Crack open a new deck of cards, and what do you pull out? The jokers , of course. Also called jester, fool, trickster, buffoon, jack-pudding, and wearer of the motley, this character is nearly universally recognized, but seldom seen live anymore.
Historians believe that jesters entertained prehistoric tribal society with their Wise Fool antics. What is certain though is that court jesters grew and flourished in the Middle Ages as well-paid attendants of Europe’s Royal Courts. Power was highly consolidated in medieval times and social mobility was difficult. A child of peasants was likely to become a peasant, and stone masons gave the world more masons, just as royalty bred royalty. In contrast, jesters could move up the social ladder. They came from a wide range of backgrounds — from peasant farms and monasteries to universities. Quite a few had physical deformities and learned to wring laughs from what otherwise could’ve been an unfortunate situation. Usually, they climbed up the social ladder and were prized for their outsider’s humorous take on life. For instance, when Shakespeare’s King Lear was brooding alone in the woods, the only company he wanted was his amusing fool.
Not all jesters were so lucky to do lunch with the royals. Most subsisted by performing in the marketplace or town square, showcasing their art on a simple stage they “built,” such as a decorative carpet thrown on the ground, or a circle drawn with a stick in a village square. These resourceful jesters would gather an audience with clever attention-grabbing techniques (“Come see me leap from the bell tower…while sipping an ale!”) and after enough curious bystanders gathered, they’d begin their show, which steadily climbed to a climax, at which point they would solicit donations from the crowd. If an especially amusing jester was lucky enough to be seen by a royal court representative, he could get an invitation to audition as a court jester. Definitely a gig not to turn down!
Most European royal courts hired jesters to perform at palace parties and celebrations. The were paid well and often wore elegant costumes inspired by the patchwork of their poorer brethren. Added to their wit, most had developed several additional performance skills — they played lutes and flutes, danced, juggled, told jokes, did acrobatics and pantomime, ropewalked, performed tongue twisters, yodeled , sang and did vocal tricks. Crack open a new deck of cards, and you can see illustrations of this character in the joker, of course.
While most court jesters were men, a few famous women fought convention and broke into the field. Their title: a “jestress”. One such was La jardinaire who served Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, in 1543. Mathurine la Folle, another jestress, earned 1200 livres from the French court in the early 1600s. Maria Barbara Asquin, another noted jestress, served Queen Isabel of Spain for nearly half a century (1651-1700) and was supposedly given four pounds of snow every summer day. That’s right, snow! Centuries before refrigeration, this must have earned serious bragging rights!
As kings and queens’ confidants, jesters often developed deep friendships with them. The royals often became tired of the false compliments and praise from their many lackeys and valued a connection with these offbeat performers, who, between witty wisecracks, would share very valuable insights. After all, many truths have been spoken in jest, and many lies have been spoken in earnest.
Some Royal Courts even consulted Jesters before going to battle. For example, in 1386, the Duke of Austria, Lepold the Pious, asked his jester for his opinion on his plans to attack the Swiss. His jester, Jenny von Stockach reportedly bluntly said, “You fools, you’re all debating how to get into the country, but none of you have thought how you’re going to get out again.” (Beatrice Otto, Fools Are Everywhere, 2001) (Does this sound familiar?) As the story goes, the king failed to listen, and the army suffered badly, with a brigade of knights in heavy armor passing out from heat and thirst before they had even entered battle! At least 2,000 were killed when the knights rolled rocks down the mountain.
Playing the confidant was indeed a common role for jesters, in royal courts and in literature too. Shakespeare bestowed key parts for many a jester in his plays. The Bard’s famous stage jesters include Touchstone in As You Like It, The Fool in King Lear, Trinculo in The Tempest, Costard in Love’s Labours Lost, Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice,Lavache in All’s Well That Ends Well, Yorick in Hamlet, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors.
While many royals valued their jesters as confidants and trusted friends, this role was reserved for elite jesters. Perhaps more common was the jester’s role as healer. Medieval doctors believed that human health was controlled by four forces, called ‘humours’: Sanguine, Melancholia, Choleric and Phlegmatic! Today, these humours are considered emotional states. 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 or by , drumroll please… court jesters!
Although these theories of human mind-body-spirit relationship fell into disrepute after the Renaissance, many have been reexamined in recent times by psychologist Carl Jung and his followers. The idea that laughter aids recovery, long considered evident in Eastern philosophies, is steadily gaining traction in Western medicine so much so that it’s now considered mainstream. Few people would argue that a comedian can also help a group bond by sharing in deep laughter.
Michael Christianson, a founding member of New York’s Big Apple Circus, became so interested in the healing qualities of physical comedy that he quit his job in the limelight of what could be considered America’s most artistic circus to teach jesters , clowns and comedians how to connect with hospital patients through his Clown Care Unit. His program has expanded to many cities worldwide.
Another famous humor healer is Patch Adams, M.D., who was popularized on silver screen with the 1998 Hollywood film, Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams. The real-life Patch Adams, M.D., from West Virginia, was trained as doctor and established a hospital whose very name, The Gesundheit! Institute, is steeped in humor. Dr. Adams’ organization leads a merry band of mirth makers on trips around the world to locations of crisis or suffering in order to serve up some levity and healing.
Today, a growing number of organizations are harnessing the healing power of the Merry Jester including The Mobile Mini Circus for Children, Clowns without Borders, and Bond St. Theater. No matter what tongue is spoken in a global hotspot, the light-hearted antics, inspired tricks and musical levity of the Wise Fool transcends the language. One of the hallmarks of jesters is that they are greeted with smiles in all four corners of the globe.
Since the Middle Ages, jesters have engaged royal courts and the general masses, young and old. Their humanity has crossed all political and cultural terrains. Is it the way they poke fun at the high and mighty or make heroes out of everyday people? Is it the lightness on their curly-toed boots or their amused take on society? As long as there have been social conventions, jesters have been there to tweak them. And who has more license than a grown person wearing a hat with bells and mismatched curly boots?
Further Reading on Jesters
Fools Are Everywhere, by Beatrice Otto, 2001.
Fools and Folly During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by Barbara Swain, 1976.
The Jester and His Scepter, by William Willeford, 1969.
Wise Words and Wives’ Tales, by Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner 1993
The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Johann Huizinga, 1997.
Illustrated Story Books
Goha, the Wise Fool, Denys Johnson-Davies. 2005
The Little Jester, by Helena Olofsson,2002
The Jester Lost his Jingle, by David Saltzman, 1995
Films with Jesters
The Court Jester, 1955, starring Danny Kaye.
Patch Adams, 1998, starring Robin Williams.
Humanitarian Groups that Jest
The Afghan Mobile Mini Circus, www.afghanmmcc.org
Bond Street Theatre, www.bondst.org
The Gesundheit! Institute, www.patchadams.org
Clowns without Borders, www.clownswithoutborders.org
Maria’s Children, www.mariaschildren.org