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Medieval Jester

Medieval Jester

What It Was Really Like To Be A Court Jester

If there's one thing that people have shared throughout the ages, it's the need to lighten the mood every once in a while. Especially kings and queens. They've got it rough, after all, sitting up there on high, with the fate of all their subjects in their hands. What better way to get some distraction from things like war, famine, and plague than with a little slapstick juggling?

The pop culture image of the court jester is one of patchwork clothes and bells, cheesy jokes, and pratfalls. But it turns out that the position was about much more than just being a goofball. Anyone who might aspire to be a court jester would have to be more than just funny, they'd have to be the kind of witty — and charming — that would keep their head on their shoulders. They'd also need to be able to multitask, fulfill other roles within the household, and be very good at ducking, dodging, and escaping. What does that mean? Let's talk about what, exactly, it was like being a court jester in ye olde times.

The ‘Little Servants&rsquo

By the 11 th and 12th centuries, medieval Fools fell into the general category of Minstrels or ‘Little Servants. The term covered a whole range of entertainers besides jesters, including acrobats, musicians, and singers. However, &ldquolittle servant&rsquowas an appropriate term for the household fools. For jesters were expected to perform a much broader role in the household than keeping people amused.

Noblemen did not entertain every night and certainly did not want the repetition of listening to the same entertainer, telling the same jokes. So when they were not performing, Fools would be found other work about the household. They might be put in charge of the care of their Lord&rsquos hounds or work in the kitchens. They could also be sent to the market to buy goods for the household.

Highly trained medieval jongleurs may have felt such tasks to be beneath them. However, other fools would have been more than grateful to be of any use at all. For many noble families often adopted as their fools men and women marked by mental or physical disabilities. These ‘innocent fools&rsquo were kept almost as pets under the guise of so-called Christian charity. Their masters provided them with food, clothing and a place to sleep in return for being a curiosity about the court. However, if their Lord decided they were no longer an asset to the household, they would be cast out. The lucky ones might receive a small pension. However, most were left to beg.

Thomas Skelton, the Last Fool of the Pennington Family. Google Images.

Some fools, however, performed much darker duties than a bit of housework. Thomas Skelton was the last professional fool at Muncaster Castle, near Ravenglass in Cumbria. Skelton was in the service of the Pennington family who had owned the castle for eight hundred years and was believed to have been the model for the royal jester in Shakespeare&rsquos King Lear. However, legend tells that Skelton was also an assassin. For Helwise, the unmarried daughter of Sir Alan Pennington had taken Dick, a carpenter&rsquos son and one of the servants at the castle as a lover. When one of Helwise&rsquos other suitors, a local Knight, discovered the affair, he enlisted Skelton to take his revenge.

The knight asked Skelton to behead Dick with his own ax while he slept- and the jester was more than happy to oblige as he believed the young man had stolen money from him. In the aftermath, he bragged about his crime. &ldquoI have hid Dick&rsquos head under a heap of shavings, &rdquo he told the other servants. &ldquoAnd he will not find that so easily when he awakes as he did my shillings.&rdquo

3 Answers 3

So there is actually a difference in Medieval and Renaissance times, between a Jester and a Fool.

Jesters were typically known for their witticisms and wordplay - essentially their ability to work clever jests.

Fools were typically physically and/or mentally impaired people who provided entertainment because of unintentional behaviour or speech.

There was a great desire for dwarves as well, and while such fools and dwarves were seen as 'pets' or treated in a manner we would find generally unacceptable today, the understanding of the time meant that people believed that those who were mentally or physically disadvantaged were actually possessed or cursed by demons or fairies (who were also the cause of autism by this periods understanding - changeling child or fey child being those who interacted with the world in a different manner than was usual).

However, such individuals were generally well treated and looked after, partly because of the fear of The Fair Folk's retribution for ill treatment, or the fear that without a proper outlet, the demons or power of mischief might cause terrible harm.

Being taken in as a fool was a great deal better than having someone of religious persuasion attempt to excorsize or beat out the devils.

That is not to say that they were not subject to verbal abuse and mockery, as that was unfortunately part of the role imposed upon them. Joao de Sa, known as Panasco, who served King Joao III of Portugal, did very well in the court and was elevated to Gentleman status, but was seen as inferior and was constantly verbally abused and treated as sub-human due to the physical impairment of being a Black African. This was the ugly truth of racist belief in the 16th century, that not being white was seen as a physical disability.

Whilst some Jesters & dwarves in particular took advantage of education and opportunities available when serving at Royal Courts or wealthy households, like Richard Gibson, the miniscule portrait 'minaturist' of the Stuart Court, or Francois de Cuvillies, decorative designer and architect attributed to being pivotal to the arrival of the Rococo style to Cenytral Europe, they often had to endure being seen as possessions and treated as such for entertainment, like Jeffrey Hudson given as a gift to Queen Henrietta Maria by King Charles I, her husband, when he presented her with a pie, in which Jefferey was served.

Those who were classed as 'Fools' often had carers, like Nichola La Jardiniere - Fool to Mary Stewart/Stuart, Queen of Scots - who had Jacquiline Cristoflat as a 'keeper', to look after them and would generally be given a pension when they became too old to continue in service. Whilst far from what we in modern times would ever think acceptable, at the time, it generally meant they had a place of protection, with regular meals and often luxuries not available to the larger population (for example, Nichola La Jardinier had a gown made of yellow and violet by the Royal Tailor, velvet caps and bonnets, and was served sugared fancies and such).

As you mentioned, Jesters & Fools were not only found in Royal Courts, but in wealthy households and Jesters at least, on stage and as part of travelling players troups.

Robert Armin (c.1563-1615), who followed after William Kempe (who performed comical roles in Shakespears plays) as a Jester on Stage, actually wrote a book about the subject in 1605, called "Foole Upon Foole", where he describes the various different talents and jests associated with the position, and distinguishes the difference between the 'natural fool' and the 'artificial fool'. In an expanded version called "Nest of Ninnies" published in 1608, he also included histories of some celebrated Jesters and some of their recorded jokes, such as those by William Sommers, Jester to Henry VIII & Edward VI.

It's difficult to be certain of the meaning behind the usage of words such as "fool" and "jester" or other terms, as unless you are looking at original sources, the two terms were often used indiscriminately by some writers in different eras, and translation issues can also make it difficult to be certain, let alone regional differences of meaning (this is always problematic when dealing with original sources, which is why Mary Queen Of Scots inventories are so useful, as her master of the household actually added notes telling us how some items previously appearing in inventories of the Queen's Mother, Marie de Guise/Lorraine, were referred to in his time).


Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England (1662) tells how Tarlton was recruited as jester to Elizabeth I:

Here he was in the field, keeping his Father’s Swine, when a Servant of Robert Earl of Leicester . . . was so highly pleased with his happy unhappy answers, that he brought him to Court, where he became the most famous Jester to Queen Elizabeth.

He was Queen Elizabeth’s favorite clown and could always cheer her up or, in other words, “undumpish her at his pleasure”.

Even her court favorites had to go through him to get to her – and he wasn’t afraid to say exactly what he thought of them.

Amongst his many talents, he was a fencing master and a playwright.

He had a huge influence on Elizabethan clowns. His epitaph says: he of clowns to learn still sought/ But now they learn of him they taught.

Tarlton was a member of the Queen’s Men – the premier troupe of actors in the 1580s.

The public loved him, perhaps because he of his skill in ad-libs, put-downs and impromptu battles of wits.

Thomas Nashe said Tarlton only had to poke his head through the curtain to have his audience laughing.

His image (with pipe and drum) lived on both ‘jakes’ – that is, lavatories – and ale-house signs – for decades, even centuries, after his death.

Medieval Entertainment - Medieval Jester, Medieval Juggler

As explained in our medieval games and gambling page, hiring entertainers to come and perform was very popular amongst royalty and noble families in medieval times. They would regularly have plays and puppet shows performed and welcome travelling minstrels to entertain their friends and family. Ask anyone today what kind of entertainer existed in medieval times and the likely answer will be . jester or juggler.

The Medieval Jester - a medieval jester was usually in the employ of or hired for a special occasion by royalty and noblemen. Performances took place in the castles and noblemen's homes. The jester's repertoire comprised of storytelling, reading poetry, often some acrobatics and juggling skills. The equivalent today is what people refer to as a 'speciality act' - a professional entertainer who uses comedy and a particular skill such as juggling or card magic and who is paid to perform on stage or at private functions.

The Medieval Juggler - a medieval juggler was a comic performer who used humour (often bawdy) alongside his juggling skills. A juggler generally only performed in public places such as in market places, in the street and at medieval fairs. To make a living of any kind, a juggler therefore had to rely upon his audience for tips. The equivalent today is what people refer to as a 'street entertainer' - a highly skilled juggler who can perform serious juggling feats as well as comic ones and who performs in public places such as market places in tourist resorts and cities or in special fairs and town/city celebrations. Sometimes they will be relying on tips from the public but, unlike in medieval times, they will often be professionally engaged for both public and private function performances.

We came across a modern day 'medieval' style juggler called David Ford aka 'The Fire Man Dave'. A highly skilled, professional juggler, David recently granted us an interview just for medieval-castle.com. He answered LOTS of questions - such is our curiosity - and we are grateful to him for his in depth and honest answers.

If you would like to share an insight into the world of the 21st century medieval style juggler read our Modern Medieval Juggler page.

Note: David Ford is also one half of the 'The Jolly Jesters' a popular act in which he performs alongside Micky Bimble

People in the medieval times were very preoccupied with death, which is understandable if you consider how pious society was at the time and also the fact that many people were falling victim to the Black Death. As a result, a trend known as "ars moriendi," or "The art of dying" came into fashion.

The idea revolved around dying a good Christian death, according to the book by Austra Reinis called "Reforming the Art of Dying" (Ashgate, 2007). The death should be planned and peaceful. Just to add further stress when you're about to pop your clogs, the dying person should, like Christ, accept their fate without despair, disbelief, impatience, pride or avarice. Dying well was particularly popular with the priesthood, which led to many of the infamous medieval paintings of monks and holy men accepting their brutal murders with calm serenity.

Stilt-walking Jester

Stilt-walking jesters were some of the trickiest personalities of the medieval jesters. They would often trick people into lying on the ground so they could tumble on them, balance on their head on people or do acrobatic tricks by bouncing from one person to another while they are lying on the ground. They were fast and nimble and would often perform their tricks before observers realized what they were up to. These jesters would often perform tricks while swinging on ropes to catch people's attention and lure them into the marketplace to watch them perform. Stilt-walkers also juggled, danced and performed fire breathing tricks.

Roland&rsquos performance holds a significant place in the history of professional flatulence.

Roland&rsquos medieval world was one without TV, YouTube, or Instagram. Nowadays, if you want to see someone fart, it would only take you a few seconds to search and find a video, watch it, chuckle, and move on to something funnier (good luck).

However, in the middle ages, the need for entertainment was fulfilled by jesters like Roland. He often performed in the streets or the courts of nobility and royal families in exchange for money or, in rare cases, property. To which Roland the Farter served as the latter.

In fact, the flatulist was so successful with his timely farting abilities that King Henry II gave him his own manor house in Hemingstone, Suffolk, a region east of London. To some readers, this historical event might indicate that medievals were a mannerless uncivilized people who unabashedly laughed at middle school humor even more than we do today. The truth, however, is far more complicated than that.

jesters performing for the Royal family

Most scholars believe that the medievals still saw flatulence much in the same way we do today, as a disgusting taboo, a socially problematic aspect of the body we often avoid talking about. Some even believed farting to be a constant sign of our mortality. Only the middle ages could come up with something that depressing.

However, Roland shows us the other side of that view, the funny side we all know and love. All wrapped up in one crucial document, the only credible historical source we have of him, that summarizes Roland&rsquos unique performance and the incredible reward he earned from the King.

Roland&rsquos Performance

The only credible source that ever mentions Roland is the Book of Fees, a 13th-century document used to account for the many fees owed by and towards the Crown.

Amongst a list of very serious and vital bureaucratic deals are a brief description of Roland&rsquos performance and the payment he received from the Crown.

&ldquoUnum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum.&rdquo

professional flatulist

While these may seem like nonsense words to most, they&rsquore actually Latin. After a good translation, the sentence briefly explains that Roland would perform &ldquoone jump, one whistle, and one fart&rdquo in a short one-person symphony of bodily noises. The three-part show was part of the King&rsquos annual Christmas celebration, apparently serving as the grand finale to the overall holiday festivities.

Aside from being hilarious and an obvious indication of how much the British monarchy&rsquos Christmas traditions have changed, Roland&rsquos performance holds a significant place in the history of professional flatulence.

The performance is one of the earliest mentions of professional flatulence in medieval history, alongside 12 musical farters in Ireland who farted their way to fame during the same century as Roland. These historical records show that flatulence was more than just a joke for some, it was a livelihood.


As previously mentioned, the fee book tells us that Roland got paid some serious cheddar&mdashfar more than most middle-class Englishmen did at the time.

In addition to the manor house, the medieval flatulist was awarded at least 30 acres of land, with some scholars estimating he received as much as 100 acres. That is some serious acreage, even for medieval times. Apparently, King Henry II had a very passionate sense of humor for well-timed gas, as we still do to this day.

a court jester

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Medieval Jester - History

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?

Watch the video: Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams: Medieval Jesters (December 2021).