When I set out to review Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, I realized that though I could comment thoroughly on clothes, knights, and courtly behavior, I could not comment on whether the depiction of a court jester was truly accurate. Though jesters appear throughout medieval history, they are not staple figures of medieval literature. There exist multiple books on the subject, but the most compelling of them was Fools are Everywhere by Beatrice K. Otto.
What makes this book unique is that it deals not just with the European court jester, but with similar figures from every culture that the author can identify. Examples range from Chinese courts to the Aztecs, though the Chinese jester is particularly dear to Otto. European examples are largely from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but she draws on other periods, including the modern standup comedian, whenever possible. Otto casts her net as broadly as possible, but as the table of contents makes clear, there are a number of definitions that apply to almost all cultures and times. One aspect that I appreciate is that Otto divides her book according to different roles or ideas about jesters. For most authors, it would be natural to put “natural fools” (those with intellectual disabilities) and dwarfs in individual chapters. Otto does not do this since defining a jester depends on his function and type of performance—while physical attributes lend themselves to certain types of fooling, they do not define the type of jester.
With these divisions in mind, Otto’s work is necessary to combat the idea that physical and verbal abuse were routine for jesters and fools of any type. The chapter “Overstepping the Mark: The Limits of His License” presents depictions of some punishments for jesters who took their jokes too far, but the rest of the book demonstrates how jesters were usually cherished by those around them. This is an attitude normally absent from modern media. Otto’s numerous examples of individual jesters, whether real or fictional, helps readers to understand jesters as real people rather than archetypes.
What makes Fools are Everywhere particularly useful for scholars is the amount of untranslated text:
One filter that cannot be avoided, even if it is minimized, is that of translation, a problem that I have circumvented where possible by including the original text. Including quotations in the original also enriches the texture of the book, allowing readers to savor the evidence more directly, rather like showing the jury a photograph of the murder weapon rather than a sketch. And the visual impact of turning pages and being greeted with different languages at different stages of their evolution also reinforces the notion that the jester is at home in disparate times and places. (xvi-xvii)
For European languages and Chinese, Otto usually presents quotes in translation and in the original. A medievalist reading this book can likely engage with at least one of these languages, if not several, but the book is still quite accessible to readers who only speak English. Chinese speakers (of which I am not one) will have a fun time with the puns.
The most charming feature of Fools are Everywhere is the flip-book function. Turn the pages in particular sections, and you’re greeted by a jester juggling in the corner. This whimsical addition to a scholarly work combines humor and gravity in a fashion perfectly in keeping with the content. Scholarly works are always the most fun to read when written by someone who adores her subject.
Table of Contents
- Prologue: The Number of Fools Is Infinite
- Facets of the Fool
- The Scepter and the Bauble
- In Risu Veritas, or Many a True Word Spoken in Jest
- Overstepping the Mark: The Limits of His License
- Religion, Erudition, and Irreverence
- All the World’s a Stage
- Stultorum Plena Sunt Omnia, or Fools are Everywhere
- Epilogue: Future Fooling?
- Appendix: Table of Named Jesters
- Glossary of Chinese Characters
- List of Abbreviations
- Illustration Credits