Court jester

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A jester or fool is a specific type of clown mostly associated with the Middle Ages. Jesters typically wore brightly colored clothing in a motley pattern. Their hats (sometimes called the "cap'n'bells") were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points (liliripes) each of which had a jingle bell at the end. The three points of the hat represent the asses' ears and tail worn by jesters in earlier times. Other things distinctive about the jester were his incessant laughter and his mock scepter, known as a bauble or marrotte.

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A Court-Fool, of the 15th Century. Facsimile of a miniature from a ms. in the Bibl. de l'Arsenal, Th. lat., no 125.

The art of the jester

The court jester was often summoned to try to lift the monarch out of an angry or melancholic mood. Medieval medicine considered human health to be largely governed by The four humours: Sanguine, meaning an increased amount of blood in the system, Melancholia, an increased amount of black bile, Choleric, an increased amount of yellow bile and Phlegmatic, meaning an increased amount of phlegm. The balance or imbalance of the humours was believed to produce four distinct emotional states which could be rebalanced either by the doctor's craft (which, in those days, was largely alchemy-based) or by the court entertainers, including the fool or jester. Although these alchemical theories of human mind-body-spirit relationship fell into disrepute after the Renaissance, these ideas have been reexamined in more recent times by psychologist Carl Jung, and the idea that laughter aids recovery given more credence. In the United States, the Gesundheit! Institute established by Patch Adams attempts to make good use of clowning and laughter as medicine.

A jester could have a more political role as well. He could say some dangerous truth disguised as a joke or even criticize the ruler in subtle ways. Many legends and anecdotes portray fools as informal, cunning advisors. The expression "fool's license" is said to come from this custom.


The origins of the jester are possibly in prehistoric tribal society. Pliny the Elder mentions a royal jester (planus regium) when recounting Apelles' visit to the palace of the Hellenistic King Ptolemy I. However, jesters are mainly thought of in association with the Middle Ages.

All jesters and fools in those days were thought of as special cases whom God had touched with a childlike madness—a gift, or perhaps a curse. Mentally handicapped people sometimes found employment by capering and behaving in an amusing way. In the harsh world of medieval Europe, people who might not be able to survive any other way thus found a social niche.

In the Islamic world Sufi mystics tell tales of Mulla Nasrudin, the legendary 14th century mystic jester of Tamerlane.

All royal courts in those days employed entertainers and most had professional fools of various types. Entertainment included early music, juggling, clowning, and the telling of riddles. Henry VII of England employed a jester named Will Somers.

During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I of England, William Shakespeare wrote his plays and performed with his theatre company "The Lord Chamberlain's Men" (later called "The King's Men"). Clowns and jesters were often featured in Shakespeare's plays, and the company's expert on jesting was Robert Armin, author of the book Foole upon Foole.

King James employed a famous jester called Archibald Armstrong. During his lifetime Armstrong was given great honours at court. He was eventually thrown out of the King's employment when he over-reached himself and insulted too many influential people. Even after his disgrace books were sold in London streets of his jests. He held some influence at court still in the reign of Charles I and estates of land in Ireland. Charles later employed a jester called Jeffrey Hudson who was very popular and loyal. Jeffrey Hudson had the title of Royal Dwarf because he was very short of stature. One of his jests was to be presented hidden in a giant pie (from which he would leap out). Hudson fought on the Royalist side in the English Civil War. A third jester associated with Charles I was called Muckle John.

The tradition of Court Jesters came to an end in Britain when Charles the First was overthrown in the Civil War. As a fundamentalist Christian republic, England under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had no place for such fripperies as jesters. English theatre also suffered and a good many actors and entertainers relocated to Ireland where things were little better (see Irish theatre).

After the Restoration, Charles II didn't reinstate the tradition of the Court Jester but he did greatly patronize the theatre and proto-music hall entertainments, especially favouring the work of Thomas Killigrew.

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In France and Italy, travelling groups of jesters performed plays featuring stylized characters. These were called the commedia dell'arte. A version of this passed into British folk tradition in the form of a puppet show Punch and Judy. In France the tradition of the court jester ended with the French Revolution.

Poland's most famous court jester was Stańczyk whose witty jokes were usually related to current political issues, and who later became an important historical symbol for many Poles.

In the 21st century the jester is a character beloved of all with a passion for historical drama and the cap'n'bells will often be seen worn by participants in medieval style fayres and pageants.

In 2004 it was announced after 355 years there would once again be a Court Jester. Nigel Roder ("Kester the Jester") will succeed Muckle John as the official Court Jester of the British monarchy.

The jester in literature

Jesters are frequently featured in historical fiction and fantasy. Significant examples include:

The Jester by Rudyard Kipling

THERE are three degrees of bliss
At the foot of Allah’s Throne
And the highest place is his
Who saves a brother’s soul
At peril of his own.
There is the Power made known!
There are three degrees of bliss
In the Gardens of Paradise,
And the second place is his
Who saves his brother’s soul
By excellent advice.
For there the Glory lies!
There are three degrees of bliss
And three abodes of the Blest,
And the lowest place is his
Who has saved a soul by a jest
And a brother’s soul in sport . . .
But there do the Angels resort!

The jester in other media

Shakespearian jesters

The jester as a symbol

In Tarot, "The Fool" card of the Major Arcana (card 0, in Rider-Waite numbering, card 22 in Belgian decks, and sometimes unnumbered) represents the Spirit, God, the Monad; The Lord of the Universe; the Absolute Being. Other permutations include: Eternity, Life Power, Originating Creative Power, the Will of God, the Essence or Essential Self, Tao, Aether, Prana, Akasha, the Void, the White Brilliance, the Radiant Field of God, Omnirevelation, the Universal Light, Boundless Space, Superconsciousness, the Inner Ruler, the Plenitude, the Unmanifest, the Ancient of Days (repeated in manifest form within Key 9, the Hermit), Mysterium Magnum, the Sun at a 45 degree angle in the Eastern Heaven—always increasing, never decreasing.

It represents a number of human conditions: innocence, ignorance, heterodoxy, freedom, great cheer, freedom from earthly desires or passions but also perversity, audacity, truth, confidence, or cultural power.

The root of the word "fool" is from the Latin follis, which means "bag of wind" or that which contains air or breath.


Welsford, Enid: The Fool : His Social and Literary History (out of print) (1935 + subsequent reprints): ISBN 1299142745

See also

External links

Other uses

eo:Bufono nl:Nar fi:Narri


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