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A jester, or fool was both a historical person employed to entertain a ruler in medieval times and is a modern entertainer who performs at mostly medieval themed events. Jesters in medieval times are often thought to have worn brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats in a motley pattern and their modern counterparts usually mimic this costume. As performers jesters have used storytelling, acrobatics, music, juggling and other skills to entertain their audiences.
The Royal Shakespeare Company provides historical context for the role of the fool:
In ancient times courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass's (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.
One may conceptualize fools in two camps: those of the natural fool type and those of the licensed fool type. Whereas the natural fool was seen as innately nit-witted, moronic, or mad, the licensed fool was given leeway by permission of the court. In other words, both were excused, to some extent, for their behavior, the first because he "couldn't help it," and the second by decree.
Distinction was made between fools and clowns, or country bumpkins. The fool's status was one of privilege within a royal or noble household. His folly could be regarded as the raving of a madman but was often deemed to be divinely inspired. The 'natural' fool was touched by God. Much to Gonerill's annoyance, Lear's 'all-licensed' Fool enjoys a privileged status. His characteristic idiom suggests he is a 'natural' fool, not an artificial one, though his perceptiveness and wit show that he is far from being an idiot, however 'touched' he might be.
Scholar David Carlyon has cast doubt on the "daring political jester", calling historical tales "apocryphal", and concluding that "popular culture embraces a sentimental image of the clown; writers reproduce that sentimentality in the jester, and academics in the Trickster," but it "falters as analysis."
Jesters could also give bad news to the King that no one else would dare deliver. The best example of this is in 1340, when the French fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Sluys by the English. Phillippe VI's jester told him the English sailors "don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French."
Early jesters were popular in Ancient Egypt, and entertained Egyptian pharaohs. Jesters were popular with the Aztec people in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.
English royal court jesters
Many courts throughout English royal history employed entertainers and most had professional fools, sometimes called licensed fools. Entertainment included music, juggling, clowning, and the telling of riddles. Henry VIII of England employed a jester named Will Sommers.
During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I of England, William Shakespeare wrote his plays and performed with his theatre company the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later called the King's Men). Clowns and jesters were featured in Shakespeare's plays, and the company's expert on jesting was Robert Armin, author of the book Fooled upon Foole. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Feste the jester is described as "wise enough to play the fool."
James VI of Scotland was originally very lazy about reading things before signing them. His jester, George Buchanan (1506–82) tricked him into abdicating in favour of George for fifteen days. James got the point.
King James also employed a jester called Archibald Armstrong. During his lifetime Armstrong was given great honours at court. He was eventually thrown out of the King's employment when he over-reached himself and insulted too many influential people. Even after his disgrace, books telling of his jests were sold in London streets. He held some influence at court still in the reign of Charles I and estates of land in Ireland. Charles later employed a jester called Jeffrey Hudson who was very popular and loyal. Jeffrey Hudson had the title of Royal Dwarf because he was short of stature. One of his jests was to be presented hidden in a giant pie from which he would leap out. Hudson fought on the Royalist side in the English Civil War. A third jester associated with Charles I was called Muckle John.
17th-century engraving of Will Sommers, Henry VIII's jester
End of tradition
The tradition of court jesters came to an end in Britain when Charles I was overthrown in the Civil War. As a Puritan Christian republic, England under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had no place for such things as jesters. English theatre also suffered and a good many actors and entertainers relocated to Ireland where things were little better (see Irish theatre).
After the Restoration, Charles II did not reinstate the tradition of the court jester, but he did greatly patronize the theatre and proto-music hall entertainments, especially favouring the work of Thomas Killigrew. Though Killigrew was not officially a jester, Samuel Pepys in his famous diary does call Killigrew "The King's fool and jester, with the power to mock and revile even the most prominent without penalty" (12 February 1668). The last British nobles to keep jesters were the Queen Mother's family, the Bowes-Lyons.
In the 18th century, jesters had died out except in Russia, Spain and Germany.
In France and Italy, travelling groups of jesters performed plays featuring stylized characters in a form of theatre called the commedia dell'arte. A version of this passed into British folk tradition in the form of a puppet show Punch and Judy. In France the tradition of the court jester ended with the French Revolution.
In years as late as 1968, however, the Canada Council awarded a $3,500 grant to Joachim Foikis of Vancouver "to revive the ancient and time-honoured tradition of town fool".
Poland's most famous court jester was Stańczyk, whose jokes were usually related to political matters, and who later became a historical symbol for Poles.
In the 21st century, the jester is still seen at medieval-style fayres and pageants.
In 2004 English Heritage appointed Nigel Roder ("Kester the Jester") as the State Jester for England, the first since Muckle John 355 years previously. However following an objection by the National Guild of Jesters, English Heritage accepted they were not authorised to grant such a title. Roder was succeeded as "Heritage Jester" by Pete Cooper ("Peterkin the Fool").
In Germany, Till Eulenspiegel is a folkloric hero dating back to medieval times and ruling each year over Fasching or Carnival time, mocking politicians and public figures of power and authority with political satire like a modern day court jester. He holds a mirror to make us aware of our times (Zeitgeist), and his sceptre or marotte is the symbol of his absolute and supreme rule.
In 17th century Spain Dwarves, often with other deformities, were employed as buffoons to entertain the king and his family especially the children. In Velázquez's painting Las Meninas two dwarves are included: Mari Bárbola a female dwarf from Germany with hydrocephalus, and Nicolasito Portusato from Italy. Mari Bárbola can also be seen in a later portrait of princess Margarita Teresa in mourning by Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo. There are other paintings by Velázquez which include court dwarves such as Prince Balthasar Charles With a Dwarf.
Tonga was the first royal court to appoint a court jester in modern times; Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, the King of Tonga, appointed JD Bogdanoff to that role in 1999. He was later embroiled in a financial scandal.
The jester as a symbol
The root of the word "fool" is from the Latin follis, which means "bag of wind" or that which contains air or breath.
 Fool in TarotIn Tarot, "The Fool" is the first card of the Major Arcana. The tarot depiction of the Fool includes a man (or less often, a woman) juggling unconcernedly or otherwise distracted, with a dog (sometimes cat) at his heels. The fool is in the act of unknowingly walking off the edge of a cliff, precipice or other high place. Another Tarot character is Death. In the Middle Ages, Death is often shown in Jester's garb because "The last laugh is reserved for death." Also, Death humbles everyone just as jesters make fun of everyone regardless of standing.
Fool in literatureIn literature, the jester is symbolic of common sense and of honesty, notably in King Lear, the court jester is a character used for insight and advice on the part of the monarch, taking advantage of his license to mock and speak freely to dispense frank observations and highlight the folly of his monarch. This presents a clashing irony as a "greater" man could dispense the same advice and find himself being detained in the dungeons or even executed. Only as the lowliest member of the court can the jester be the monarch's most useful adviser.
Author Alan Gordon also writes about jesters as advisers to the king, who actually make up a super-secret spy ring that try to keep peace and control the leaders of different countries. The Fool's Guild of these novels is portrayed as a mockery to the church, and they refer to Jesus Christ as "Their Savior, The First Fool.
Historical JestersStańczyk (c. 1480–1560), Polish jester
William Sommers (died 1560), jester of Henry VIII of England
Chicot (c. 1540–1591), jester of Henry III of France
Archibald Armstrong (died 1672), jester of James VI of England
Jeffrey Hudson (1619–c. 1682), "court dwarf" of Henrietta Maria of France
Jesters might come from any walk of life, but often were young members of poor rural families who were known as the "class clowns" in their community. The king or members of his court might stumble across these funny guys in their travels and recruit them to work for the king. Sometimes a future jester, with his nonsensical ways, was a burden to his family, who gladly sent him off to live in the royal palace. Some were women, some were recruited as children, and some were dwarfs or hunchbacks--people with physical anomalies that added to their "humorous" appearance.
Often, jesters had acting or musical skills, and sometimes they were also trained in gymnastics. They wore colorful costumes and entertained royalty by dancing, juggling, singing, and performing acrobatics. Their bottom line was always humor. Jesters would do anything, and were allowed to do anything, to make their monarchs laugh.
Jesters were sometimes trusted confidants of the king. While others in the court fawned over the king and flattered him, the jester was encouraged to speak the truth. Because of the jester's lower social status, he would not pose a threat to the king's power. And because he was not part of the political intrigue of the court--and was considered a fool--a king might feel it was safe to confide in a jester.
Because most jesters came from the common people rather than from royalty, they often were sympathetic to the plight of the king's subjects. Through using wit, jesters were sometimes able to persuade a king to take actions to help his subjects. This gave some jesters the status of folk heroes in their local communities.
Some jesters were "household names" in their day, the equivalent of popular TV comedians. Their jokes would be shared and repeated around the kingdom. They lived in the luxury of the palace, dining with the king and frequently receiving gifts from the queen or visiting dignitaries. But their lives could also be perilous. Jesters were allowed to insult royalty as part of their acts, but had to tread a careful line. Although many kings were fiercely loyal to their jesters, occasionally jesters were banished, or even executed, for crossing the line and offending the king with their jibes.