What was It Actually Like to Be a Court Jester in Medieval Times?

LegitMarmalade asks: Is it true medieval jesters could insult the King in any way they wanted without risk of getting executed?

Although you might assume that being made to wear a stupid costume, be mocked, and act like an idiot for the entertainment of fatuous rulers would be a job nobody would want- like the position of Groom of the Stool (a job which initially consisted of directly supplying the necessaries to facilitate a good and clean bowel movement to the King, as well as to monitor said fecal matter and make dietary recommendations based on what you saw there)- the position of court jester was actually an enviable one due to it involving spending so much time with those in power. And as you were often putting them in good humor and otherwise making them happy, it was a position that came with a whole slew of perks. So what was life actually like as a court jester?

To begin with, the job of jester has been around going back to humanity’s earliest recorded history, as well as spanning just about every major culture on Earth. Beyond entertaining the masses, from Egyptian Pharaoh to the first Emperor of China, the wealthy have frequently employed the services of these individuals.

Over the centuries this line of work matured and as we get into Medieval times in the Western world, we start to see court jesters that somewhat fit the common stereotype depicted today. Although it should be noted they weren’t called “jesters” at this point, rather usually something like “fool” or “buffoon”. The jester name, deriving from the Anglo-Norman “gestour” meaning “storyteller”, wouldn’t come about until around the 16th century.

In any event, there were two popular types of court jesters prominent during the latter parts of Medieval times, the so-called “Licensed Fool” and the “Natural Fool”. In both cases, those with physical deformities, such as extreme hunchback, malformed limbs, particularly ugly visages, etc. were prized, as were dwarfs, perhaps the most famous of which being Lord Minimus, who we cover in detail in an episode of our BrainFood Show podcast- Lord Minimus: The Renaissance Dueling Dwarf.

As for garb, this varied from jester to jester, but in the general case, particularly for Licensed Fools, they typically were clothed in colorful, patchworked and mildly whimsical outfits, potentially including a monk’s cowl, and a pointed, colorful fool’s hat, originally modeled after donkey ears. They’d also sometimes wear donkey tails as well.

As for the job description, it was surprisingly diverse, but in a nutshell was to entertain the court and their patron basically anytime they wanted and in any way said royal wanted, be it some witty banter, performing a drama, reciting poetry or stories, singing songs, performing acrobatics, etc.  When not called to perform directly at banquets and the like, they were likewise frequent companions to their patron, and generally in charge of cheering them up whenever needed.

At other times, some were given additional tasks like various household duties, running messages, etc. On this latter note, given these jesters were present and privy to the inner workings of court intrigue, they were natural candidates to carry highly confidential messages. The down side of this is that jesters were sometimes the ones appointed to carry messages around on battlefields, as well as to the enemy camp- not the safest job in the world.

Not just useful on the battlefield for carrying messages, they also sometimes were tasked with entertaining the troops, more or less functioning as something of what we think of as a modern day cheerleader and comedian combined in this role.

As you can imagine from all of this, these “Licensed Fools” were usually extremely intelligent, quick witted, talented at many things, and needed to spend a lot of time continuing to improve and expand their skill set in order to retain their positions, lest their patron get bored with them.

As for the “Natural Fools”, they were a little different, though their general job of being entertainment was more or less the same. On the whole, these individuals were those who had some sort of mental issue and were by their very nature thought to be entertaining. They also were prized for their propensity to naturally speak the unbridled truth.

As to outfits for the Natural Fools, this occasionally seems to have differed from their Licensed brethren in that while they might wear such stereotypical outfits, other accounts have certain of them wearing clothing you might find on anyone at court in the regions and eras they lived.

An example of a Natural Fool we have William Sommers who replaced King Henry VIII’s previous Natural Fool, Sexton, who was originally gifted to the King by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Moving on to Sommers, while he was considered a “natural fool”, it’s not really clear what his particular mental deficiency was. Noted as having an incredibly quick wit, being a master of satire, and occasionally giving wise council to the King, he ultimately became one of Henry’s most trusted advisors. That said, he was otherwise apparently incapable of taking care of himself, to the point that King Henry VIII went so far as to ensure that one William Seyton would be employed to take care of Sommers after the King died.

As an example of one of his many antics, according to an early 17th century account by comedic actor Robert Armin, at one point the King’s juggler, Thomas, was doing his thing when Sommers sauntered in with milk and a bread roll in hand mid-performance. Sommers then began singing,

This bit Harry I give to thee
and this next bit must serve for me,
Both which I’ll eat apace.
This bit Madam unto you,
And this bit I my self eate now,
And the rest upon thy face.

He then promptly chucked the milk in Thomas’ face, much to the amusement of all present.

Highly favored by the King, Sommers appears in a 1545 portrait “Henry the Eighth and His Family” with the King, one of his former wives Jane Seymour, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, son Edward, and Mary’s own jester, Jane the Fool, who is thought to have also been a “Natural Fool”.

Going back to the Natural Fool’s gift at speaking the “unbridled truth”, it turns out this was also something highly valued in Licensed Fools as well, though contrary to what is often said, while they were far more free to say whatever came to their minds, they still had to be tactful, especially with an audience.

For example, as beloved as Sommers was, even as stated included in a family portrait, on a few occasions King Henry VIII got so mad at him, he threatened to kill him. For example, in 1535 when Sommers apparently joked that one of King Henry’s children was a bastard… perhaps a little too close to home on that one.

In another case we have the famed jester Triboulet who served under King Louis XII and Francis I. French poet Jean Marot described Triboulet as “a fool with an unsightly head, as wise at thirty as on the day he was born; with a small forehead and large eyes, a big nose and squat figure, a flat, long belly, and a hump back. He mocked, sang, danced, and preached in derision of every one…”

So famous he had a few characters in literature based on him, most notably in Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse, it is nonetheless reported his particular brand of satire didn’t exactly make him popular among the court to the point that he was apparently frequently beaten by those he’d offended. Legend has it, whether truth or not is impossible to tell, this led to an exchange between himself and King Francis in which he told the king one of the members of the court had threatened to kill him. The King purportedly replied to this, “If he does, I will hang him a quarter of an hour afterward.” To which Triboulet supposedly quipped, “Ah, Sire, couldn’t you contrive to hang him a quarter of an hour previously?”

In another famed instance, he angered the King via making fun of the queen, whereupon his execution was ordered. However, legend has it that given his years of good service, he was given leave to choose the manner of his death. After thinking it over, Triboulet purportedly told the king “Good sire, for Saint Nitouche’s and Saint Pansard’s sake, patrons of insanity, I choose to die from old age.” This so amused the king that he just had Triboulet banished instead of killing him.

All that said, a good jester was expected to help their master see folly in any plans they were making or actions, just if one wanted to keep their position and potentially keep breathing, this needed to be done in delicate and tactfully hilarious way.

On top of all of this, a lesser talked about duty of jesters that is somewhat glossed over in modern pop culture is that they were sometimes the ones tasked with breaking bad news to their master, seeing as they could do so humorously and with somewhat lesser fear of retribution.

For example, in the 14th century, legend has it that King Phillip VI of France was given the news that his fleet was destroyed by the English in the Battle of Sluys by his jester who burst in on the king saying “The coward English! the dastard English! the faint-hearted English!” The King then responded, “Why do you abuse them?” To which the jester supposedly stated, “Because they would not jump out of their ships into the sea as our brave Frenchman did.”

Moving on to compensation for their many services, this varied. In some cases, we have accounts of jesters given a regular stipend, and in other cases they had no official salary. However, at the least court jesters were exceptionally well taken care of with regards to their day to day needs such as food, shelter, clothing, etc, and were often rewarded for particularly good bouts of entertainment by those among the wealthy they were entertaining. This could potentially mean gifts of land, titles, money, etc. For example, there is a record of King Henry II awarding 30 acres of land to a jester by the name of Roland le Pettour upon his leaving the court, with one stipulation as a part of the deal- that Pettour must once a year return to the court and “leap, whistle and fart”… (The time before the internet people…)

In another instance, one Tom the Fool was awarded a whopping 50 shillings, (about a year’s salary for a commoner) for his excellent performance in front of the assembled court at King Edward I’s daughter, Elizabeth’s, wedding.

Further, many jesters were able to parlay their roles as fools into great wealth by using their position at the King’s side to secure lucrative deals and jobs for family and friends, something the aforementioned Sommers is noted to have done for his uncle who fell into financial ruin and was only saved when Sommers managed to secure a deal for him with the King.

As for female jesters, they seem to have enjoyed all the same perks as their male counterparts, even relatively free to insult the men of power around them with a level of impunity, though, again, tactfully. As such, the job of fool is noted by historians as being one of the few career options held by men that was also completely open to women with no real associated stigma nor much of a difference in job responsibilities.

One of the more famous female jesters was a legendary woman known as Mathurine the Fool who served in the courts of Henry III and IV, as well as Louis the XIII in the 17th century. Mathurine was well known for her extravagant costume, modeled after the idea of an Amazonian warrior complete with shield, armor, and a wooden sword. While the sword wasn’t sharp, her wit by all accounts was, with perhaps the most famous example of this being that time she was reportedly criticised by a lady in waiting who complained that she didn’t like having a fool at her right side. Without missing a beat, Mathurine supposedly jumped to the lady’s other side and announced to the court: “I don’t mind it at all.” **Burn**

Mathurine also famously supposedly kept a would be assassin of Henry IV from escaping, as recounted in a 19th century edition of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly where it states,

Mathurine it was who arrested the youth who attempted to assassinate Henri IV, on the 28th of December. This youth, who had glided into the apartment unperceived, struck at the King with his dagger. “Devil take that fool with her tricks,” cried his Majesty… Mathurine sprang to the door, and barring the passage, prevented the escape of the King’s assailant.

(So if you were feeling down today, remember that at one point in time, an assassin was foiled when a female comedian dressed like an Amazonian warrior burst into the room and told him not to move. No doubt the reenactment of this scene was great fodder for entertaining guests in the aftermath.)

As for what happened to the position of court jesters, while it stuck around in some regions of the world for another century or two, in the Western world as the 17th century progressed, the broadening popularity of theater and other such performing houses saw nobles seeming to have gradually shifted to this form of entertainment instead of keeping court jesters on hand at all times. Some of the best entertainers likewise gravitated more towards this line of work rather than the unpredictability of working under a royal.

Illustrating the shift, one of the last prominent court jesters in the Western world was Samuel “Maggoty” Johnson, who worked for the Duke of Montague, as well as hiring his entertainment services out to pretty much anyone else who wanted to pay. Not only entertaining the elite privately, he also at one point wrote an entire play to perform in a theater in London for the masses at the behest of the Duke of Montague. Noteworthy of this play is that it was universally considered incredibly awful, but nonetheless had a fairly successful run, apparently being something of an 18th century version of The Room in being so awful it’s amazing. As one commentator noted of the play,

The extraordinary drama of Hurlothrumbo… was… the talk and admiration of the town. A more curious or a more insane production has seldom issued from human pen.

Further demonstrating his sense of humor, when Maggoty died at 82, he requested his friends remove his body from the churchyard after burial, because he would be buried too close to a woman, Hannah Bailey, he had frequently quarreled. The problem with this was, according to Maggoty, that on the day of resurrection, this would no doubt see the two of them fighting over whose leg bone was whose.

Instead, he asked to be re-buried in a tomb in what today is called Maggoty Wood. The tomb was one he originally had made for his lady love, a servant of his who attended him for much of his life. The location of the tomb was her favorite spot in the woods.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

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One comment

  • So interesting. I wonder if we have a present day equivalent? Television and internet seem to have replaced them. Maybe those gay “queens ” are carrying some of the tradition.