Fools Are Everywhere jacket image

"Mention a court jester, and one pictures a whimsical creature in a belled hat or, perhaps, the ill-fated character in King Lear. Otto's lively, well-researched text proves that there are centuries of other examples and that the jester has a rich tradition worldwide. . . . Through anecdotes, historical details, analyses, and commentary, Otto brilliantly delineates the court jester, and quotations and illustrations do much to enhance this eminently readable text. . . . Well worth a look by avid readers with an eye for an informative yet uncommon title."
Library Journal

"[A] lively survey of the state-sponsored mischief maker and his irrepressible, life-giving spirit. . . . In her richly detailed chapters (and an appendix listing 334 named fools in the historical record), Otto makes a vigorous case for the jester's ubiquity—from the ancient Chinese court to the Elizabethan stage to the modern corporate suite—and for the consistency of his characteristics: attachment to a particular ruler; physical or mental deformity (real or pretended); concern for the general welfare of the people; and the freedom to alert isolated kings, emperors, sultans, even popes of their 'moral halitosis.'"
—Jennifer Schuessler, Lingua Franca

"Sparkling with enthusiasm and wit, the text is sustained with Otto's love of her subject and informed by both her erudition and her very good sense of humor. Undaunted by the vastness of her subject and its resources, she presents a dazzling and entertaining collection of quotes, anecdotes, epigraphs, jokes, and comic texts. This is a fun book, bristling with pleasurable details."
—Lee Siegel, author of Love in a Dead Language



An excerpt from
Fools Are Everywhere
The Court Jester Around the World
Beatrice K. Otto

Read an interview with the author.

Fooling Around the World:
The History of the Jester

(from Chapter 1: Facets of the Fool and Chapter 7: Stultorum Plena Sunt Omnia, or Fools Are Everywhere)


"Who Is Not a Fool?" ["Qui non stultus?"]
—Horace (65-8 B.C.), Satires, 2.3.158

Then come jesters, musicians and trained dwarfs,
And singing girls from the land of Ti-ti,
To delight the ear and eye
And bring mirth to the mind.
—Sima Xiangru (ca. 179-117 B.C.), Rhapsody on the Shanglin Park

The jester is an elusive character. The European words used to denote him can now seem as nebulous as they are numerous, reflecting the mercurial man behind them: fool, buffoon, clown, jongleur, jogleor, joculator, sot, stultor, scurra, fou, fol, truhan, mimus, histrio, morio. He can be any of these, while the German word Narr is not so much a stem as the sturdy trunk of a tree efflorescent with fool vocabulary. The jester's quicksilver qualities are equally difficult to pin down, but nevertheless not beyond definition.

The Chinese terms used for "jester" now seem vaguer than the European, most of them having a wider meaning of "actor" or "entertainer." In Chinese there is no direct translation of the English "jester," no single word that to the present-day Chinese conjures an image as vividly as "court jester," fou du roi, or Hofnarr would to a Westerner. In Chinese the jester element often has to be singled out according to context, although the key character you does seem to have referred specifically to jesters, originally meaning somebody who would use humor to mock and joke, who could speak without causing offense, and who also had the ability to sing or dance: "The you was also allowed a certain privilege, that is, his 'words were without offence' . . . but the you could not offer his remonstrances in earnest, he had to make use of jokes, songs and dance." The term is often combined with other characters giving differing shades to his jesterdom, an acting or a musical slant, for example: paiyou, youren, youling, changyou, lingren, linglun. All could include musical and other talents, chang suggesting music, ling, playing or fooling, and pai a humorous element to bring delight. Several of these terms are too frequently translated as "actor" regardless of where they appear on the etymological chain of evolution and even though they were used long before the advent of Chinese drama.

Perhaps the earliest antecedents of the European court jester were the comic actors of ancient Rome. Several Latin terms used in medieval references to jesters (including numerous church condemnations of them), such as scurrae, mimi, or histriones, originally referred either to amusing hangers-on or to the comic actors and entertainers of Rome. Just as there is now no clear distinction between the terms for "actor" and "jester" in Chinese, so the Latin terms could merge the two. If there was no formal professional jester in Rome, the comic actors fulfilled his functions, sometimes even bearing a striking physical resemblance to what is usually considered a medieval and Renaissance archetype. With periodic imperial purges against actors for their outspokenness, many of them took to the road and fanned out across the empire in search of new audiences and greater freedom. Successive waves of such wandering comics may well have laid the foundations for medieval and Renaissance jesterdom, possibly contributing to the rising tide of folly worship that swept across the Continent from the late Middle Ages.

An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a wide range of backgrounds: an erudite but nonconformist university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman. Just as a modern-day television stand-up comedian might begin his career on the pub and club circuit, so a would-be jester could make it big time in court if he was lucky enough to be spotted. In addition, a poet, musician, or scholar could also become a court jester.

The recruiting of jesters was tremendously informal and meritocratic, perhaps indicating greater mobility and fluidity in past society than is often supposed. A man with the right qualifications might be found anywhere: in Russia "they were generally selected from among the older and uglier of the serf-servants, and the older the fool or she-fool was, the droller they were supposed and expected to be. The fool had the right to sit at table with his master, and say whatever came into his head." Noblemen might keep an eye out for potential jesters, and a letter dated 26 January 1535/36 from Thomas Bedyll to Thomas Cromwell (ca. 1485-1540) recommends a possible replacement for the king's old jester:

Ye know the Kinges grace hath one old fole: Sexten as good as myght be whiche because of aige is not like to cotinew. I haue spied one yong fole at Croland whiche in myne opinion shalbe muche mor pleasaunt than euer Sexten was . . . and he is not past xv yere old.

Fuller's History of the Worthies of England (1662) gives an account of the recruiting of Tarlton, jester to Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), that further illustrates this informality:

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.

A dwarf-jester called Nai Teh (Mr. Little) at the court of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851-68), described by Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King of Siam, was similarly recruited:

He was discovered by one of the King's half-brothers on a hunting trip into the north and brought to Bangkok to be trained in athletic and gymnastic tricks. When he had learned these, he was presented to the king as a comedian and a buffoon.

A German, Paul Wüst, declined an offer of a post as jester with the sort of brazen dismissiveness that explains why he was asked. When Duke Eberhard the Bearded of Würtemburg (1445-96) invited him to be his jester he replied, "My father sired his own fool; if you want one too, then go and sire one for yourself" ("Mein Vater hat einen Narren für sich gezeugt, willst du aber einen Narren haben, so zeuge dir auch einen"). The same story is attributed to Will Somers, who uses the joke to mock Henry's predilection for chalking up wives:

His Majesty after some discourse growing into some good liking of him, said; fellow, wilt thou be my fool? who answered him again, that he had rather be his own father's still, then the king asking him why? he told him again, that his father had got him a fool for himself, (having but one wife) and no body could justly claim him from him: now you have had so many wives, and still living in hope to have more, why, of some one of them, cannot you get a fool as he did? and so you shall be sure to have a fool of your own.

The post of court jester might also appeal to somebody in need of a safe haven. The thirteenth-century French tale of Robert le Diable has him fleeing a populace baying for blood and forcing his way past the footmen to gain access to the emperor, who duly takes him under his wing as a jester, saying that nobody should be allowed to beat him. Alfred de Musset's play Fantasio (1834) is about a dandy whose job as jester allows him to escape and evade creditors, and a Scottish miscellany tells us how one of the most roguish historical jesters found his vocation:

Archie Armstrong . . . after having long distinguished himself as a most dexterous sheep-stealer, and when Eskdale at last became too hot for him, on account of his nefarious practices, he had the honour of being appointed jester to James I. of England, which office he held for several years.

Tarlton tended pigs, Archy stole sheep, and Claus Hinsse (d. 1599), jester to Duke Johann Friedrich of Pomerania (d. 1600), began his working life as a cowherd. Wamba, "son of Witless," the jester in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, was, like Tarlton, a swineherd, and Claus Narr (Fool), one of Germany's most famous and long-serving jesters, was tending geese when he was recruited. He was jester to four Saxon electors and one archbishop during the last quarter of the fifteenth century and first quarter of the sixteenth, and there are more than six hundred stories about him. One day when the first of his patrons, Elector Ernst (d. 1486), was traveling through Ranstadt with a lot of horses and wagons, Claus became curious about all the commotion and went to see what was happening. Worried that his geese would be stolen, he secured the goslings by putting their necks through his belt while he carried the older geese under his arms. When Ernst saw him he laughed at his simplicity and decided he was a born jester. He asked Claus's father's permission to take him to court:

"That would be great, Sir! I'd be relieved of a great encumbrance thereby; the youth is no good to me—he makes nothing but trouble in my house and stirs up the whole village with his pranks." ["Sehr gern, Gnädiger Herr, ich würde dadurch eines grossen Verdrusses überhoben, denn der Junge ist mir nichts nütze, in meinem Hause macht er nichts als Unruh, und durch seine Possen wiegelt er dass ganze Dorf auf."]

Ernst then gave Claus's father twenty guilders as compensation for the strangled goslings and other gifts besides. The story is an insight into the charitable element often involved in the recruiting of "naturals." To a poor family, a natural might be a heavy burden, and it could clearly be a relief to have him taken in and looked after by a wealthy family. Generally speaking there is little to suggest that this was not done in a humane and kindly manner, although in England there was a law allowing the estates of a natural to be handed over to a person offering to care for him, which could lead to their being recruited under false pretenses.

A similar story is told of Jamie Fleeman (1713-78), the Scottish jester to the laird of Udny. He complemented his jesting duties with those of a cowherd and goose guardian, and when he one day grew irritated by the geese wandering willy-nilly, he twisted some straw rope around their necks and started walking home, unaware that they were being throttled one by one. By the time he realized it was too late, and since it was a rare breed of geese, he would have been in big trouble. So he dragged the corpses into the poultry yard and stuffed their throats with food. When asked whether the geese were safe and sound, he replied cheerfully, "Safe! they're gobble, gobble, gobblin' as if they had nae seen meat for a twalmonth! Safe! Ise warran' they're safe aneuch, if they hae nae choked themsells."

In India the same entrance requirements prevailed: make me laugh and you're in. Tenali Rama, one of the three superstar jesters of India, is said to have earned his position as jester by making King Krsnadevaraya laugh. According to one story, he contrived for the king's guru to carry him around on his shoulders within sight of the king. Outraged at the humiliation of his holy man, the king sent some guards out to beat the man riding on the guru's shoulders. Tenali Rama, smelling impending danger, jumped down and begged forgiveness of the guru, insisting that to make amends he should carry him on his own shoulders. The guru agreed, and when the guards arrived the guru was duly beaten. The king found the trick amusing enough to appoint Tenali Rama his jester. In China, despite the abundance of anecdotes about jesters once they enter royal service, there is very little background information available. Nevertheless the universal jester skills displayed by the Chinese jesters suggest that their appointment was as meritocratic as in Europe.

A description of Rabelais's Panurge encompasses many of the jester's characteristics: "Irreverent, libertine, self-indulgent, witty, clever, roguish, he is the fool as court jester, the fool as companion, the fool as goad to the wise and challenge to the virtuous, the fool as critic of the world." He could be juggler, confidant, scapegoat, prophet, and counselor all in one. If we follow his family tree along its many branches we encounter musicians and actors, acrobats and poets, dwarfs, hunchbacks, tricksters, madmen, and mountebanks.


A Cavalcade of Cavorting Fools

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.
—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (3.1.39-40)
We have all seen how an appropriate and well-timed joke can sometimes influence even grim tyrants. . . . The most violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though these often made them the butt of open insults.
—Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly

The court jester is a universal phenomenon. He crops up in every court worth its salt in medieval and Renaissance Europe, in China, India, Japan, Russia, America and Africa. A cavalcade of jesters tumble across centuries and continents, and one could circle the globe tracing their footsteps. But to China the laurels. China has undoubtedly the longest, richest, and most thoroughly documented history of court jesters. From Twisty Pole and Baldy Chunyu to Moving Bucket and Newly Polished Mirror, it boasts perhaps more of the brightest stars in the jester firmament than any other country, spanning a far wider segment of time. The jester's decline began with the rise of the stage actor as the Chinese theater became fully established during the Yuan dynasty. In many respects actors seem to have taken up the jester's baton not only in entertaining their patrons, but also in offering criticism and advice no less clear for being couched in wit. Perhaps only in ancient Rome did jesters and actors overlap so much.

In comparison with those of China, the numerous jesters of Europe, although flourishing for some four hundred years, are something of a dazzling display of shooting stars. Perhaps because the European court jesters were so inextricably linked with the tradition of folly that straddled the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, their time was relatively short-lived, and they died out more or less as the fashion for folly faded. But for as long as they lasted, which was no mere blip, their influence permeated court life. It is a common belief that Europe was the center of the court jester's cosmos, providing the control against which other jesters, such as they are, may be measured. Yet in a sense Europe is the exception rather than the rule, precisely because the fortunes of the European court jesters rose and fell with the tsunami-scale wave of medieval and Renaissance fool mania that engulfed the Continent. The concept of folly with all its variegated hues permeated Europe at all levels for several centuries, and it is against this backdrop of colorful and often contradictory manifestations of "folly" that the European jester must be seen. There were certainly jesters before the tidal wave began to swell, but it is on its crest that we see them come surfing in.

Although the jester died out as a court institution (if not as a function), about the sixteenth or seventeenth century in China and the early eighteenth in Europe, there have been pockets of resistance to his demise. European homes less grand than those of kings and prelates harbored jesters for a century or two longer than the courts, a domestic jester being recorded at Hilton Castle in county Durham in the eighteenth century and a Scottish jester, Shemus Anderson (d. 1833), at Murthley Castle, Perthshire. The Queen Mother's family, the Bowes-Lyons, was "the last Scottish family to maintain a full-time jester." A history of the manor of Gawsworth describes a Samuel Johnson (1691-1773) as "one of the last of the paid English jesters. . . . In addition to his being employed as jester or mirth-maker by the manorial Lord of Gawsworth, he was a welcome addition at parties given by the neighbouring country families, when he had free license to bandy his witticisms, and to utter and enact anything likely to enliven the company, and to provoke mirth and laughter."

In Persia the autocratic Shah Naseredin (r. 1848-96) had all his courtiers quaking except the jester Karim Shir'ei, whose name means "opium addict" but also implies someone of lazy or sleepy demeanor. Karim Shir'ei would ridicule the whole court, including the shah. Once the shah asked whether there was a shortage of food, and the jester said "Yes, I see Your Majesty is eating only five times a day." One member of the shah's entourage had the title Saheb Ekhtiyar ("Authorized" [by the shah]). When they were out traveling Karim Shir'ei's donkey stopped at a gate, and the jokester found a pretext to mock the courtier by addressing the ass: "If you want to stop you are Saheb Ekhtiyar [authorized], and if you want to go ahead, you are also Saheb Ekhtiyar [authorized]." Like many famous jesters before him, his name is still used as a peg for jibes and jokes.

Perhaps the most recent examples of the court jester are among the ritual clowns of African and American tribes whose mocking, corrective, and unbridled topsy-turvy antics have been documented by twentieth-century anthropologists. These are not all strictly speaking court jesters, in that they do not usually serve one master, belonging more to the whole tribe or village. Also, their license is often limited to specific periods, although during such festivals or rituals their freedoms and duties accord with those of the permanently privileged jester. However, there are some tribes that have had permanently appointed jesters, such as the African Wolof jesters and the Sioux "contrary," or heyhoka, and "jesters . . . were also attached to many African monarchs. They were frequently dwarfs, and other oddities; and their duties included besides the playing of jokes, the singing of the praises of their rulers. . . . 'But it must not be thought that these bards were mere flatterers . . . they also had licence to make sharp criticisms.'"

The court jester is universal not merely in having been at home in such diverse cultures and eras, but also in taking his pick from the same ragbag of traits and talents no matter when or where he occurs. Above all he used humor, whether in the form of wit, puns, riddles, doggerel verse, songs, capering antics, or nonsensical babble, and jesters were usually also musical or poetic or acrobatic, and sometimes all three. Some physical difference from the norm was common whether it was in being a dwarf or hunchback or in having a gawky or gangly physique or a loose-limbed agility—his movements might be clumsy or nimble, but they should be somehow exaggerated or unusual. There is a Ming dynasty description of a jester that captures this, for besides always hitting the mark with his gilded tongue, he would "unleash his body and fling his limbs around, drumming his feet and flapping his tongue; he was steeped in wisdom." "Capering" is the word that springs to mind, perhaps a physical reflection of his verbal agility:

I have seen
Him caper upright, like a wild morisco
Shaking . . . his bells.


The Importance of Being Jest Earnest

But this Will Summers was of an easie nature, and tractable disposition, who . . . gained not only grace and favour from his Majesty, but a general love of the Nobility; for he was no carry-tale, nor whisperer, nor flattering insinuater, to breed discord and dissension, but an honest plain down-right, that would speak home without halting, and tell the truth of purpose to shame the Devil; so that his plainness mixt with a kind of facetiousness, and tartness with pleasantness made him very acceptable into the companies of all men.
A Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (1676)
In short, the King liked him so well, that he did few Things without Archy's Advice, in so much, that he could have scarce had greater Power had he been made Regent of the Kingdom.
The Ass Race (1740)

Of at least equal importance with his entertainer's cap was the jester's function as adviser and critic. This is what distinguishes him from a pure entertainer who would juggle batons, swallow swords, or strum on a lute or a clown who would play the fool simply to amuse people. The jester everywhere employed the same techniques to carry out this delicate role, and it would take an obtuse king or emperor not to realize what he was driving at, since "other court functionaries cooked up the king's facts for him before delivery; the jester delivered them raw." An informal survey of the man in the street has shown that most people will pinpoint the jester's right to speak his mind as one of his salient characteristics. I have encountered only one person who considers this to have been more myth than reality:

There are many stories which show a jester as the only person who could counsel a stubborn king, and as such the myth of the court jester suggests that jesters could act as a check on the whimsical power of absolute monarchy. . . . I have been engaged in producing and reproducing a common myth of jesters. Even though the jesters dance right next to the power of the king, the text has been depoliticized in that it has effaced the history of the fool, and elaborated on images conjured up by Erasmus, then Shakespeare, in the task of making jesting reasonable and responsible, and thus political in modern times. . . . The respected, responsible, official jesters only functioned in small historical windows of possibility, for example: fourteenth and fifteenth century Italy and around the turn of the seventeenth century in England.

Even if the jester's famous veracity were only a myth, it would have been established long before Erasmus. And we have seen the impressive extent to which jesters everywhere were allowed and encouraged to offer counsel and to influence the whims and policies of kings, by no means being limited to "small historical windows of possibility." We have seen numerous examples of a jester advising or correcting his monarch and the recorded instances are particularly abundant in China. The Chinese records give us an idea of just how effective a jester could be in tempering the ruler's excesses, for the occasions when his words of warning were either ignored or punished are heavily outnumbered by those when he was heeded and even rewarded.

It is in the nature of jesters to speak their minds when the mood takes them, regardless of the consequences. They are neither calculating nor circumspect, and this may account for the "foolishness" often ascribed to them. Jesters are also generally of inferior social and political status and are rarely in a position (and rarely inclined) to pose a power threat. They have little to gain by caution and little to lose by candor—apart from liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life, which hardly seems to have been a deterrent. They are peripheral to the game of politics, and this can reassure a king that their words are unlikely to be geared to their own advancement. Jesters are not noted for flattery or fawning. The ruler can be isolated from his courtiers and ministers, who might conspire against him. The jester too can be an isolated and peripheral figure somehow detached from the intrigues of the court, and this enables him to act as a kind of confidant.

The jester also had humor at his disposal. He could soften the blow of a critical comment in a way that prevented a dignified personage from losing face. Humor is the great defuser of tense situations. Among the Murngin tribe of Australia it is the duty of the clown to act outrageously, ludicrously imitating a fight if men begin to quarrel. In making them laugh at him, he distracts their attention from their own fight and dispels their aggression. Quintilian (ca. 35-100) comments on the power of jesters' humor to carry the day:

Now, though laughter may be regarded as a trivial matter, and an emotion frequently awakened by buffoons, actors or fools, it has a certain imperious force of its own which it is very hard to resist. . . . It frequently turns the scale in matters of great importance. [Cum videatur autem res levis et quae ab scurris, mimis, insipientibus denique saepe moveatur, tamen habet vim nescio an imperiosissimam et cui repugnari minime potest. . . . Rerum autem saepe . . . maximarum momenta vertit.]

The foolishness of the jester, whether in his odd appearance or his levity, implies that he is not passing judgment from on high, and this may be less galling than the "holier than thou" corrective of an earnest adviser. One of the most effective techniques the jester uses to point out his master's folly is allowing him to see it for himself. Rather than contradicting the king, the jester will agree with a harebrained scheme so wholeheartedly that the suggestion is taken to a logical extreme, highlighting its stupidity. The king can then decide for himself that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all.

The jester is in a sense on the side of the ruler. The relationship was often very close and amiable, and the jester was almost invariably a cherished rather than a tolerated presence. This leads to the kindliness of jesters: they could be biting in their attacks, but there is usually an undercurrent of good-heartedness and understanding to their words. If they talk the king out of slicing up some innocent, it is not only to save him from the king's wrath but also to save the king from himself—they can be the only ones who will tell him he suffers from moral halitosis.

The jester is also perceived as being on the side of the people, the little man fighting oppression by the powerful. By fooling wisely ("en folastrant sagement"), the jester often won favor among the people ("gaigna de grace parmy le peuple"). In the folk perception of southern India a king was hardly considered a king without his jester, and the continuing appeal of the court jester in India, in stories and comic books, is perhaps equaled only in Europe. He may have disappeared from the courts and corridors of power, but he still has a powerful hold on the collective imagination. Yet he is no rebel or revolutionary. His detached stance allows him to take the side of the victim in order to curb the excesses of the system without ever trying to overthrow it—his purpose is not to replace one system with another, but to free us from the fetters of all systems:

Under the dissolvent influence of his personality the iron network of physical, social and moral law, which enmeshes us from the cradle to the grave, seems—for the moment—negligible as a web of gossamer. The Fool does not lead a revolt against the Law, he lures us into a region of the spirit where, as Lamb would put it, the writ does not run.

In Europe and India the most eminent jesters were household names, as top-class comedians are today, and stories about their jokes and tricks circulated freely, as they still do in India—there is even a kind of lentil soup named after Birbal. The star jesters of China may also have enjoyed this celebrity status, as Ban Gu's biography of Dongfang Shuo suggests:

Shuo's jokes and sallies, his divinations and guesses, shallow and inconsequential though they are, were passed around among the ordinary run of people, and there was no stripling or cowherd who failed to be quite dazzled by them.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 1-6 and 233-247 of Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World by Beatrice K. Otto, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Beatrice K. Otto
Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World
©2001, 444 pages, 49 halftones, 66 line drawings
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-64091-4
Paper $27.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-64092-1

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