The Ship Of Fools
Turmoil and chaos grips the country and indeed the rest of Europe. The excesses and greed of the aristocracy and intelligentsia and their failure to tackle the issues of the day leads to civil unrest and widespread dissent. But this isn’t Brexit, I’m referring to the late Middle Ages.
The Fool sprung 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 and the social upheaval that resulted, left 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 and what it saw not a pretty sight. What the religious and humanist philosophers struggled to provide the 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 siding 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 Fools fables and Plays are still with us today many re-enacted in Mumming plays and Morris dances.
Fools Parades became wide spread, they were expressions of biting satire and cathartic foolishness. The book The Ship Of Fools, a satirical allegory inspired by the great Fools Parades of Europe, was published at the end of the 15th Century. Based on the idea of the arc of salvation which sets off for Paradise but with a short sighted 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 or folly is important in fables. In such tales, The Fool speaks the truth, as folly is at the heart of reason because false knowledge with selfishness at its heart is absurd.
The Ship of Fools was a literary device that documents these structures providing a valuable insight into the mindset of European society of the late Middle Ages. Towns started to deal with madness in the same way as it had dealt with lepers, by excluding and then enclosing them.
Remnants of these cultural structures can still be found in Scarborough. If we take German’s pre-Easter celebration of Fastnet or Fastnacht known as ‘talk nonsense night’, it ends with a famous fools carnival on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent. This mischief night was also observed in Britain on Shrove Tuesday. This time frame for mischief was traditionally brought to a strict backstop 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 and 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 to the place where a replica of Pancake Bell still rings on Shrove Tuesday.
Built in the 12th Century, St Thomas’s had a tall tower and spire and also on its grounds were the poor house and a hospital. With lands in Burton-Dale to fund its charity, curiously the chapel stood on the site of the former men’s clothing shop ‘Burtons’ that only closed a few years ago.
Toll Bells have been heard in this vicinity 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”, for the call to prayer.
St Thomas's Church was destroyed in the Civil War but masonry stones and carvings from St Thomas’s can be found inside St Mary’s Church, as some of the churches octagonal pillars was used to repair St Mary’s after the damage it sustained in the civil war.
Another remnant of The Ship of Fools and the medieval mindset to be found in the same area of Scarborough, and built at the same time as St Thomas’s was St Nicholas's. St Nicholas's was lepers hospital. It was built on the edge of town, outside of the town walls in the area now known as St Nicholas Cliff. Unfortunately nothing is visible of this ancient building today apart from the streets named after it.
I have always thought that Scarborough’s folly to the Fool is Hairy Bob’s Cave, the perfect foolish seafront condo found on Marnie Drive on the North bay . Most likely made by those who were working on the construction of Marine Drive at the turn of the last century.
But made by who exactly? Which fool had the idea to dig out three holes in one of the more larger boulders under the cliffs and make it look like a little house? Did this fool do this on his own or with the help of his work mates? Did the fool dig it out on his lunch break or did he sneak away when his foreman wasn’t around? It’s not really functional or decorative, you can’t really sit in Hairy Bob’s Cave to get out of the rain for example, because it’s not really a cave, But I can imagine it was fun to make. I see Hairy Bob’s Cave as a folly to a moment of levity. Doing something just for the fun of it is still important today perhaps as it was in the Middle ages.