A jester or fool was a type of entertainer and archetype in Medieval Europe, similar to a modern clown or comedian. With their colorful, eccentric outfits and repertoire of juggling, acrobatics and wit, jesters were a favorite of commoners and noblemen alike. Jesters were commonly travelling minstrels and acrobats, performing at village fairs and festivals. Those who were especially lucky or talented would be hired as court jesters, becoming a regular fixture of a noble or royal court. They would perform tricks, sing fables and satirize daily court life in front of the upper class.
Court jesters were granted special privileges, and were allowed to speak in a way that other commoners were forbidden to. With this license to offend, court jesters served as a “voice of the people” in a culture with rigid social barriers. A court jester could openly mock and satirize their social betters without consequence, and were often favored by their lords as trusted advisors who could always speak their minds. Queen Elizabeth I is recorded as having scolding her court jester for not being harsh enough on her.
A successful jester had to be skilled in both physical acts and possess a quick wit and knack for singing and storytelling. Jester performances were usually a mix of juggling, acrobatics and magic combined with fables, songs, jokes and political commentaries. There was no fixed costume for a jester, but costume usually involved loud, motley colours, bells and baubles and a hood with trihorns or donkey ears. Jesters are often portrayed as carrying a hobby horse or mock sceptre, as a parody of the knightly aristocracy.
While court jesters were generally beloved by nobles and commoners alike, their favored status and constant barrage of insults sometimes wore thin on some nobles. Many of the notable royal jesters ended their careers after developing massive egos and offending the wrong people. Archibald Armstrong, court jester to the Stuarts, was finally exiled from court after repeatedly mocking the Archbishop of Canterbury for being short. Sir Jeffery Hudson, a jester and dwarf who charmed his way into the English and French court, was exiled after killing a nobleman who refused to take Hudson’s military status seriously. Hudson challenged the nobleman to a duel over the perceived insult, and the nobleman, still refusing to take Hudson seriously, brought a water pistol to the duel. Hudson however, used a real pistol.
While fools and jesters were a real profession, their cultural status is generally attributed to their common appearance in the works of Shakespeare. Only some of them are court jesters, but Shakespearean fools appear in 25 of Shakespeare’s plays. They served as comic relief and a satirical voice that a common audience could relate to. As noted by critics and historians, the irony of the fool was that he was the most perceptive character. As Isaac Asimov said ‘That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all”. The legacy of fools and jesters can also be seen in playing cards; the Fool card in tarot decks and the Joker card in standard card decks.
Court jesters fell out of fashion with the decline of feudalism in Europe, although jesters remained popular in theatre and carnival culture. The modern successor of the jester is arguably the clown, colourful entertainers who perform similar feats of agility and silliness. While society has obviously changed since the days of knights and castles, the people’s love for ridiculous comedy theatre and performance.