Most medieval films and television shows these days include a person who capers about and cracks wise for the sake of levity. Generally assumed to have been a staple in the courts of the mid to late middle ages, the court jester has landed a role as an archetypal character in nearly every story. It has become difficult to swing a thing around on netflix and not strike a show that has some form of comic relief who brandishes “deeper insight than expected” (Blame Shakespeare for that, he caused this with King Lear and with Puck) The history behind the man in the motley suit actually dates a ways before knights and swordplay, and has never truly been a European creation.
To begin with, humankind has been making jokes for a long, long time. The European court jesters were likely a result of satirical theater and humor plays from Greece, later comic actors in the Roman empire. In the olden times, the line between actor and jester was blurred at best; but as time passed, the two zones began to define more clearly. By the 1400s, European courts were home to several buffoons, dwarves, fools and jesteresses (The position was one of the few that a woman could actually move into during this era, so a funny gal could gain social mobility and surprising amounts of influence if she could land a spot as a jester). In other parts of the world, similar positions could be found. Usually, monarchs and nobility would be wandering through the forest and stumble upon a peasant who was humorous (one story is about a guy who tried to take his geese with him and decided it would be easiest to wedge the baby geese into his belt as he walked, they all died and the king who met him found it side splittingly hilarious). The royalty would offer a payment for taking the fool with them (family was generally happy to see them go) and would make them the official fools.
In the most basic sense, making the king laugh gave you a job. In India, Tenali Rama got a job by convincing the king’s guru to let him ride his shoulders. When the king heard his priest was being used as a horse, he sent men out to beat the offender senseless. Tenali hopped down from the guru’s shoulders and apologized, then offered to carry the guru on his shoulders. When the king’s guards found him (they didn’t know which the guru was), they followed their orders to beat the guy on top and they socked it to the unfortunate guru. The trick tickled the king’s jollies and Tenali got himself a job.
The thing that has made the fool such an enduring icon in media is that he held no true power in the court. A jester was a commoner who was blithely meandering through the seat of government, so he could make statements to anyone in the court while posing very little threat to the system or to the monarch. This allowed the fool the chance to say things and do things that no other nobleman could. Fools were able to tell it like it was, whereas nobility with their own plans and aspirations would often cook the numbers to improve their positions. Jesters were known for being able to criticize the ruler or deliver bad news without actually risking the ire of the lord. In 1340, the French fleet was crushed by the English, the jester broke the news to the king by saying the English soldiers weren’t brave enough to jump into the water like the French soldiers were. In another case, the Austrian king Leopold the Pious was mulling over invading Switzerland. Tired of hearing from his yes-men, he asked the jester on his opinions, he said “you all have argued about how to invade, but how will you get out?”. Granted, Leo ignored his jester and invaded, losing huge numbers of men to weather and geography.
Jesters as a profession began to die out at different times in different places. Succession disputes in England cut the fools out in the 1600s, whereas the French Revolution ended jesting in France. Germans held onto their jesters for a bit longer (Perkeo of Heidelburg was an 18th century jester/wine taster who was said to have drank over 5 gallons of wine a day. He died when he was in his 80s, after following doctor’s orders to drink water. He lived his life by the motto: troll hard) but they too dropped the profession before the turn of the 19th century. In recent years, Jesters have made a minor resurgence though, with Kester the Jester being named England’s state Jester in 2004, and a man in Vancouver, Canada being given a government stipend to bring back the honorable profession.
As a P.S. about the court dwarves thing: beginning in ancient Egypt, dwarves were considered to be novelty items (even good luck charms) and were bought and traded around like Pokemon cards. Wealthy European kings would sometimes have a party of seven or eight dwarves around them as they entered rooms so they would look taller and more imposing by comparison. Queen Henrietta Maria’s “personal dwarf” was named Jeffrey Hudson (aka Lord Minumus), he was a jester, an acrobat and fought for the Royalists in the English Civil War. He fled to France where he was later exiled for killing a man in a duel (he chose pistols from horseback and popped a cap directly between his opponent’s eyes) at which point he was captured by Barbary Pirates and made a slave for 25 years before being ransomed back to England. He may get a blogpost of his own, because the man led a truly interesting life.