Friday, April 22, 2016


     Who needs comedy clubs when you can have your own personal jester(s) on call 24/7?  If the jester is a member of your household, you don't ever have to worry about the show being sold out before you've had a chance to score tickets. 

     The jester could have many talents - singing, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, magic tricks - but primarily, his job  was to make people laugh, with his jokes or with his physical comedy or both.  Not only royals, but also wealthy aristocrats, kept jesters as household members.  Recruitment was apparently a pretty casual process, as shown in this 1662 account of the recruitment of a man named Tarlton to be a jester for Queen Elizabeth I:

          Here he was in the field, keeping his father's swine, when a servant of
          Robert Earl of Leicester... was so highly pleased with his happy/
          unhappy answers, that he brought him to Court, where he became
          the most famous jester to Queen Elizabeth.

     To quote from Beatrice K. Otto's FOOLS ARE EVERYWHERE: THE COURT JESTER AROUND THE WORLD (University of Chicago Press, 2001), an online excerpt of which has provided me with much of the information I share in this post:

                        An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a
                        wide range of backgrounds; an erudite but nonconformist
                        university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for
                        nun frolics, a jongleur [juggler] with exceptional verbal
                        or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village
                        blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman.
                        Just as a modern-day television stand-up comedian might
                        begin his career on the pub and club circuit, so a would-be
                         jester could make it big time in court if he was lucky
                         enough to be spotted.

     Some jesters were witty and well-educated.  Some were just naturally funny people, the smartasses of their era.  Unfortunately, others were chosen from among the ranks of the physically or mentally handicapped.  Dwarves abounded in the profession..  

      There were also a fair share of "naturals," people with intellectual limitations who were, on the one hand, mocked and infantilized, but on the other hand, were treated with a measure of awe because they were thought to be divinely inspired.
     Otto contends that "the court jester is a universal phenomenon," and cites to historical records from China, India, Japan, Russia and Africa.   But fortunately for 16th-century European jesters, the long tradition of their profession was given a boost by the 1511 publication of a short book by the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus called IN PRAISE OF FOLLY:

                         We have all seen how an appropriate and well-timed joke
                          can sometimes influence even grim tyrants... The most
                          violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though
                          these often made them the butt of open insults.

     According to Otto, "the fortunes of the European court jesters rose and fell with the tsunami-scale wave of medieval and Renaissance fool mania that engulfed the continent."  Thanks to Erasmus, folly became a hot topic in Europe, and professional "fools" became hugely popular for their illustration of the concept as well as for their entertainment value.

traditional jester's hat sporting three points, each ending in a jingle bell

older-style jester's costume, featuring hat with ass's ears
     But there was a second aspect of jesterdom that Otto says was also universal: "jesters everywhere were allowed and encouraged to offer counsel and to influence the whims and policies of kings."  Instead of being expected to fawn over and flatter their masters like everyone else, jesters were given unique liberty to speak their minds and to offer criticisms that might have gotten anyone else thrown into a dungeon, as the above quote from Erasmus demonstrates.  This situation led to the paradox of the "wise fool," a societal outcast who sees and says things more clearly and truthfully than anyone else.  A prime example is the Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, who repeatedly (and with impunity) chastised the old king for his poor judgment and egotistical shortsightedness.  On the other hand, once Lear was dethroned by his conniving daughters and had become a demented, friendless, homeless old man, the Fool was the only person who loyally stayed by his side in his wanderings.

     In short, a jester's master might have had the jester at his beck and call, but in exchange, he would have to put up with whatever verbal abuse the jester felt like dishing out.  So it really was like stand-up comedy in a way; the Fool would get heckled, but he would heckle the audience right back.


  1. It always seemed so sad that jesters made others laugh while having insults heaped upon themselves. Maybe it was a small price to pay for security in their life's station.

    Gail’s 2016 April A to Z Challenge
    S is for Save Our Planet

    1. I think that's very true, Gail. Especially for someone from the peasant class, it would have been seen as a great job.

  2. Poor jesters. I love stand-up comedy, though. Sounds like jesters were already being "roasted" even back then!

    1. Yes, but the roasting went both ways. See u monday for your corpse-free U post!

    2. Yes, but the roasting went both ways. See u monday for your corpse-free U post!

  3. I didn't know Jesters could give advice unlike other people. Thanks for the lesson.

    ~Ninja Minion Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, Indie Author

    1. I guess it's because no one thought of them as a real threat to power, so they could get away with a lot -- sort of like children.

  4. Interesting - never thought of court jesters as stand up comedians :)
    @mysilverstreaks from

    1. I'm glad you liked the post, Dahlia. Thank you for your visit!

  5. Reading your post has made me realize I've always thought more of jesters in their wise fool/advising capacity more than as jokesters. But in any case I imagine it was actually quite a difficult life. I do like the earlier costume version though with the ass ears - I definitely want one of those!

    1. I think if you asked most jesters about the job they would probably shrug and say, "it's a living." Regular meals, indoor work, job security- those things weren't always easy to come by.

  6. I had no idea that the practice of having fools was so widespread! Maybe I should add some to my books...

    1. If you'rr thinking of doing that, you should buy Otto's book for your research. It's a treasure trove!

  7. You know? Before now, I've never realised how much the character of the jester resembles the trickster. I've always thought that the trickster didn't really belong to European culture. But apparently, I'm wrong ;-)

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  8. Well, Sarah, apparently the jester belongs to many different cultures. In Europe the concept dates back to comic actors in ancient Rome, but it may go back much farther in non-European traditions. I wish I knew more about it than the little bit I learned to write this post!

  9. Reminded me of 'The Queen's Fool' Philippa Gregory. Superbly interesting post as usual.

    In India, we have a series of folk flashes with social messages, attributed to three different medieval jesters -Birbal, Mollah Naseeruddin and Gopal Bhar. In a world where everyone tiptoed around rulers for fear of being treasonous, astounding the level of freedom the jesters were allowed. A medieval method of checks and balances I guess...

    1. I haven't read The Queen's Fool. Maybe I should! And yes, it does sound like a sort of checks-and-balances system, although of course the rulers/ aristocrats got to hire their own jesters, so they had some control over deciding how mouthy they wanted their hirees to be!