Being a Medieval jester was no joke
A medieval jester was a juggler, confidant, scapegoat, prophet, and counselor all in one.
They came from any background : university dropout, defrocked monk, talented jongleur or a capering swineherd who’s talent spotted by a passing nobleman.
Dwarf jesters, in particular, were so popular that the practice of artificially stunting children became common to keep up with demand. According to documents from 1670, dwarfs could be artificially made by “anointing babies’ spines with the grease of bats, moles, and dormice.”
Jester was the lowliest rank of the King’s court – however, the Jester could often speak frankly to the King and even ridicule him.
Here are 10 fascinating Medieval jesters.
Roland The Farter
Henry II (1154-89) gave his court jester Roland the Farter 30 acres at Hemingstone in Suffolk in return for an annual Christmas Day jump, whistle and fart routine.
The Book of Fees refers to:
‘The following (lands), which formerly were held of Roland the Farter (Rollandi le Pettour) in Hemingston in the county of Suffolk, for which he was obliged to perform every year on the birthday of our Lord before his master the king, one jump, one whistle, and one fart (unum saltum et sifflettum et unum bumbulum)’.
Roland’s rent was unusual; a more normal rent for retired jesters was a pound of pepper or a pair of spurs.
Farting jesters go back to at least the 5th century. St Augustine was amazed by performers who could ‘produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.’
According to Dana Fradon, in King’s Fool, “In medieval days buffoonery was one of the few professions open to women”.
The most famous female jester was probably Mathurine, a seventeenth-century jester at the French court during the reigns of Henry III, Henry IV, and Louis XIII.
Her jester uniform was the best: an Amazon warrior outfit, including long flowing robes, armor, shield, and wooden sword.
During her lifetime, satirists called themselves a Mathurine, and a specific type of burlesque writing is called mathurinade after her.
She may have originated the “I’m with stupid” joke.
Lady at court : “I don’t like having a fool on my right side.”
Moving like a flash to the woman’s other side, Mathurine: “I don’t mind it at all.”
She was deeply religious. While knights dedicated their swords to God, Mathurine dedicated her Marotte, a jester’s wand, to God.
The jester was known for her bravery. She helped capture a man who tried to assassinate King Henry IV by blocking the doorway of the king’s chambers so he couldn’t escape.
Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England (1662) tells how Tarlton was recruited as jester to Elizabeth I:
Here he was in the field, keeping his Father’s Swine, when a Servant of Robert Earl of Leicester . . . was so highly pleased with his happy unhappy answers, that he brought him to Court, where he became the most famous Jester to Queen Elizabeth.
He was Queen Elizabeth’s favorite clown and could always cheer her up or, in other words, “undumpish her at his pleasure”.
Even her court favorites had to go through him to get to her – and he wasn’t afraid to say exactly what he thought of them.
Amongst his many talents, he was a fencing master and a playwright.
He had a huge influence on Elizabethan clowns. His epitaph says: he of clowns to learn still sought/ But now they learn of him they taught.
Tarlton was a member of the Queen’s Men – the premier troupe of actors in the 1580s.
The public loved him, perhaps because he of his skill in ad-libs, put-downs and impromptu battles of wits.
Thomas Nashe said Tarlton only had to poke his head through the curtain to have his audience laughing.
His image (with pipe and drum) lived on both ‘jakes’ – that is, lavatories – and ale-house signs – for decades, even centuries, after his death.
The tiny man known as “Lord Minimus” and considered one of the “wonders of the age” lived an incredible life.
Jeffrey Hudon lived in the royal court, fought in the English civil war, killed a man in an illegal duel and spent 25 years as a slave.
He was presented to King Charles I in a pie. Jeffrey arose from the crust, 18 inches (45 cm) tall and dressed in a miniature suit of armor. Queen Henrietta Maria was delighted and accepted him as an amusing gift.
Jeffrey was one of many human marvels collected by the Queen. The Welsh giant William Evans was among his housemates, as were two other dwarves.
He fought with the Royalists in the English Civil War and fled with the Queen to France.
In October 1644, Hudson challenged the brother of William Crofts to a duel. Crofts arrived at the duel brandishing a water pistol.
Bad move since Hudson fatally shot him in the forehead.
The jester was initially sentenced to death for unlawful duelling, but the Queen had this commuted to exile.
On the way back to England, he was captured by Barbary pirates and spent 25 years as a slave in North Africa before being ransomed back to England.
Most remarkable was that during his captivity he had added forty-five inches to his height!
Of course, this made him no longer a marvel, just short.
In 1676 he returned to London seeking a pension from the royal court.
His timing was again disastrous as he arrived during a period of great anti-Catholic feeling.
He was imprisoned at the Gatehouse prison for the ‘crime’ of being Roman Catholic and he was not released until 1680.
The ‘wonder of the age’ Jeffrey Hudson died only a couple of years later, a penniless pauper.
Twisty Pole, the Chinese Imperial court jester, is famous for saving thousands of lives by talking the Emperor Qin Shi Huang out of painting the Great Wall of China.
Twisty Pole is a literal translation of Yu Sze. Other well-known Chinese clowns include Moving Bucket, Immortal Revelation Ding and Newly Polished Mirror.
Thousands had already died building the Great Wall. Twisty Pole’s got the Emperor to laugh at himself and abandon the project as folly.
The jester praised the plan to coat the entire length of the Great Wall with lacquer.
To think of lacquering the wall, said Twisty Pole, was an act of genius, because all the enemies would slither and slide as they tried to climb over it.
The only problem might be building a drying-room large enough to hold the wall while the lacquer dried to the requisite sheen.
It was also Twisty Pole who suggested to Emperor Qin Shihuang that he fill a gigantic game preserve with wild animals.
If anyone dared to invade Qin, the Emperor could simply order the gazelles and deer to butt the enemy with their horns and drive them back whence they came.
The figure of Rigoletto is based on the real-life jester Triboulet (1479–1536), who suffered from microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder, and who served kings Louis XII and Francis I of France. He was deformed in appearance:
“His bowed back, his short and twisted legs, his long and hanging arms, amused the ladies, who contemplated him as if he had been a monkey or a paroquet”
According to legend, Triboulet was not well liked at court, and he was often beaten up.
Triboulet once came to the Monarch with a complaint:
Triboulet: “A noble has threatened to hang me!”
The Monarch: “Don’t worry! If he hangs you I’ll have him beheaded fifteen minutes later.”
Triboulet: “Well, would it be possible to behead him 15 minutes before?”
Another time, Triboulet couldn’t contain himself and slapped the monarch on the bum. The monarch lost his temper and threatened to execute Triboulet. A little later, the monarch calmed down a little and promised to forgive Triboulet if he could think of an apology more insulting than the offending deed.
A few seconds later, Triboulet responded: “I’m so sorry, your majesty, that I didn’t recognize you! I mistook you for the Queen!”
When Triboulet went too far in joking about the queen and courtesans, the king ordered that he should be put to death.
Francis I granted Triboulet the right to choose the way he would die.
Triboulet, with his sharp mind, said the following:
“Sir, I implore Saint Nitouche and Saint Pansard, patrons of insanity, to make me die from old age.”
Having no other choice than to laugh, the king ordered that Triboulet must not be executed, but rather instead be banished from the realm.
The revered Polish jester Stańczyk (1480–1560) was considered the most politically astute man of his era, able to predict the unfavorable turn of Polish history.
Employed by three kings, Alexander, Sigmund the Old, and Sigmund Augustus, he was a highly intelligent political philosopher who often spoke truth to power.
In the most famous portrait of Stańczyk (above), the jester is worried about the news of Russians capturing the city of Smolensk while the court parties.
The best-known anecdote about Stańczyk concerns a hunting incident:
In 1533 King Sigismund the Old had a huge bear brought for him from Lithuania. The bear was released in the forest of Niepołomice near Kraków so that the king could hunt it. During the hunt, the animal charged at the king, the queen and their courtiers which caused panic and mayhem.
Queen Bona fell from her horse which resulted in her miscarriage. Later, the king criticized Stańczyk for having run away instead of attacking the bear.
The jester replied :
“It is a greater folly to let out a bear that was already in a cage.”
This remark is often interpreted as an allusion to the king’s policy toward Prussia which was defeated by Poland but not fully incorporated into the Crown.
Celtic Irish fools and Norman fools were both expected to be warrior-comedians.
Turold and Taillefer are jesters that appear on the Bayeux Tapestry.
Turold is one of only four named minor characters in the Tapestry, so was probably a famous figure in his day – but he wasn’t the only warrior dwarf at Hastings.
At a crucial moment, his Taillefer rode out in front of the discouraged Norman army and, ‘tossing his sword high, he sported with it’.
The juggling act had its intended effect: one of the English emerged from behind the shield-wall to confront the jester, who unexpectedly killed and decapitated him.
As you can imagine, this encouraged the flagging Normans.
Incidentally, one scene on the Bayeux Tapestry says, “William comforted his troops” and shows William sticking a spear up a soldier’s backside. However, “Comforted” meant “Encourage” at the time.
William ‘Will’ Sommers (or Somers) was the best-known court jester of Henry VIII of England.
Rhyming contests where fools tried to out-insult their employers and their employer’s friends were popular.
Henry : “In younder tower, there’s a flower, that hath my heart”
Sommers : “Within this houre, she pist full sower, & let a fart”
Sommers was more than just a ribald companion.
He called the King simply Harry and was consulted on matters of state.
Thomas Cromwell appreciated that he sometimes drew the King’s attention to extravagance and waste within the royal household by means of a joke.
In the King’s later years, when he was troubled by a painful leg condition, it was said that only Sommers could lift his spirits.
However, he did occasionally overstep the mark. In 1535, the King threatened to kill Sommers with his own hand, after Sir Nicholas Carew dared him to call Queen Anne “a ribald” and Princess Elizabeth “a bastard”.
It’s worth noting that this confidant of the King still slept “among the spaniels”.
The latest country to appoint a court jester was Tonga in 1999.
His choice, Jesse Bogdonoff, was a Bank Of America employee who had been the country’s financial advisor for five years before making the transition to jesting.
As jester, he wisely recommended moving the national stock portfolio out of the stock market before the dot-com bubble burst.
However, the investment manager who took over the country’s money stole millions and falsified documents.
During the scandal, several government ministers were fired. Unfortunately, they were the ones in charge of recovering Tonga’s money, and the country’s trust fund was wiped out.
There was a nationwide backlash against Bogdonoff, and the jester settled a lawsuit in 2004 and fled the country.