Folly literature: Definition, Characteristics and Examples

The title  ‘folly literature’ is given to a variety of literature that had some vogue between the 15th and the 17th c. Most of the works in this category are a form of satire and can be regarded as early instances of ‘the absurd’. They combine elements of fantasy, nonsense and the zany, but have a serious intent to expose, ridicule and send up’ the more risible aspects of human behaviour. Like the nonsense verse of more recent times, and the Theatre of the Absurd, they display an attempt to correct overmuch seriousness as well as to combat the pretensions and hypocrisies of this world. A way of laughing things off’; so it is also called ‘Fool Literature’.

An early and classic example is Sebastian Brandt’s Narrenschiff, ‘The Ship of Fools’ (1494), a ‘travel tale reminiscent of Lucian’s fantasies. Brandt filled his ship with 112 different kinds of recognizable fools, but become so interested in showing the characters that the ship never left port; rather as if Chaucer’s pilgrims never left the Tabard Inn. The success of the work was instant. In 1497 Locher Philomusus translated it into Latin under the title Stultifera Navis. In the same year, Pierre Rivière translated it into French under the title La Nef des Folz du Monde. Other translations followed in rapid succession. Alexander Barclay did an English version (in verse) in 1509 and adapted the original so that it should fit with the English scene. It gives a picture of contemporary English life (dwelling in particular on affectations of manners, customs and clothing, social evils, venal officials and corrupt courts), and provides an early collection of satirical types. Later, comedy of humour and the character sketch were to be a development of this kind of treatment of individuals and types.

Another English work of note belonging to the 16th c. is Cocke Lorell’s Bote, a satire in which various tradespeople embark on a ship and ‘sail through England. The captain of the ship is Cocke Lorell, a tinker. This work in verse gives a vivid picture of ‘low life’ in England at that time. In 1509, also, Erasmus wrote his Moriae Encomium, ‘The Praise of Folly’, which was published in 1911. This had enormous success. In 1549 Dedekind wrote Grobianus: De Morum Simplicitate, a poem that burlesqued social conditions in Germany. He took his title from Brandt’s St Grobianus (in Narrenschiff), who was symbolic of boorish behaviour. This work was translated into English and German.

Such books, among several others, influenced the jest-book and the emblem-book, both of which had considerable popularity in the 16th and 17th c. Thomas Dekker‘s Gull’s Hornbook (1609), for instance, was a satire at the expense of fops, gallants and other forms of fool.

Folly literature very probably helped writers to develop character in drama and romance and also probably influenced the picaresque narrative. Later instances of folly literature are Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Candide (1759). In 1962 Katherine Anne Porter published Ship of Fools, a novel that updated the themes and ideas of Brandt’s Narrenschiff. The celebration of folly is still a popular activity as we can see in the books of, for example, Spike Milligan.

Also read; What is Rogue literature and its examples

Also read; Dramatic monologue; Definition, Characteristics and Examples