Ancient history

What’s the history of Ship of Fools?

Here’s the brief version: Ship of Fools goes way back to 1977, when it was a studenty magazine in the UK – printed on paper, of course. The magazine ran to ten issues and closed in 1983. It was resurrected as an internet magazine 15 years later, on April 1st, 1998, by the same editorial team. The 1998 launch site is online here. For more about the ship’s history, see the long-running History of the Ship thread on our old bulletin boards.

What is Ship of Fools about?

The subtitle of the site is ‘the magazine of Christian unrest’, which is the flag we sail under. The ship is here to provide space for Christians to look at their faith critically: attacking and ridiculing the things that go wrong; and recommending the things which go right. Since there are a million and one websites cheerleading for the church, our special calling is the Christian faith doing self-criticism. For more on Christian unrest, see the About Ship of Fools page.

Where does the name come from?

The first printed reference to the name is in a 15th-century allegorical poem, The Ship of Fools, by German poet Sebastian Brant, who set his drama on a ship crewed by all the fools of the world. Here are the relevant lines from the poem’s prologue…

I have pondered how a ship
Of fools I’d suitably equip –
A galley, brig, bark, skiff, or float,
A carack, scow, dredge, racing boat,
A sled, cart, barrow, carryall –
One vessel would be far too small
To carry all the fools I know…

This site got the name Ship of Fools from a different source, though. Simon Jenkins, who named the magazine which eventually became this website, records the moment of epiphany thus: “When I was a theology student, I was in the library one day reading a biography of the theologian Karl Barth (like you do) and came across a letter he wrote to a friend. The two of them were planning to launch a journal and the friend had suggested giving it the name, “The Word of God”. Karl Barth thought this was a bit over the top and replied: “Better to call it ‘The Ship of Fools’ than burden it with this sacred millstone!” I looked at that and immediately thought: that’s the name of the magazine I want to edit! Ship of Fools was launched as a print magazine a year later.”

When did the ship’s boards first open?

Our first bulletin board opened on 17 July 1998 and quickly gathered a dedicated community of posters. Treat yourself to a highly entertaining history of the first three months of the board by reading A Brief History of the Bulletin Board by Steve Tomkins. In May 2000, the single board was divided into several boards, including the Styx, Heaven, Purgatory, Hell and All Saints, which people joined by paid subscription. This is how the boards homepage looked at that time (the links on the page no longer work, of course). The next incarnation of our bulletin boards, which were free to join (and which are archived for reading only here, launched in March 2001 and closed to make way to our current forums in March 2018.

Who created the cartoons at the top of the board pages?

Most of the cartoons were drawn specially for Ship of Fools by Andrzej Krauze, a political cartoonist whose work often appears in the UK’s Guardian newspaper and elsewhere. The others were drawn by Simon Jenkins, the Ship of Fools editor.

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