientific and mathematical endeavours, in the principled balance of Classical architecture and music, in works of literature loved by many, in respect for the past as practised by a few, and among the millions who visit museums to adore its art and to decorate their homes with its prints.
The Catholic Church, which they sought to reform and yet preserve, embarks on her third millennium with more than 1.2 billion members; still the oldest and largest organisation on the planet. Altogether that is no small legacy, worth the overwork and the ink stains.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Writing under the name of Johannes Bergmann, Stephen Masty has published a Christian novel of the Nativity and the biblical magi.