Woodcut to Chapter 52 of Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff (Bergmann von Olpe, 1494). Reprinted in and courtesy of The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, ed. Willi Kurth (New York: Dover, 1963).

The Dürer Woodcut: Marxism

This image is of interest for two different reasons: on the one hand, it offers a simple allegory of commodification; on the other hand, Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff, where one can find the original, was itself a work that helped pave the way for the emergence of a mass market.

I'll begin with the second: as explained in the General Intro to Postmodernism, the Renaissance was an important turning point in the movement towards our contemporary "modern" society. What interests Marxists about this transition is the gradual implementation and validation of capitalism, and the rise of literacy was very much a part of this transition, as was the transition from the culture of the manuscript to that of print. After all, without the ability to print numbers and text, you could not have paper money. Indeed, we should keep in mind that the woodcut helped to establish the technologies that would eventually lead to the printing of paper money. The establishment of a book market also allowed the middle class to educate themselves and helped to usher in the notion of proprietary authorship, the issue of copyright, and the belief that knowledge can be achieved through acquisition (rather than by apprenticeship). Brant's Narrenschiff helped to secure the rise of a market in books by moving away from the Latin editions of texts that had previously been published mostly for the sake of clerics and scholars. Brant's text and Dürer's illustrations, by contrast, are decidedly vernacular; indeed, Dürer's woodcuts for this edition may well be the first examples of intentionally comic illustration in the printed book, and they were certainly a major reason for this edition's market success. The Narrenschiff was commonly known in England as the Stultifera Navis or Ship of Fools (which is the translation of Narrenchiff) and the book represents a sequence of fools and their follies. (In the image on the left, the protuberances from the central figure's neck is a marker for his status as fool: they represent the traditional ass's ears of a fool, complete with bells on the end.) Through the use of humor, the Narrenschiff is attempting to reach a whole new mass audience, one that is only beginning to become conscious of itself as a middle-class readership. As John Harthan puts it in his History of the Illustrated Book, "Brant brought together medieval and Renaissance elements, satirizing man’s vices and follies in humorous verses which look back... to medieval exemplars…and…to classical modes…but is aimed at a new reading public, urban, skeptical and ready to be entertained" (63). Brant's illustrated Narrenschiff was clearly a major success: a second edition followed in the very next year and the text was quickly translated into all the major European languages, which marks it as one of the very first printed works to reach a large audience.

Beyond these important considerations, the image on the left itself engages the issue of commodification. The image accompanies Chapter 52, the title of which is "Of fools that take old women to wife for their riches"; the caption to the image is "Der ist ein Narr.../ Dass er ein alt Weib nimmt zur Eh'/ Einen guten Tag ER hat und keinen mehr" or "A fool is... someone that takes an old hag to wife; he has one good day and never any more." The original text thus places the scene squarely in the tradition of the medieval exemplar and points to a pre-capitalist gift culture and barter economy. In such an economy, before the introduction of money, one had to exchange one thing for another, for example one might purchase a chair by exchanging so many chickens. A barter economy tends to be supported by a gift culture, in which one cements bonds between people through the circulation of "gifts," including the circulation of women, who are circulated through marriage and dowry to cement social bonds (eg. between families, principalities or nations) and to maintain power within royal lines.

In Dürer's image for this text, we are presented with someone who appears to own land, given his association with the land and buildings around him. This fact alone makes him either a poor member of the aristocracy or a rich member of the emergent middle class. What marks him as something other than a traditional feudal lord is the fact that this individual feels the need to marry a rich, if ugly woman in order to maintain his property. We are therefore being presented here with the increasing importance of money and of monetary exchange in an emergent capitalist economy. The bag of coins makes it clear that we have moved beyond a simple barter economy; what is important is no longer the use-value of an object but rather the system of equivalences made possible by the semiotic system of money. Indeed, a series of equivalences are proposed in the image: 1) the woman is equivalent to so much money; the woman here is buying into marriage: not for power or aristocratic lineage or the resolution of internecine conflict but as a mere purchase; the new idea here is that money can buy you anything, even a man if you are an ugly old hag (as the chapter characterizes the woman). We are also thus moving away from woman as gift to woman as goods (as investment); 2) the woman is equivalent to an ass (both the animal and the orifice), a relation that is underlined both by the man's dual grasp and by the "x" that is prominently displayed on his chest in the dead center of the image. The orientation of the man's dagger completes the sexual joke suggested by the image: to make love to a hag, who has here been reduced to the level of chattel, is like making love to an animal. There is, of course, also a hidden pun here, at least in English: what we are dealing with here is, clearly, filthy lucre, or, as the Germans would phrase it, schnöder Mammon.note; 3) the man is equivalent to what he owns. This relationship is made clear in the image through the alignment of the standing man and the standing tower behind him. This connection would appear to tie the man to an earlier feudal system of land ownership, with the crucial difference that this individual must turn to monetary exchanges in order to maintain his property; and 4) the man is himself equivalent to an ass, an alignment that is made clear by his own ass's ears and the fact that in this scene it is the man that is, in effect, being purchased by the woman. In a capitalist system of exchanges, Dürer appears to be saying, no one wins: everyone is a fool or an ass.

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Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "The Dürer Woodcut: Marxism." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/narratology/image/>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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