Movie Review: The Court Jester

I find that old movies tend to be either very good or very bad on historical accuracy. Few are somewhere in between, but this is one of them. The Court Jester is a musical comedy starring the marvelous Danny Kaye as Hubert Hawkins, a performer who has joined with a Robin Hood-esque outlaw called the Black Fox. When the royal family is destroyed and the throne is stolen, these outlaws must try to overthrow him and restore the rightful infant ruler to the throne. Hawkins disguises himself as Giacomo the Jester to infiltrate the castle, and chaos ensues.

This movie has many problems related to historical accuracy. The king is something like an absolute ruler, the knighting ceremony is more of a checklist of stereotypical deeds, and the movie shows jousting knights being lifted onto their horses by cranes. When Sir Griswold is offended by Hawkins/Giacomo, he demands to settle the matter with a trial by ordeal, so Hawkins/Giacomo is knighted for the sole purpose of allowing him to fight Griswold. Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) is being forced into a political marriage when she longs to marry for love. Jean, the Black Fox’s lieutenant, is captured when the king orders the area’s wenches rounded up so that he can take his pick. She escapes only because one of the men ordered to inspect them is her inside contact.

However, except in costume, the movie does well in portraying the role of a jester. Though the term “jester” is not a strict category, Hawkins/Giacomo fulfills two major aspects of such a performer—entertaining songster and slapstick humorist. The Court Jester does a good job of demonstrating how a famed performer could traverse boundaries, geographical and otherwise, that would otherwise be difficult for someone who fits a strict role in the medieval class system. Though the word play is modern, it fulfills the same wit expected from a successful jester. The only scene with questionable accuracy on jester treatment is where Hawkins/Giacomo sits at the monarchs’ feet and is kicked by both the king and princess when he does not immediately sing the responses they want. While this situation is plausible, physical abuse does not seem to be usual fare for a good jester, and it is certainly inconsistent with the expected attitude towards a famous performer such as Giacomo.

I don’t find most of the movie’s problems troubling since The Court Jester is set in a fairy tale, vaguely medieval past, and audiences seldom look to musical comedy for historical information. King Roderick is merely the king of Somewhere Where Most People Have British Accents. Many plot points feature a witch’s magic and mistaken identity, not events tied to history, nor does the movie try to give a historical setting. I’m even willing to forgive the Wench Roundup because the idea is just so ridiculous and is clearly a plot device to get Jean into a pretty dress. The driving force of the storyline is Danny Kaye’s versatility and humor. The songs are cheerful and the word play is memorable:

Hawkins: I’ve got it! I’ve got it! The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
Griselda: Right. But there’s been a change: they broke the chalice from the palace!
Hawkins: They broke the chalice from the palace?
Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
Hawkins: A flagon?
Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
Griselda: Right.
Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!
Hawkins: The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Griselda: Just remember that.

Many plot points are unlike anything that would be seen in medieval literature, but are entertaining. Just before Hawkins/Giacomo puts on his armor for the joust, it gets struck by lightning and magnetized. Everything metal in the vicinity sticks to him, including his opponent. Griselda places a spell on Hawkins/Giacomo so that he will think he is either a great lover or a great swordsman when anyone snaps his fingers. You can imagine where that goes.

The Court Jester does surprisingly well on costume accuracy, at least for men. Most of the brightly-colored clothing resembles designs found in medieval art, save that the tunics are all far too short. Hawkins/Giacomo’s costume is sometimes appropriate for a medieval jester, but it is sometimes too shiny and the belled cap is an article of later performers. While the women’s dresses are not put together the way a medieval dress would be, they at least bear a resemblance to some medieval dresses and avoid the major offense of corsets. Modern viewers will appreciate that though Jean is a love interest in the story, she is intelligent and the viewer is meant to believe that she’s a more competent fighter than most men in her group. Giacomo is supposed to have come from the Italian court, so it acknowledges the cultural communication of the Middle Ages. Peasants and religion are both nonentities in this story, so it avoids making mistakes in these areas by not mentioning them at all.

I highly recommend The Court Jester, especially after grading a big stack of papers. It’s lighthearted, fluffy, and charming.

Advice for New Adjunct Professors

I’ve just finished my 2nd year working as an adjunct professor, so I thought it was time to pass on all of the advice that I wish someone had told me when I was hired.

Congratulations! You’ve been hired as an adjunct. This is an accomplishment, but if you quit your job, there are a dozen more people ready and qualified to take your place. This means that you can expect a few things:

  • Your employment contract can be discontinued at any time.
  • You may not have an opportunity for raises or benefits.
  • The classes you have can be taken from you at any moment.
  • You may be assigned to teach a new class on the day that it begins (this hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve known others who dealt with this).
  • If your college has multiple campuses, you will be expected to work at more than one campus. You will probably have to work at several in the same day.
  • You will share office space with anywhere from one to a hundred people.
  • Your job will probably not lead to full-time employment.

I don’t want to be overly negative or whiny, but I wish someone had told me these things when I started teaching. I knew that adjuncts were among the lowest-ranking university employees, but I did not anticipate being treated as a disposable employee. (I’m not implying that full-time professors and staff are treated regally—they have their own sets of issues to deal with.) Although I have never been treated poorly by any individual supervisor, the administration as a massive whole tends to give the impression that adjuncts are disposable. The trend in higher education is to hire many adjuncts instead of a fewer full-time professors so that universities don’t have to give them great wages and benefits. You can find plenty of articles about why this is a problem, but it doesn’t appear to be changing. My department consists of about 85% adjunct professors.

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Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World by Beatrice K. Otto

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

  • Acknowledgments
  • 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
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index

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.

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Piety in the Middle Ages

Disclaimer: This is not one of my most authoritative posts. The initial idea came from my early grad school notes, which is why the big ideas are marked as coming from my professors and not from books. I may not be of great use in answering questions, but if you have some, send them in and I’ll do my best. I’m never afraid to admit it when I don’t know an answer.

Hildegard von Bingen writingThe word “piety” comes up often in medieval literature classes. I’ve probably used it often on this blog. However, in my first medieval literature class, one of the first lessons my professor gave us was to be careful with how we used the word. The way we use the word in modern English was a bit different from medieval usage.

The OED cites the first use of the word “piety” in 1325. However, in this sense, the word means “feeling or showing pity,” “mercy,” or “compassion.” “Piety” in a religious sense, meaning “reverence and obedience to God,” doesn’t appear until 1500. (The OED is unclear on the origins, but says that the Anglo-Norman pieté and Middle French piété, meaning “godliness,” occurred in “mid 13th cent. or earlier.”) “Pious” as an adjective of the latter meaning didn’t occur until 1450.

According to my professors, personal piety is a rather late phenomenon, around 14th-15th C. Before then, the tradition of Classical Rome was followed with piety being a civic duty. This, my professors said, was why Socrates got in trouble—he wasn’t dealing with personal issues, but social ones. Heresy was a social problem in the Middle Ages for the same reason—religion was not considered a primarily personal affair.

I think it’s safe to say that the majority of today’s Christians consider it important to develop a proper personal relationship with God. If you were to hop in the TARDIS and ask medieval people if they had good relationships with Jesus, they would likely be confused by the question. It would take some explaining. Note that all of the above information is concerning society as a whole. You will see writings of a passionate personal religious nature from mystics, but that’s a different topic.

Julien of Norwich holding a crossConsider the type of person whom we would consider most likely to have a healthy personal relationship with God: a cloistered monk who spends his days alone save for God. Salvation of one’s soul is one’s own duty, but such a monk’s lifestyle decision would be highly motivated by the desire to protect the community’s spiritual well-being with his prayers. Likewise, a good lord should care for and protect the people that God has placed in his charge. If he fails to do so, it is not just negligence, but a sin. Proper attention to his station is not just a social duty, but a religious one. A lazy peasant is not just one who fails to do his work, but sins against his community by not performing the labor to which he is suited. (Note that for the latter two examples, I mean people who have knowingly failed to do the duties that are within their abilities and not those who are assigned duties they cannot possibly complete.)

According to my professors, the end of the 14th C is when authors begin to explore the passion of personal piety in their writings. Many were female mystics, such as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). An individual would be highly unlikely to claim the authority to establish anything new about belief or behavior. When you do see an individual doing such things, he’s dealing with community ideas, community concerns, or a reiteration of ideas which already existed.

Other Terms

The medieval vocabulary a number of related terms for which we use “piety” today:

devoted: reverential in religious exercises
Godly: observant of God’s laws
good: worthy of approbation from a religious point of view
gracious: characterized by divine grace
holiness: spiritual perfection or purity
purity: spiritually pure, sinless
right: straight or unfaltering, especially in spiritual matters
sely: spiritually blessed, enjoying the blessings of God

Made of Ƿ Does Medieval Times

Medieval Times black and white paper crown with a red carnation
Over the Memorial Day weekend, a friend took me to Medieval Times for dinner. I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, and I was not disappointed. Medieval Times is a dinner theater event; the audience eats a cutlery-free meal while watching a “tournament.” The evening included displays of horsemanship, falconry, jousting, and hand-to-hand combat. A king and princess preside over the event and answer challenges from the rude king in the north before choosing a Queen of Love and Beauty from the audience.

I didn’t bother viewing the “torture exhibit,” figuring it would irritate me too much. I wore my “medievalist” T-shirt, wondering if I was just asking for trouble by doing so (nobody cared). As a dining experience, Medieval Times did well. Our server, “Sir Ponytail of Guy,” as he called himself, was courteous and professional. The food was excellent, and I was pleased to see they served mead.

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Medieval Anachronisms, Part 4: Shoulder-Length Hair

Costumers know that women in the Middle Ages had long hair, so in film, women are usually depicted with hair that brushes their shoulders or barely reaches the shoulder blades, perhaps with the top half pulled away from the face. This appeals to a modern definition of long hair and does not represent what women’s hairstyles looked like in the Middle Ages. Google “medieval hair” and you’ll find an assortment of beautiful hairstyles more suited to fantasy films than historical ones.

Medieval women tended to wear their hair at its natural, full length. They usually cut it only during illness (or when becoming nuns). Accounting for differences in biology, nutrition, and terminal length, the average woman’s hair would probably be around hip-length. Books on the history of costume rarely mention women wearing their hair loose. However, there are quite a number of manuscripts featuring respectable women wearing their hair loose in public. This was usually a style for younger women, though unlike in later periods, I have never found written guidelines of when a woman may or may not wear her hair loose. Since that style is depicted on all types of women, from flirtatious teenagers to the Virgin Mary, it must not have commonly had stigmas associated with it. This style is never depicted on women performing labor for obvious reasons—loose hair is not practical for such jobs.

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Movie Review: Just Visiting

Just Visiting is the American remake of a French film Les visiteurs. The French version was intended for adults and will be reviewed separately. Just Visiting, though it stars the same two actors, has a relatively different plot and is intended for a much younger audience. In this film, Thibault, a 12th century French lord, is sucked into the 21st century through an accident of magic. His servant, Andre le Pate, is sucked along with him. He is found by one of his descendants, who is in negotiations to sell the family property in France, which will earn her sleazy fiancé great big wodges of cash that he will then steal and ditch her. As the relationship between Thibault and Julia develops, he helps her find the courage to defenestrate the scumbag and take control of her life.

Could the historical accuracy of this movie be any worse? It makes some of the worst offenses. We’ll start with Andre the peasant. He sits on the floor eating scraps of food that his master throws to him because this is how it “ought to be,” he is told to run beside his master’s mode of transportation, and it is clearly stated that Andre is property with no value.

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Movie Review: The Secret of Kells

I can’t think of a better movie than The Secret of Kells to show medievalists on St. Patrick’s Day (or to show wee medievalists-to-be at any point in the year). This movie is a fairy tale about the making of the Book of Kells. One need not know anything about the Book of Kells to enjoy the film, though some background will make it more enjoyable.

The Plot

poster for The Secret of KellsBrendan is an orphaned child growing up in the care of his uncle, Abbot Cellach, in the monastery at Kells. When Brother Aidan of Iona arrives with his cat Pangur Bán and the famed Book of Iona that he saved from Viking destruction, he apprentices the enthusiastic Brendan in the scriptorium. Abbot Cellach, distracted to obsession by immanent Viking invasion, has forbidden Brendan to leave the monastery, but Brendan makes two journeys into the surrounding forest. The first is to retrieve ink ingredients. The second is to find the famed eye of Crom Cruach which will enhance his vision, allowing for masterful illumination fitting for the Chi-Rho page. On both journeys, Brendan is aided by Aisling, the “fairy” who guards the forest. Kells is eventually sacked by Vikings, but Brendan saves the book, finishes his masterpiece, and helps Abbot Cellach remember what is truly important in his life.

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Movie Review: Merlin (Sam Neill)

Of all King Arthur-related movies, Merlin is my favorite. It bears little resemblance to a single familiar Arthurian story, but it has enough references to satisfy me while maintaining a coherent storyline, something few Arthurian movies manage. In this version, Merlin (Sam Neill) is a man created by Queen Mab of the Sidhe to save magic, which is waning in the world as Christianity spreads. Queen Mab fades as people cease to worship her. Merlin is not interested in his duty to save magic, however, and instead concerns himself with two things: his love for Nimue and protecting King Arthur from his terrible fate.

Merlin features some pieces from Arthurian myth that rarely appear in movies. The war against Vortigern is an early part of the myths that did not remain popular even in many medieval works, so I was delighted to see it here. This is also the only film I have found featuring Sir Gawain as a named character, if a minor one. King Lot initially decides to declare war against Arthur, but Gawain sides with Arthur against his father, a point of character development for that young man which leads to a touching reunion later. This storyline appears as part of Gawain’s youth in the Suite du Merlin, and I’m not sure if it was included here with purposeful reference to that text or if it was simply a convenient invention by the scriptwriters. I can think of no Arthurian myth featuring Queen Mab. However, she fits naturally into this storyline with a splendidly raspy performance by Miranda Richardson. Her gnomish shape-changing henchman, Frik, is played by Martin Short. Those two are the most delightful part of the film.

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