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Entertainment: Fools and Jesters

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163825.  Sat Apr 07, 2007 6:54 am Reply with quote

I’m currently reading a very interesting book called “Fools and jesters at the English court” by John Southworth (Sutton, 2003), from which I shall post some qi-notes. It seems to me that a panel consisting largely of professional mirth-makers might be able to produce some fun from the history of their profession.

The term “jester” in its present usage “dates only from the Tudor period.” An early European name for the court fool is “nebulo.”

The idea of rulers being accompanied by licensed fools goes back into ancient times; perhaps “as old as kingship itself.” An important aspect of their function was that, as they were people of no rank - they were “nothings” - they could provide informal, relaxed companionship to their boss, and at the same time could tell him when he was making an arse of himself, theoretically without fear of consequences. Other than the jester, the king was surrounded entirely by people who had status at court, and who therefore - for the sake of their careers - had to be yes-men.

On the other hand, the fool’s livelihood (and perhaps life) depended on his retaining the favour of the king. Once that was withdraw, nebulo became nebulo again. That’s why the job has been described as one that “none but he that hath wit can perform, and none but he that wants wit will perform.”

163826.  Sat Apr 07, 2007 6:55 am Reply with quote

St Chrysostom defined a fool (and therefore, we might say, a comedian) as “he who gets slapped.”

163828.  Sat Apr 07, 2007 7:05 am Reply with quote

An example of jesters’ satirical role: the Second Emperor of Qin (209-207 BC) announced that he was going to lacquer the Great wall of China. All of his courtiers though this was easily the daftest idea they’d ever heard, but didn't dare say so. However, the Emperor's fool - who worked under the name of Twisty Pole - announced that in his opinion this was a magnificent scheme. Lacquer would make the wall too slippery for invaders to climb over. Great idea, he said, so let’s have a look at the practicalities: “The lacquering is easy enough, but building a drying room may present a problem or two.”

163831.  Sat Apr 07, 2007 7:06 am Reply with quote

Celtic Irish fools (riogdruth) and Norman fools (joculatoris) were both expected to be warrior-comedians - an idea we might think of reviving today: would Jupitus prefer a tank regiment or the parachute corps, do you suppose?

Who took the first blood at the battle of Hastings?

Answer: a French comedian.

(More on this to follow; Fred - do you know this story?)

164109.  Mon Apr 09, 2007 4:45 am Reply with quote

Through the ages, jesters have often been dwarves. A dwarf named Turold appears in the Bayeux Tapestry:

(He’s the one holding the horses.) Turold is “one of only four named, minor characters” in the tapestry, so Southworth thinks he must have been a famous figure in his day.

The picture in this post is sometimes here, and sometimes not; I’ve no idea why. Anyway, when it’s not here, it can be found at

Last edited by MatC on Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:42 am; edited 3 times in total

164110.  Mon Apr 09, 2007 4:50 am Reply with quote

Sometimes fools aren’t foolish enough (as producers of panel shows might confirm, perhaps): the Roman satirist Martial wrote in complaint about a recent purchase: “”He has been described as an idiot. I bought him for twenty thousand sesterces. Give me back my money, Gargilianus; he has wits.”

164114.  Mon Apr 09, 2007 4:57 am Reply with quote

The mediaeval church disapproved of jesters on a number of grounds; its main public complaint was that the large amounts wasted on such worldly entertainments should have been spent on the godly poor (via the church, obviously).

Specifically, the church damned those fools who commit sacrilege by donning a “priestly or monastic robe, or that of a nun, or any other clerical garb.” Which I imagine would cover most members of any QI panel ...

164129.  Mon Apr 09, 2007 6:15 am Reply with quote

More on the Battle of Hastings (“This just in.”) Taillefer was a Norman histrio, mimus or ioglere - a joculator, in short - who some historians say never existed. Southworth reckons he did.

On the early morning of 14 October 1066, the opposing armies faced each across the Sussex Downs.

According to the “Carmen of the Battle of Hastings,” which Southworth thinks was “possibly written as early as 1068,” the Normans hesitated before the English army: the dispositions meant that they would have to charge uphill at them, and they didn't quite fancy that. The battle hung “in ominous suspense,” says the Carmen (meaning “song”), when “a histrio, whom his most valiant soul greatly ennobled, rode out before the countless army of the duke [of Normandy]. He heartened the men of France and terrified the English, and, tossing his sword high, he sported with it.”

His sword-juggling sounds very much like the twirling which little girls do these days on the West Country carnival circuit. On the other hand, they tend not to cut peoples’ heads off much.

Modern interpretations of this juggling act are that it was intended to kick-start the fighting (in which it succeeded), by insulting the English troops; to have a cheeky little showman, of no social worth whatsoever, daring to prance in front of them playing tricks with his sword, was not to be stood for.

One of the English emerged from behind the shield-wall to take Taillefer on - and the latter killed him with a lance, then hacked off his head and showed it to his comrades. Seeing that their side had taken first blood stiffened their droopy French sinews, and they proceeded to engage the enemy.

164412.  Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:04 am Reply with quote

A “joculator regis” (name of Berdic) is listed as living in retirement in Gloucestershire in the Domesday Book. What a great job title.

164416.  Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:09 am Reply with quote

At the court of Rufus, successor to William the Conq, there was a fashion amongst the young nobles for shoes with long, tapering points like scorpions’ tails. A fool named Robert stuffed the points of his shoes with flax so that they could be curled into the form of a ram’s horn. For this, he was given the nickname of Horner or Horny.

(Link to Little Tich).

164425.  Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:18 am Reply with quote

“Minstrel” originally meant simply a minor court servant - it did not imply that the person was a musician of any kind. “Menestrel” was the 12th century word; Anglo-Norman from Latin, literally “little servant.”

These minor servants earned their place at court by multitasking; they would be domestic servants, who also did a turn. Many court entertainers were waferers - that is, people who made wafers. These were eaten with sweet wine at the conclusion of meals; having spent the day making wafers, the waferers would then do an after-dinner spot, as jugglers, comics, or whatever.

“You’ve been lovely, I’ve been Willy the Waferer. If you liked the biscuits, tell your friends. If you didn't like them, cut my head off and evict my family. Thank you and goodnight!”

164432.  Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:39 am Reply with quote

Over at the Eke-names thread, we were discussing legendary funster and king’s favourite, put your hands together for, Roland the Farter. Southworth confirms the basics - that, in exchange for his retirement acres in Suffolk, Roland was required to continue to appear at court just once a year, on Christmas Day, when he would perform “saltum, siffletum et pettum” (a leap, a whistle and a fart). Southworth points out that a more normal nominal rent for ennobled retired jesters was a pound of pepper or a pair of spurs. But I suppose the king felt it just wouldn't be Christmas without Roland, the David Jason of his day.

Farting jesters go back to at least the fifth century, when St Augustine wrote with wonder of performers who could “produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.”

Link to
post 146480

164442.  Tue Apr 10, 2007 7:50 am Reply with quote

For some, being a minstrel fool could really bring in the money - not only through pension plans, but from tips.

Edward II gave Morris Ken, who worked in the kitchens, a pound, after a stag hunt during which Ken (riding ahead of the king) “often fell from his horse, at which the king laughed exceedingly.” (Sophisticated bastard, eh?).

Mind you, the same king gave his court painter 50 shillings for dancing on a table top.

165090.  Thu Apr 12, 2007 4:58 am Reply with quote

Discussing “natural fools” - ie, those whose eccentric behaviour came from mental illness or disability - Southworth reports that madness in mediaeval times was treated with bleeding, dietary regimes and herbal remedies, but also that (at least from the 14th century) the “talking cure” was popular. Which isn't what I’d have expected, to say the least.

165099.  Thu Apr 12, 2007 5:15 am Reply with quote

But I bet the talking consisted mostly of the "Get a grip of yourself! Stop playing the fool!" variety.

There's a condition called hebephrenia ('young mind'), one of the symptoms of which is that one becomes a ceaseless joker; it's asserted that some professional comedians are basically making a living from having a mild form of this disorder.


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