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 .
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 re-balanced either by the doctor's craft (which, in those days, was largely alchemy-based) or by the court entertainers which included the Fool or Jester. Although these alchemical theories of human mind-body-spirit relationship fell into disrepute after the renaissance these ideas have been re-examined 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.
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 where God had touched the fool with a childlike madness, perhaps a gift or 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.
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.
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.
The jester in literature
- Wamba the jester in Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
- Triboulet in The King Amuses Himself by Victor Hugo (adapted by Verdi as Rigoletto)
- Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard by Gilbert and Sullivan
- The Fool/Verence in Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
- Towser in The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell by Tad Williams
- Hop-Frog in the story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe
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 on film
- Giacomo "King of Jesters, and Jester to the King" played by Danny Kaye in the 1956 film musical The Court Jester
- Touchstone in As You Like It
- The Fool in King Lear
- Trinculo in The Tempest
- Costard in Love's Labours Lost
- Feste in Twelfth Night
- Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice
- Lavache in All's Well That Ends Well
- Yorick in Hamlet
- Two Clowns in Hamlet
- A Fool in Timon of Athens
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.
It also represents 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
- BBC News site story about Kester the Jester's appointment to English Heritage 2004
- University of California, Berkeley Online Medieval and Classical Library (OMACL) & links for medieval studies
- Picture of Will Somers with Henry the Eighth
- Mulla Nasrudin
- Gesundheit! Institute
- Shakespeare search engine - A keyword search such as "fool", "folly", "jester or "clown" reveals every reference in Shakespeare
- Danny Kaye's movie The Court Jester (1956) in the Internet Movie Database
- Jester also refers to a chess engine.