Medieval Anachronisms, Part 5: The Court Jester as the Seat of Wisdom

jester in green tunic with yellow hood and yellow/purple hoseThe “court jester” is a staple of modern ideas of the Middle Ages. He dresses in gaudy multicolored clothing with bells on his shoes, collar, and hat. He tells jokes and sings songs to an often abusive aristocracy. In literature, he is a “wise fool,” the only character with any intelligence. He can go anywhere and do anything, for his primary role is to taunt the king. Such a character often embodies modern sensibilities used to critique the Middle Ages; therefore, in any time travel story, the main character is sure to end up a jester at some point. However, these depictions usually don’t resemble the historical roles of jesters.

David Carlyon defines this idea of the trickster we love so much as the “clown who challenges power.” [1] He laments that the idea of the hero-trickster has become too vague and generalized as we stray from the character’s origins so that “any action that seems contrary to authority fits this hazy model….” [2] There are so many wise or heroic jesters in media that one can easily lose track of a jester’s original purpose—entertainment.

Carlyon cites Ivanhoe as one of the major sources of the hero-trickster jester, along with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Works such as these crafted the idea that the jester, “comic sidekick in that era’s medieval mania, was imagined saying to the king what no one else dared say.” [3] This should be our first hint that the modern perception of a jester may not fit history—this figure works best when the king is an absolute monarch. Carlyon also gives a perfect example of why the jester, as a person whose purpose is to speak hidden truths or taunt authority figures, simply wouldn’t work:

…have any leaders, outside fiction, tolerated associates who mocked them? Did Clinton’s White House include an official in charge of ridiculing the President’s libido…? Can academics envision a department chair chuckling happily as a professor in a squirting tie runs into a faculty meeting to jeer about the way the chair runs the department? Yet if we can’t conceive of it in our own time, why do we believe that the autocratic power a few centuries ago, in the form of a medieval monarch, would allow mockery simply because it came dressed in a motley costume? [4]

Carlyon continues to say that a popular circus clown, William F. Wallett, fashioned his career to mimic this ideal trickster. His autobiography helped to solidify this image of an educated, witty, daring professional. [5] Wallett cited 3 historical examples of hero-jesters, but two are postmedieval and none of his stories could be backed up with anything but folklore. [6]

So, history does not resemble literature. This is not a surprise. Now, we must track down what an entertainer would have been doing during the Middle Ages.

The Goliards

wheel of fortune as depicted in the Carmina BuranaThe OED defines “goliard” as “One of the class of educated jesters, buffoons, and authors of loose or satirical Latin verse, who flourished chiefly in the 12th and 13th c. in Germany, France, and England.” [7] My first medieval lit professor defined “goliard” as “unemployed MA students who wrote dirty poems because they liked causing trouble.” Wikipedia [8] defines them as a group of clergy who wrote satirical poems, but it must be remembered that “clergy” includes clerical positions that would not lead to ecclesiastical roles—we probably aren’t talking about priests.

Much goliardic poetry satirizes the Church, and goliards often had to be restrained from shouting silly responses during Mass. Many goliardic poems are also about the baser pleasures in life—drinking and sex. Since goliards were educated people, they used formal structures in their poetry, often writing in Latin and mimicking the language of formal philosophy or theology. The Carmina Burana is the most well-known collection containing goliardic poetry, including the famous Confession of Golias. A goliard would never be hired to perform at a court function, but this contributes to the satirical nature of the jester.

The Minstrel

I’m using the term “minstrel” to mean a professional poet/musician. This type of role had a number of different names depending on time, place, type of music, and travel, but I’m going to speak in a general sense. Minstrels performed music, usually accompanied by simple instruments. Their songs were often histories or romances, and much Arthurian literature was written in this genre. Minstrels could perform poems written to commemorate a certain occasion or to praise a certain person. Minstrel poetry was far less likely to be satirical or to use language of formal philosophy than goliardic poetry, and it was often written in the vernacular. It could have its share of sexual innuendos, but was far less bawdy than goliardic poetry; it preferred courtly love to sex and drinking. The terms used for minstrels varied depending on time, place, and function:

skald: an ancient Scandinavian poet; poems were usually historical
scop: same role as a skald, but this term refers specifically to Old English literature
bard: a Celtic poet whose primary function was to write poetry for history, tradition, genealogies, laws, religious precepts, or to commemorate chiefs and warriors
gleeman: a minstrel who travelled consistently and was not hired to perform in court
troubadour: a minstrel who sang courtly poetry in Provençal between the 11th and 13th centuries; sometimes included travelling musicians
jongleur: Norman French term used by modern writers for a gleeman
minstrel: a person who entertained by singing and storytelling [9]

The Licensed Fool

jester in red and yellow holding glasses and smiling at the viewer with his left hand on his faceNone of the above terms were narrow definitions. “Gleeman,” “jongleur,” and “minstrel” overlap greatly and are often synonymous with the “licensed fool.” The “licensed fool,” or “artificial fool,” was usually called simply a “fool” or a “clown.” Beatrice K. Otto, a great authority on jesters throughout the world, suggest that what separated the clown from the minstrel was not his ability to perform, but his “inherent disposition.” [10] A clown sometimes performed music or storytelling, but in this sense, his performances included riddles, juggling, acrobatics, magic tricks, or slapstick routines. His mannerisms often simulated madness, but he was also skilled at various forms of entertainment. “Jester” is an appropriate term, but was rarely used in the Middle Ages.

Otto might disagree with Carlyon’s argument that the “wise fool” is unrealistic since her work gives numerous examples of real jesters as the only people who could tell the king the truth he didn’t want to hear. However, her book contextualizes the information. Speaking the truth was not a jester’s primary role—in fact, it’s probably a role he realized only rarely. This license to speak freely for “natural fools” (next section) comes from their childlike innocence; for licensed fools, it comes from the king’s closeness and trust. The jester must make careful choices when he decides he must interfere in this manner. When these examples are presented in succession and mixed with post-medieval examples, it can give the impression that jesters were the only ones who could speak freely. When considering the course of a jester’s service, this would be a role used sparingly, if at all. Otto claims that the jester’s “principal hallmark” was his ability to speak freely, but she frames this as “the good friend who tells you what you may not want to hear,” not the revolutionary. [11]

I notice more wise fools than realistic jesters in modern media. Misconceptions often include the idea that abuse was a common form of entertainment, so in order to make up for the perceived abuses of the past, we sometimes portray characters in positions of servitude as the wittiest of all. Sitcom butlers are prime examples. As much as I adore Shakespeare’s Feste, one reason I loved Tim Burton’s Mad Hatter was because he was not a wise fool—he was just mad.

The Natural Fool

A “natural fool” is someone who, in modern terms, would be considered to have an intellectual disability. A “natural” would often be brought into a wealthy household where his innocent nature would delight those around him. I haven’t found documentation on exactly why “naturals” were considered entertaining, but I expect that it’s a similar joy many feel in being around children.

The family of a “natural fool” would often be well-compensated for its departing member. Otto suggests that this transaction had a strong charitable element, as caring for such a person would be difficult for a poor family, and that “there is little to suggest that this was not done in a humane and kindly manner.” [12] Household accounts record fine clothing and furnishings. [13] Modern depictions often show “naturals” being beaten for entertainment, but I see nothing in my research to suggest this was an actual practice. Medieval medical texts emphasized that those with intellectual disabilities were treated in the same way as children, so one would no more abuse them than one would children. [14]

The Jester’s Legacy

The jester bears a varied and interesting history. The fool’s past is filled with just as much legend as fact, and this is one medieval character often looked on with favor. For more on this topic, I highly recommend Beatrice K. Otto’s Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World (review coming in 2 weeks). The idea that jesters were the only one who could speak the truth to the king (and the only ones who did so) is probably one of the less troubling pieces of misused information that appears in media. We will enjoy them no less with a historical grounding, and some of the medieval jester legends are just as much fun as modern ones.

  1. Carlyon, D. “The Trickster as Academic Comfort Food.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 25, no. 1/2 (Spring2002 2002): 14.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 15.
  5. Ibid., 14.
  6. Ibid., 15.
  7. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “goliard.”
  8. Let’s face it; if you’re a student, you’ll end up here at some point. Wikipedia has some good information. It’s okay.
  9. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “skald,” “scop,” “bard,” “gleeman,” “troubadour,” “jongleur,” “minstrel.”
  10. Otto, Beatrice K. “Fools are Everywhere.” History Today 51, no. 6 (June 2001): 33.
  11. Ibid. It seems this definition also refers to the general idea of a jester, not to the jester at a specific historical point.
  12. Otto, Beatrice K, Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1996) 5.
  13. Ibid., 64.
  14. Obviously, some children were abused, and some “natural fools” were abused. Note the difference between how good people would behave in such matters and how bad people would behave in such matters. The Middle Ages shared our humanitarian standards in these matters, but of course, not everyone will follow them.


Medieval Anachronisms, Part 5: The Court Jester as the Seat of Wisdom — 3 Comments

  1. This was a great post, very informative. The Goliards were a rowdy bunch – Helen Waddell wrote a fine work of scholarship called _The Wandering Scholars_. I think it’s essential reading for anyone interested in the more scandalous side of medieval latin.