The ship of fools. Woodcut from Das
, by Sebastian Brant, Basel, 1494.

There was once a time when the world was good and people were happy. Now the only thing anybody cares about at all is money, and you seldom find, even among the rich, a man who would rather have joy and peace of mind than wealth. But still there are a few who treasure honor and respect, such as the noble Count Hermann, God rest his soul, who told me this story.

In the city of Vienna, life is great fun, if you have plenty of money. You can spend it all there, I guarantee, and then some. Yes, they'll even take the shirt off your back. But as long as you have cash to spare, Vienna gives what you want--horses, games, song and saga, wine and women. Ah, the women--but that is another story.

I mean to tell you now about a party of good Vienna citizens who had invited all their friends and acquaintances to share with them a big barrel of wine so good as to wash away all the troubles you could possibly have. They had gathered in the spacious banquet hall at the house of one of the city's leading businessmen, and there they spent the day like gentlemen, downing platters of fine foods as fast as they could be served, and flooding away their cares with the delicious wine. No glass or cup stayed empty for long. As soon as the bottom began to show, a new round was poured, and by the time the lamps were lit, not everyone was sure just who his nearest companion was.

As evening came on, they got down to some serious drinking. Ah, what a vintage that was! Even those whom a sobered morrow would reduce to modest estate now felt inspired to vie with one another in princely generosity, grandly pledging hoards of silver and raiment to imagined retainers. Others waxed morose and began to lament their sins. Still another began to reckon the kinship that united all men, heathen and Christian, from Acre to Prague. Any remark addressed to anyone was sure to bring forth a long story, which in turn called for another draught of cool refreshment for everyone.

Soon the talk turned to pilgrimages. One man recalled his voyage to Santiago in Spain, and another talked on about the Prussian expeditions.* In commemoration of their exploits, both drank heroically, until each toppled from his seat, one from the table onto a bench, the other from his bench to the floor.


  :   :   : *Santiago de Compostela had remained a major goal of pilgrimage since the days of the Christian reconquest of Spain. The Order of Teutonic Knights, founded in 1191, began in 1230 a long series of campaigns to settle and annex to Christendom the Baltic lands, including the area that later became the Prussian kingdom. The Order's headquarters were in Vienna from 1291 to 1309.


Then one of the richest stood up. "Now listen to me," he began, "and I'll tell you what we ought to do."

"Let's hear it," the guests shouted back. "And bring some more wine!"

"If you love God as you should," the rich man declaimed, "you'll serve him well--and we can afford it, too. What we ought to do is go on a pilgrimage, to win God's favor. I pledge my life and fortune to the cause!"

"And so do I," announced the man next to him.

"Me, too!" roared another. "That's the very best absolution money can buy!"

So afloat on the golden tide of wine, they launched their voyage with a mighty chorus. "On to the Holy City," they yodeled. "We'll need plenty of supplies, though."

They already had half the money in Vienna, of course, and the cellarmaster was not going to let anybody go thirsty. The host of the party outdid himself by ordering all sorts of rare spices to take along (displaying not just his wealth, but also his practical turn of mind).

Another good round of drink made them believe they were warping their ship out of the harbor and setting the sails, to the tune of a chantey that shook the house. Then they all had a big drink of wine before settling down for the long voyage. And I must say, they were already pretty far from port. By midnight, they had become the greatest of shipmates, keeping things lively on board with stories, song, and plenty to drink, and calling on God to send a fair wind, or if no wind, then wine, Either would have about the same effect.

One of the sailors, knocked on his beam ends by the last draught, noticed that the ship was beginning to pitch and roll badly. "It's a storm," he yelled. Others took up the cry. "We're lost," groaned one. "God's will be done," prayed another. And many were the laments sent up for poor wives and families left alone.

Now the flood began to take its toll in seasickness, too. "Dear God," cried one, "how the waves are shaking the ship! Alas, for my sins!" "Look," shouted another, "there are no stars!" They all looked up, and sure enough, not a star could be seen through the ceiling of the banquet hall. "It's a sign of divine wrath! Oh, dear God, forsake us not, or we are doomed!"

"Wait, mates," cried one. He had stumbled over a guest who lay prostrate, half under the table. "Look, this dead pilgrim here is the cause of our misery. It's for his sinfulness that the sea rages so. Everybody knows the sea is pure, and will suffer no corruption--come on, we've got to throw him into the water, and then it'll be still!"

"God be praised!" came the answer. Those who could get to their feet did so, and taking up their quiescent fellow crewman, they started for the window with him. He revived as they were trying to heave him over the sill. "Wait a minute," he muttered. "I'm all right. Put me down."

"Oh, no," they declared. "You've nearly sent us to the bottom. Out you go!" In spite of his cries and pleas, they pushed him out the window, and then returned to their companions to celebrate their deliverance.

"That was a close call," one sighed. "Look how much water we've shipped already!" The floor ran with spilled wine. "We'd never have made it to port, but for the divine hand of God!"

The ejected sinner lay, painfully injured, in the street below, shouting curses, but in the hall above nothing could be heard over the bellowed hymns of thanksgiving for a fortunate voyage, which with the approach of dawn was drawing near its end. One by one, the drunken sailors keeled over, until at last they all lay unconscious, like herring left by the tide. Even their bruised companion down in the street had fallen silent, stunned from his collision with the pavement stones. He had the best absolution that night; at least, he was anointed with Blood, and vividly remembered the Fall.

Some of the townspeople came to the house next morning. "Why is it so quiet?" they inquired. "What's the matter, is the wine all gone?"

The night's host roused somewhat. "I'll have you know, we went on a blessed voyage across the sea last night, in full force, and God was with us. He sent us fair winds, but a great storm came up, so violent that our ship began to founder. We had given ourselves up for lost when by divine guidance we discovered a dead pilgrim among us. We all knew he was the source of our trouble, so, on the captain's orders, we threw him overboard, as I've heard somewhere God once commanded in a like case—and sure enough, the wind slackened, the storm let up, and we made it back to port."

The townsmen looked around the hall and laughed. Then there was a howl and a groan from the street below. They ran out and found the shipwrecked voyager still lying where he had landed. He was a rich and powerful man, whose friends took the joke rather badly when they found out about it and saw how severely he had been injured.

"You went a little too far with your fun," one said. "If he doesn't recover, you're going to have an ugly account to settle." "I'll tell you what," snapped another, "we'll settle it right now. You can just pay up with what it's cost him—broken bones! Yesterday he was one of the finest men in town, and now look what you've done, you idiotic scoundrels!"

But the carousing crusaders maintained solemnly that they had only done the bidding of God and the captain. "We spend our fortunes in God's service, as is right and just," one slurred, "and here you come berating us. For all our gold, we'd have perished in that storm, except for divine guidance and the captain's command. Now if you're sore at us for saving ourselves and only doing what was right, that's just too bad!"

This drunken speech did nothing to calm the injured man's friends, who would have put the voyagers at far worse peril with their swords, had the townspeople not got between them. "Now, take it easy," one said. "They're just drunk. Wait until they dry out a little, and then we can get this business all cleared up."

It took a couple of days for the high seas and their aftereffects to recede entirely. When the celebrants realized what they had done to their neighbor, they sincerely regretted their foolishness, but that gained them nothing. In fact, they finally had to pay the injured man a sum in damages for which they easily could have gone on a real voyage in splendor. But such is the power of wine over those who make themselves its servants, rather than its masters.

No one who drinks too much can keep his good standing. Taken in moderation, wine lifts the spirits, but in excess it destroys health, consumes your goods, and even endangers the soul. There is a little of all the seven deadly sins in drunkenness. When wine pours in through the mouth, the body starts to feel robust, but in many a person, the soul begins to ail.

Certainly, you find many who know how to drink so that it's a delight to man and God. And there are a lot of penny-pinchers who ought to drink a little more. Some good wine might loosen them up a bit. Most of them, though, would have to get totally soused to commit an act of generosity. That's the way it is with small-minded people who care more about hanging onto their little bit of cash than they do about living well. You'll get nothing out of them, whether they're sober or soaked. May God fling them off the wheel of fortune!