The Ship of Fools

By Dav White

Turmoil grips the country. The failure of the ruling classes and intelligentsia to tackle the issues of the day leads to widespread dissent. But this isn’t Brexit, it's Britain in the late Middle Ages.

Out of the turmoil, the Fool sprang up seemingly out of nowhere. Not a real person but a role, a character that pronounced himself as chief mourner of society and king critic of the ruling classes and their great pretensions. The Black Death had wiped out two thirds of the European population. The social upheaval that resulted made hope and aspiration appear pointless in the wake of it all.

The Fool’s timing was impeccable, arriving on the stages of Europe right on the cusp of society becoming self-conscious enough to look at itself. What it saw was not a pretty sight.

What the religious and humanist philosophers struggled to provide explanations for, the Fool, with his perspective as an outsider, flourished in popularity as he held up a mirror to the hubris and vanity of the aristocracy. The Fool sided with the general population who struggled to overcome the decimation caused by the Black Death.

Unlike the critics of the day, the Fool could say whatever he pleased, as he was just a fool. Writers soon learned that by including the Fool in their work they could level slurry at any target as long as it came from the mouth of the Fool. The popular themes and characters of the Fool’s fables and plays are still with us today, many re-enacted in mumming plays and Morris dances.

Fool’s parades became widespread. They were expressions of biting satire and cathartic foolishness. The book The Ship of Fools, a satirical allegory inspired by the great Fool’s parades of Europe, was published at the end of the 15th century. It is based on the idea of the arc of salvation, which sets off for paradise but with a short-sighted and deaf captain and a quarrelsome crew who constantly bicker about who has the right to steer, though no-one has learned the art of navigation. The book illustrates how madness and folly are important in fables. In such tales, the Fool speaks the truth, as folly is at the heart of reason and false knowledge with selfishness at its heart is absurd.

The Ship of Fools was a literary device which documents these structures, providing a valuable insight into the mindset of European society in the late Middle Ages. Towns started to deal with madness in the same way as they had dealt with lepers, by excluding and then enclosing them.

Remnants of these cultural structures can be found in Scarborough. Germany’s pre-Easter celebration of Fastnacht or Fastnet, known as talk-nonsense night, ends with a famous fool’s carnival on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. This mischief night was also observed in Britain on Shrove Tuesday. It was traditionally brought to a strict stop by the toll of a curfew bell. A bell used on this day for such a purpose was known as a shriving bell.

In Scarborough, the pancake bell was the shriving bell. It was used to sound the start and end of Shrove Tuesday, the foolish merry making and the Pancake baking. Originally the bell was from the entrance of the hospital building of the church of St Thomas the Martyr, the great chapel that stood by the Newborough gate near where a replica of pancake bell is still rung on Shrove Tuesday.

Built in the 12th century, St Thomas’s had a tall tower and spire. In its grounds were the poor house and hospital. With lands in Burton-Dale to fund its charitable, the chapel stood on the site of the former men’s clothing shop Burtons, now selling bedding.

Toll bells have been heard in this place for nearly a thousand years. According to the antiquarian Thomas Hinderwell, writing in 1795, St Thomas’s “preserved the ancient custom of ringing a bell at six o’clock every morning and evening”. Masonry stones from St Thomas’s can be found inside St Mary’s Church as some parts of the octagonal pillars of this great chapel were used to repair St Mary’s after the civil war.  Another remnant of the Middle Ages and built at the same time as St Thomas’s was St Nicholas Church, a hospital for lepers. It was built on the edge of town, just outside the town walls in the area now known as St Nicholas Cliff. None of it is visible today.

* Look out for Dav’s Ship of Fools artwork at an exhibition in April at Gallery 6 on Victoria Road (previously known as Bookshelf).