The Jester – Medieval Joke or Genius?

We have just passed April 1st – otherwise known as ‘April Fools Day’ and that made me think about the life of a medieval fool.

Mention the word ‘jester’ and a picture immediately springs to mind of a sprightly fellow in colourful mismatched dress called motley wearing a cap or cockscomb with belled-points (or the ears and tail of an ass), and carrying a stick with a smaller version of his own appearance. But what was the jester’s role (or roll) in a medieval court? Was he really a fool?


The court jester flourished in medieval Europe but the existence of a jester goes back as far as the early civilizations of Rome, China, and India. Jesters were individual street performers, usually in local area or for the lucky ones, employed by the royal courts and while it is generally thought he was just there to entertain, the truth is, he was a much more valuable servant with high privilege.


 In medieval times people were simply born into their station in life – a peasant would remain a peasant, a stone mason would teach his sons to be stone masons, and a blacksmith would pass on his trade to his sons. But a jester was not ‘born’ and could come from a wide range of backgrounds – a peasant, a monk from a monastery or even a student studying at university. It is true many had physical deformities and learned to use this to their advantage to gain giggles. They might be dwarfed (as people thought these little folk could be very merry and funny) or a jongleur with exceptional verbal and physical dexterity who would poke fun at their own expense. *** They could also poke fun at the noble court in which they served. Others were athletic, tumblers or jugglers but all of them shared one common ability or goal – the chance to climb up the medieval social ladder, something not attainable by all.


People thought the jester who could babble on about random things had been ‘touched by God,’ and they would laugh and listen to his (or her) warped stories but the truth is that the jester had an incredible gift of wit. Thought to be a fool for his endless ravings, the trick was to separate the facts covered by a layer of humour from genuine guidance for many jesters were situated close to and had the ear of the king. How many follies into battle did a jester prevent? Or by the same logic, how many tragedies belonged to his wrongful advice?

 Gypsy_Jester_Harlequin_by_shooric 2

 You see a jester’s role was to mock and joke, sing and dance, and he could so without causing offence even when touching upon the most delicate of subjects. Because of his simplicity, he was allowed the privilege of speaking his mind so long as his words were offered in humorous form. The ‘fool’ could sit at the table with his master and say whatever silly thing came into his head. He often walked a fine line between the acceptable and the profane and a few stepped over the line and, I daresay, instead of carrying their little likeness, ended up a big head on a stick!


But, being free to speak their minds, jesters were noted as creatures who would not fawn or resort to flattery and kings found this refreshing, to the point that the servant became a trusted and highly valued member of his staff. Highly valued also was the wisdom that was often dealt in between the humour. This was a double-edged sword for the jester for he could also be called upon to serve as a ‘the bearer of bad news,’ his abilities to mock and jest softening the blow. He could deliver in a way that prevented a dignified person from losing face – a valuable talent, indeed!

The foolishness of the jester, whether in his odd appearance or his levity, implied that he was not passing judgement and this attitude was less galling to the king than the preaching methods of his advisor. One of the most effective techniques the jester used was to point out his master’s folly by allowing him to see it for himself. Rather than contradicting the king, the jester would agree with a hare-brained scheme so wholeheartedly that the suggestion was taken to logical extreme, highlighting its stupidity. The king could then decide that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea after all!


 Another role encompassed in the jester’s duties was that as a healer. Medieval doctors believed that the human health was controlled by four forces called ‘humours’ (pardon the pun) or temperaments – Sanguine, Melancholia, Choleric and Phlegmatic (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood). The imbalance of these emotional states could be rebalanced by the physician’s craft *** or (drum roll please) a jester! Even today we still have the saying that ‘laughter is the best medicine.’

The jester was liked by all – lordly or peasant. He was on the side of his ruler and the relationship was often close and amiable, his presence invariably cherished rather than just tolerated. This led to kindliness in jesters: they could be biting in their attacks but usually it held an undercurrent of good heartedness and real understanding. Ever diplomatic, they could save the king’s wrath from slicing up someone innocent, thus save the king from himself.

He was also on the side of the people, fighting oppression against the powerful, and by ‘fooling wisely’ won the hearts of the ordinary folk.


 Some royal courts even consulted their jester before going into battle. In 1386, the Duke of Austria, Leopold the Pious, asked his jester for his opinion on the plans to attack the Swiss. His jester replied bluntly, ‘You fools, you are all debating how to get into the country, but none of you have thought of how you are going to get out!’1 The king failed to listen and the army suffered badly with a brigade of knights in heavy armour passing out from heat and thirst before they even entered into battle.

In 1340 when French King Philippe VI’s entire naval fleet had been destroyed by the English in The Battle of Sluys, no one else dare tell the king this news except the jester. He reported that the English sailors ‘do not even have the guts to jump in the water like our own brave French!’


 The post of court jester might also appeal to someone in need of a safe haven. The thirteenth century French tale of Robert le Diable has him fleeing a populace baying for blood and forcing his way past the footmen to gain access to the king, who duly takes him under his wing as a jester, saying that ‘ nobody should be allowed to beat him.’ Quite a risk, but as ‘Wamba, son of Witless’ explains it in Ivanhoe, ‘who but a fool would put his head where a wise man will not?’


 Probably the most well known jester emerged in the late 1500’s – as a character in the Italian Commedia dell’arte. He was called Harlequin, the name for which we now use for the diamond pattern associated with his costume.


But Harlequin had his roots in the 11th century when an English chronicler and Benedictine monk, Orderic Vitalis, recounted that he was pursued by a troop of demons when wandering on the coast of Normandy at night. These demons were led by a masked, club-wielding giant known as familia herlequin.


The classical appearance of the Harlequin devil character with slapstick and black mask.

The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colour of Harlequin’s red-and-black mask.


 The first known appearance of a Harlequin figure is dated back to 1262, the character of a masked and hooded devil in Jeu da la Feuilliere by Adam de la Halle. It became a stock character in French passion plays. The name also appears as that of a devil, as Alichino in Dante’s ‘Inferno.’

The character in his black mask as portrayed by the Phantom in his version of  Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in the movie ‘Phantom of the Opera’ enticing the young Christine.   


So was the jester a fool or was he really a master of wit? It is no co-incidence that in a deck of playing cards, the Joker is the wild card. You never know what he will do.


But in a set of tarot cards ‘The Fool’ is at the beginning of his journey. All possibilities and seeming contradictions exist in this moment. The signs of the zodiac that he so carelessly juggles indicate both the science of the heavens and the vastness of human imagination. Which one will he end up with? Is he playing when he should be serious? Or is his play filled with wisdom? The Fool does not know, nor does he much care. He lives in the moment. The Fool’s message is one of unconventional choices. Take a leap of faith. Adopt a playful attitude in a serious situation. Take your journey, set out with courage and a light heart but be aware of carelessness and folly. Remember, there is a difference between taking a risk and ploughing headfirst into danger.

Dare I say it? Don’t play the fool!



By Cathy T

*** In ‘The Lily and the Lion’ Cécile describes her brother’s philosophy which shows his wit consistent with that of a jester.

Jean is special to us for he is not physically strong and suffers many bouts of illness, though mentally he is forged steel. At his bidding, he is known as le Bossu – the Hunchback – and I once asked him why he became his own court jester. He replied, ‘Céci, I was bound to become a laughingstock for the lump in my back and that being the case I will tumble my bells at my convenience.’ And for all that is out of place in Jean, there is quite a lot more in place and he is well liked for it.   (Page 7-8 printed version)

**** In ‘The Lily and the Lion’ Cécile is taken to a physician and he explains –

‘Very well,’ he said, ‘the first thing I would like to do is listen to her breathing. This is to ascertain whether in fact I can hear any rattling, thus indicating loose phlegm inside.’  He consented to address me directly. ‘Do you know of the four cardinal humours, Madame, the essential balance in your body of the yellow and black bile, blood and phlegm?’ I nodded as he reached for a set of odd-looking cups, funnel shaped with short necks. ‘Good. We will endeavour to learn whether or not you have an imbalance of phlegm.  (Page 408 printed version)

Ref 1.    Beatrice Otto, Fools Are Everywhere, 2001)





One thought on “The Jester – Medieval Joke or Genius?

  1. Thanks Cathy for this interesting article, I’ve learnt so much. Have you ever seen the movie Robin Hood with Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman (it came out around the same time as Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves but I think Patrick Bergin version was much better!) It has a great example of a court jester being allowed to say things that your average courtier would never get away with! Cheers

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