Jesters were a key part of many Medieval courts. But are Jesters still among us? Here Daniel Smith (following his previous article on California in the US Civil War here) tells us about Medieval European Jesters and suggests parallels for Jesters in modern-day America.
The Jester was common in the times of castles, villages, chain-mail, and treachery. In Medieval Europe, the elites and nobility would hire jesters in which the aristocratic family would regard them as “mascots”. These characters were well-educated individuals who came from a variety of diverse upbringings. Jesters are known for their crazy styles and abstract apparel. All of this for the attention of the court of course, and sometime the humility. These people were hired to amuse the lord and the lord’s guests. At times, Jesters, oddly enough, were paid to criticize them too!
These people of humor and talents had a privilege given to them by their master: freedom of speech. Interestingly enough, Jesters were one of the few people in their lord’s presence that could speak their minds freely without risk of punishment. They typically used humor and parody to joke around and “razz” the nobles and elites. Bringing bad news was another job for the Jester to deliver to their master - when paid appropriately.
Types of Jester
Excessive misbehavior though, would result in some form of harsh punishment. There were two primary types of Jesters in Medieval Europe – the natural fooland the licensed fool. The natural fool was known as moronic in social setting; whereas the licensed fool had the legal privileges granted to them to avoid the mentioned court punishments for bad behavior.
The most apparent description of the Jester is a person who worked under the employment of a European noble, telling jokes and providing entertainment. Bright colors with eccentric hats and bells were a calling card for Jesters. A couple of surprising details pertaining to symbolism are the hat and scepter that Jesters often wore and carried. There was a head usually carved into the top of the scepter, representing the actor. The scepter was more or less ornamental and it was called a “marotte”. This staff was symbolic in representing the authority of the royal court.
Overall, many of these actors held small roles in the courts they worked for (or were pressed into) and livened up most social events. It was some serious responsibility and even obligation for the Jester to bring a smile to a sick or often angry King or Monarch. This position was one held purely for the amusement and humor of his master. Assisting in preventing state affairs from becoming too serious was a main priority to the Jester, as well as bringing excitement to courtly meals, apparently to help assist in aiding with digestion.
How The Jester Is Portrayed Today
Most of the Jester’s entertainment in the courts or within the master’s domain would likely include music (vocal and with an instrument), prop and physical comedy, storytelling and myth bringing. Some historians also suggest that some Jesters juggled and were acrobatic. Basic tools, props, and instruments were all that was necessary for performances in the court.
Jesters are comparable to today's clowns. They also parallel Hollywood actors and musical artists. Today’s artists essentially do the same job as the Jester of the feudalistic courts. The only difference is artists are able to connect to mass audience; whereas the Jester could only reach the royal courts and social gatherings. I mean – the printing press didn’t even arrive until the 15thcentury!
Indeed, there are a number of similarities between Jesters and modern-day entertainment. For example, soap opera characters are sometimes corporate people working against one another’s rivals and family members. This could be because some Hollywood entertainment is produced and designed to be geared towards the elites and higher classes of American society. Again, this mimics the Jester entertaining the master and getting paid for it.
It is the same today in modern America, just as the elites and nobility would have done behind castle walls. Today, actors are hired in Hollywood, and some powerful people could consider them as “mascots”.
These actors, actresses, and musicians today are typically well-educated individuals who come from a variation of diverse upbringings – just as the Jesters of the past.
Actors, actresses, and musicians today are known for their crazy styles and abstract apparel – just as the Jesters of the past. All of this for the constant need for attention from the audience at home – just as Jesters would in court of course.
Actors, actresses, and musicians today are people who are hired to amuse the master (the elite) and the master’s guests (the voters) – just as the Jesters of the past.
And finally, at times, Jesters were paid to criticize the nobility at court…
Just like the actors, actresses, and musicians today in Hollywood who are using television and radio for their political and social arguments using their platforms… which is something that you would not find from Jesters of the Royal Courts for fear of cruel punishment.
Jesters are not a thing of the past. They are here today.
What do you think of the arguments in the article? Let us know below.
Finally, Daniel Smith writes atcomplexamerica.weebly.com.
1. Billington, Sandra. “A Social History of the Fool,” The Harvester Press, 1984. ISBN 0-7108-0610-8
2. Doran, John. “A History of Court Fools,” 1858.
3. Hyers, M. Conrad, “The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World.”1996 Transaction Publishers ISBN 1-56000-218-2
4. Otto, Beatrice K., "Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World,"Chicago University Press, 2001
5. Southworth, John, Fools and Jesters at the English Court, Sutton Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-7509-1773-3
6. Welsford, Enid: “The Fool: His Social and Literary History”(out of print) (1935 + subsequent reprints): ISBN 1-299-14274-5