Ships of fools

Andrew Scull digs up and burns Foucault in the TLS:

Foucault’s account of the medieval period fares no better in the light of modern scholarship. Its central image is of “the ship of fools”, laden with its cargo of mad souls in search of their reason, floating down the liminal spaces of feudal Europe. It is through the Narrenschiff that Foucault seeks to capture the essence of the medieval response to madness, and the practical and symbolic significance of these vessels loom large in his account. “Le Narrenschiff . . . a eu une existence réelle”, he insists. “Ils ont existé, ces bateaux qui d’une ville à l’autre menaient leur cargaison insensée.” (The ship of fools was real. They existed, these boats that carried their crazed cargo from one town to another.) But it wasn’t; and they didn’t.

It would be interesting to try to trace a line from Sebastian Brant to the impressive hydraulics and contrived jollity of modern carnival wagons in Catholic Holland and Germany, or for that matter to hippy buses. Chariots of death are rather different.

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