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Court jester
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Court jester

A jester is a specific type of clown mostly associated with the Middle Ages. They typically wore brightly colored clothing in a motley pattern. Their hats were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points, each of which had a jingle bell at the end. The three points of the hat represent the asses' ears and tail worn by jesters in earlier times. Other things distinctive about the jester were his incessant laugher and his mock scepter.

The Art of the Jester

The court jester was often summoned to try to lift the monarch out of an angry or melancholy mood. Medieval medicine considered human health to be largely governed by The four humours: Sanguine, meaning an increased amount of blood in the system, Melancholia, an increased amount of black bile, Choleric, an increased amount of yellow bile and Phlegmatic, meaning an increased amount of phlegm. The balance or imbalance of the humours was believed to produce four distinct emotional states which could be re-balanced either by the doctor's craft (which, in those days, was largely alchemy-based) or by the court entertainers which included the Fool or Jester. Although these alchemical theories of human mind-body-spirit relationship fell into disrepute after the renaissance these ideas have been re-examined in more recent times by psychologist Carl Jung and the idea that laughter aids recovery given more credence. In the US The Gesundheit! Institute established by Patch Adams attempts to make good use of clowning and laughter as medicine.

The History of Jesters

Although the origins of the jester are probably in prehistoric tribal society jesters are mainly thought of in association with the Middle Ages.

All jesters and fools, in those days, were thought of as special cases where God had touched the fool with a childlike madness, perhaps a gift or a curse. Mentally handicapped people sometimes found employment by capering and behaving in an amusing way. In the harsh world of medieval Europe people who might not be able to survive any other way thus found a social niche.

In the Islamic world Sufi mystics tell tales of Mulla Nasrudin, the legendary 14th century mystic jester of Tamerlane.

All royal courts in those days employed entertainers and all had professional fools of various types. Entertainment included early music, juggling, clowning, and the telling of riddles. King Henry the Eighth of England employed a jester named Will Somers.

During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth the First and King James the First of England (James the 6th of Scotland) William Shakespeare wrote his plays and performed with his theatre company "The Lord Chancellor's Men" (later called "The King's Men"). The company's expert on Jesting was Robert Armin, author of the book "Foole upon Foole".

King James employed a famous 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 were sold in London streets of his jests. He held some influence at court still in the Reign of Charles the First and estates of land in Ireland.

Charles the First employed a jester called Jeffrey Hudson who was very popular and loyal. Hudson fought on the Royalist side in the English Civil War.

The tradition of Court Jesters came to an end in Britain when Charles the First was overthrown in the Civil War. As a fundamentalist Christian republic, England under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had no place for such fripperies as jesters. English theatre also suffered and a good many actors and entertainers relocated to Ireland (See Irish theatre).

After the Restoration King Charles the Second didn't reinstate the tradition of the Court Jester but he did greatly patronise the theatre and proto-music hall style entertainments, especially favouring the work of Thomas Killigrew. In modern times the British Royal Family have called upon comedians, singers and other entertainers to perform once a year at a Command Performance in the London Palladium theatre.

In France and Italy travelling groups of jesters performed plays featuring stylised characters. These were 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 the 20th century Charles, Prince of Wales of Britain is known to have had a great liking for the comedy of The Goons, a BBC Radio Comedy show.

In the 21st century the jester is a character beloved of all with a passion for historical drama and the cap'n'bells will often be seen worn by participants in medieval style fayres and pageants.

The Jester as a symbol

The joker (playing card) often shows a court jester. The original version is The Fool card (Number Zero) in the Tarot pack. He is a symbol of innocence but also, when in a negative context, of ignorance.

See also: Rigoletto (opera), The Yeomen of the Guard, King Lear, Royal Command Performance.


Welsford, Enid: The Fool : His Social and Literary History (Out of Print) (1935 + subsequent reprints): ISBN 1299142745

External links

Jester also refers to a chess engine. See Jester (chess).