Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World

One of the world’s oldest historical figures—the court jester—was researched and explained by Beatrice K. Otto in this fascinating cross cultural study Fools Are Everywhere. She concludes that the court jester was a universal phenomenon appearing across time and place as jesters were examined in Europe, China, India, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Otto stated her thesis: “I argue that [the jester] is very much a universal character, more or less interchangeable regardless of the time or culture in which he happens to cavort—the same techniques, the same functions, the same license” (p. xvi). The jester pokes “jest” or fun at important political figures such as kings and emperors, allowing them to laugh at themselves and be humanized thereby. The jester offers a monarch a salable commodity—laughter, entertainment, wit, and insight—that eases political tensions at court and allows the ruler to see himself as the poor, downtrodden, and often disadvantaged individuals view him. For the services of the jester, often the monarch was prepared to pay handsomely with honors, gifts, titles, lands, and positions of influence.

A unique aspect of this study was that it compared jesters in great detail both Europe and China, and Otto commented that she had been awestruck at the similarities between jesters in China and those better known in Europe. In China the magisterial aloof emperor was often chided, mocked, or ridiculed by a jester figure just as were the rulers of Europe. Often the sparkling wit of the jester appealed to the common need throughout history to humanize power. “The evidence,” writes Otto, “points to his having existed across the globe and across history, in most of the major civilizations of the world and many of the minor ones” (p. xvii). The enduring social need for humor was found in all cultures across time. The jester was a symbol of “physical and verbal dexterity and of freedom from convention” (p. xviii) and might wear a foolscap with bells in Europe or be dressed as a scholar-sage in China. But the legacy of every jester was to provide pointed advice and shrewd wit to rulers. Numerous sources illustrate that the jester figure played a strong role in the Chinese court. Wang Guowei’s Records of Jesters’ Words (Youyu Lu), Ren Erbei’s The Collected Sayings of Jesters and Actors (Youyu ji), and most significantly Sima Qian’s (about 145–86 B.C.) Historical Records reveal the very real presence of a long tradition of jesters within the Chinese court from earliest times. All Chinese formal dynastic histories include the biographies of famed Chinese jesters such as Dongfang, the principal jester to the Han Emperor Wu Di (r.140 – 87 B.C.). In the Chinese tradition, the jester, like his European counterpart, was to keep his ruler from folly. All jesters used humor to point out shortcomings or limitations in judgment of the ruler, before the ruler could make a mistake. Humorous jokes kept the ruler from uppitiness or errors of judgment costly to the realm. Circumstances are humanized by the court jester to allow the ruler to see things as they really are and jesters fended off misapprehension, miscues, and misquotes and prohibited cultural misunderstanding. The jester was often called upon to be a global player, acting as diplomat or ambassador because of their charm, gaiety, and sound judgment. He was often used as a translator between cultures, people, habits, and institutions because he was viewed as highly intelligent and held the gift of prophecy. Viewed at court often as the king’s right-hand man, the jester’s bauble was sometimes equated to the ruler’s scepter. “Jesters in China, Europe, the Middle East, and India aimed their humorous arrows at the same targets—religion, self-important scholars, venal officials and nobles, and erring, corrupt, or lazy rulers, together with anything deemed sacrosanct” (p. xxiii). The role of the court jester might be equated with a morality play or humorous version thereof as the point of the jesters’ remarks are to inform, reform, or inspire through love rather than fear. Because of their “positive tactics” and antics their guidance would appear to be beneficial and helpful rather than Machiavellian. Because many of the jesters became well loved in the sense of appreciated they earned reputations of mythological proportions, garnering legendary status.

Some of the great fools or jesters were You Meng, jester to King Zhuangwang of Chu (r.613–591 B.C.); You Zhan, known as “Twisty Pole,” court jester for the Qin dynasty (221–207 B.C.); the Persian jester Abu Bakr-e Robadi in the court of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (r.998–1030); the Song dynasty jester Ding Xianxian, “Immortal Revelation Ding,” in the court of Emperor Huizong (r.1101–1125); Nasru-din, who served Tamerlane (1336–1405); Claus Narr, a German jester who served four German Saxon electors beginning with Elector Ernst (d.1486); Birbal, who served Mogul Emperor Akbar in India; Andre-lini in France, who served Louis XII (r.1498–1515) as his fou du roi; Tenali Rama, who served King Krishnadevaraya (r.1509–1529); Watt “the fole,” who served Henry VII (r. 1485–1509); the jester Sorori, who served Hideyoshi (r.1536–1598) of Japan; Tarlton, who served Queen Elizabeth I of England; Archie Armstrong, a Scot who served as jester for James I of England, and his contemporary, Claus Hinbe (d. 1599), jester to Duke Johann Friedrich of Pomerania (d.1600); Jamie Fleeman (1713–1778), Scottish jester to the Laird of Udny; and Nai Teh, who served in the court of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851–1868). Almost all jesters were men. Women were rare in this profession, but a famed jestress named La Jardiniere served Mary Queen of Scots (r.1542–1567).

Author Beatrice K. Otto used careful translations from ancient to modern texts and researched whenever possible in the language of the culture examined. She used language experts to explain the etymological chain of evolving words to describe the role of the jester and his function. From the Chinese texts it is clear that the term for jester had a wider meaning, similar to actor or entertainer. It is clear from the Latin texts that the medieval jesters had their antecedents in the Roman comics and that the word “jester,” associated with “jest,” evolved from earlier Latin comics of various names—”scurrae,” “mimi,” or “histriones”—and varied functions that entertained. In Scandinavia typically the jester evolved from the early skalds, or the Anglo-Saxon bards, and other itinerant entertainers. In Russia the term “skomorokhi” included jesters often associated with the tradition of the poets of the Kiev court known as gusliari. European jesters evolved from the tradition of the joculatores or individuals who told “jokes” and “who sing the deeds of princes and the lives of saints and give people comfort either when they are ill or when they are troubled.” Further, the French term “jongleurs” referred to individuals who “chanted or sang tales of heroic exploits (chansons de geste), short, mocking verse narratives fabliaux), and stories of the lives of saints” (p.11). It appears that the jester everywhere, however, was much more privileged than a simple entertainer and was readily admitted to the inner circle of the ruler’s court.

One became a jester based on merit and ability, and recruitment was informal. The typical characteristics of jesters are that they are clever, roguish, libertine, irreverent, mocking, witty, critics, and goads to the powerful and the would-be wise. Some of the best European sources, especially on German jesters, are Karl Flogel’s Geschichte der Hofnarren (1789) and Enid Welsford’s The Fool: His Social and Literary History (1935). In some of the early cultures jesters were associated with music and in other cultures they were associated with literary arts such as poetry and rhymes. Deformity among jesters was common, perhaps because dwarfs, hunchbacks, or cripples did not seem to incur the wrath or jealously of the masters they served. A dwarf with a mind nimble enough to become a jester freed himself from scorn and pity. Dwarfism had been associated in ancient times with the ability to “ward off the evil eye” (p.31). Amulets illustrating pictures of dwarves as protection against evil were worn in both the Egyptian and Roman cultures. Further, dwarves in numerous cultures were believed to hold the gift and power of prophecy, which deemed their services invaluable. Thus, because of these cultural views about the jester, he was often a powerful force for good. The jester, as the ruler’s confidante of high social and political standing, was given access and certainly freedom of speech to make forthrightness a virtue.

On a higher level of performance, sometimes a court jester might be used in a diplomatic or ambassadorial role because of his social graces, wit, and charm. James I of England employed his jester, Archy Armstrong, to negotiate a marriage contract between his son Charles and the Spanish infanta Maria. Armstrong was invaluable for learning the Spanish court’s secrets and intentions regarding England. The jester also bridged the gap vertically within his own society as he often told the king “the mind of the people.” The best jesters were well rewarded for their services and retired with pensions and lands, as Archy Armstrong was pensioned in1617 and given “freedom of the city” of Aberdeen. The role of the court jester is of course to be loyal to the point of standing by the king in peril. The jester of King Jean II of France (r.1350–1364), captured at the Battle of Poitiers in1356, accompanied his master to a temporary prison. For their advice and loyalty jesters received honors, titles, gifts, and grand tombs; had portraits painted; and died well respected and thought after. The jester saw himself as an ethical force for good in a potentially evil world. He never intentionally offended—to do so could risk death, and hence he was careful not to overdo ridicule to cause shame or humiliation. His barbs and comic wit were used to educate and heal with laughter, a tradition that persists to this day among the best minds of the world.