History of the Medieval Jester

Any mention of a jester or a court jester probably elicits pictures of a clown-like, colorfully garbed jokester. While that may have been the normal look of a jester in certain parts of Europe during medieval times, the origins and historical development of the jester is a fascinating subject to examine.

Medieval Jester playing a lute
Medieval Jester playing a lute | Source

Ancient Jesters

Comedic actors during the height of the Roman Empire are viewed as being a direct precursor to the jester of medieval times. While there was no professional jester in the Roman times, the comic actor most likely laid the basis for jesters in later periods, both in his comedic development and in his choice of wardrobe. Furthermore, viewing the comic actor of Rome in this light could help to explain the dispersement of jesters throughout the courts of medieval Europe. Various Roman emperors undertook to purge the empire of actors, claiming that actors were a detriment and blight on society. As the actors fled persecution, they served to spread their craft over a larger swath of Europe, possibly leading to the growth of the jester in later years.

Jesters Around the World

Though this hub will focus on the jester in Medieval Europe, I thought it important to point out that the jester or fool was a staple of cultures around the world and throughout time. China is one of the most well-documented places to have had jesters or fools extant for a large portin of its history. Similar to the medieval jesters of Europe, Chinese jesters oftentimes were employed by the shah, and were tasked with lightening the mood at court. Africa also possesses a large contingent of fools, and some tribes and villages even have a fool to this day. A "town idiot," if you will.

The Stereotypical Medieval Jester

Jesters have fallen victim to a modern day stereotype. By-and-large, they are viewed as having been dumb people who were adept at clownish activities such as juggling or gymnastics and who wore flamboyant outfits. Though some may have fallen into this category, many jesters were quite smart, using their wit as a tool to help diffuse tense situations at the royal court. The clothes stereotype has the most support, however, as many jesters did wear clothes that made them stand out from the crowd. Comical costumes and three-pointed hats are thought to have been the common outfit of the jester, but the three-pointed hat was probably an allusion to earlier times when jesters would instead wear donkey ears and a tail.

15th century painting "The Laughing Jester," Art Museum of Sweden, Stockholm
15th century painting "The Laughing Jester," Art Museum of Sweden, Stockholm | Source

The Functions of a Medieval Jester

Jesters in Medieval Europe were decidedly more involved with affairs of state than were jesters in other time periods and location. Oftentimes, a monarch or high ranking official would search for a jester to keep at court. The court jester of medieval times was usually allowed to speak his mind freely, while no everyone else had to wait for the monarch's permission to speak. Many times, the jester would use his chance at free speech to criticize the monarch openly, where no one else could. Thus, a function of the jester was to act as a critic, and many stories exist to support the fact that kings did indeed pay heed to the criticism of the court jester.

The jester's ability to speek freely also came into play when tense matters were being discussed. Quite frequently the jester would diffuse heated discussions by inserting humorous statements, thereby avoiding any unnecessary confrontations.

The most recognized of the jester's duties is probably his duty to provide entertainment at court functions. Quite frequent are the modern depictions of the jester's antics at court. Many jesters were adept at singing, playing an instrument, or performing any number of unusual routines for the entertainment of the royal court and it's guests.

An engraving of Will Sommers, court jester to King Henry VIII
An engraving of Will Sommers, court jester to King Henry VIII | Source

Famous Jesters in Medieval Europe

The comedic nature of jesters contributed to their popularity among the common people. Many jesters were the subjects of stories that were distributed among the public, and they became popular icons in several cases. King Henry VIII employed a jester by the name of Will Sommers, a jester who gained such fame that he was the subject of literature and drama almost two centuries after his death. King Charles I employed a jester named Jeffrey Hudson who gained the nickname, the "Royal Dwarf" because of his height. One of his infamous pranks, made possible by his shortness, was to hide himself inside of a giant pie and then leap out, scaring the people to whom the pie was presented. The most famous jester in the history of Poland was a jester by the name of Stańczyk. After his death, Stańczyk became a national symbol in Poland's struggle for independence from Russia. He has been the subject of numerous paintings, works of literature, dramas, and even movies though he died in the 16th century.

The End of the Medieval Jester

The tradition of the medieval jester met it's end in England as a direct result of the English Civil War (1642-1651). After Oliver Cromwell rose to power, he had no tolerance for the comedy of the jester, and even after Cromwell was overthrown and Charles II claimed the throne in the Restoration period, the tradition of the court jester was never reestablished. The medieval tradition of the jester lasted longer in other countries than it did in England, but by the 18th century, it had died out in almost all European countries, only two or three excepted.

An 1862 painting depicting Stańczyk, dejected after receiving news of the Russian capture of Smolensk.
An 1862 painting depicting Stańczyk, dejected after receiving news of the Russian capture of Smolensk. | Source

Ultimately then, we have seen how medieval court jesters were more than just clowns in strange clothes. They served an important, yet comical role in the courts of many medieval monarchs and are a natural part compliment to the role of the monarch. Evidence of their natural function exists in the proliferation of jesters and fools in numerous cultures and times throughout history.

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Comments 9 comments

Chris Hugh 4 years ago

Fascinating stuff. Maybe we should bring the jester back, or have a rainbow group of jesters so politically incorrect opinions could get expressed.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

As I understand it, the jester could speak to the king or whoever in ways that others could not. In many ways this may be reflected in the clown or some comics in our culture.The clown is a far more serious entity than we sometimes think.


bewhuebner profile image

bewhuebner 4 years ago from Virginia, USA Author

Right on, both of you! They would be an interesting inclusion for modern society, Chris... I didn't make that connection, but I'd like to see how that would pan out!

They did have a large degree of freedom, dahoglund. And you're precisely right about the underlying serious nature of the jester and it's modern variation, the clown. Thanks for taking the time to comment!


EuroCafeAuLait profile image

EuroCafeAuLait 4 years ago from Croatia, Europe

Very interesting reading, and great graphics. Donkey ears, you say? That makes sense. Very good food for thought, would like to know more about this. Up and (very) interesting.


bewhuebner profile image

bewhuebner 4 years ago from Virginia, USA Author

Some quick research turned up that "The Feast of Fools" was a possible origin of the donkey ears. It was a feast day held by the Catholic Church during the twelve days of Christmas, and on the Feast of Fools, the subdeacons were given charge of the service. Somehow the feast evolved to the point where the subdeacons were allowed to make fun of their leaders, for the one day only. Since donkeys are also called "asses," the donkey was used quite frequently as an allusion to the elders, and again, in time, they adopted the wearing of donkey themed clothing (i.e. ears and tail). Hope that adds a little to the explanation. :)


EuroCafeAuLait profile image

EuroCafeAuLait 4 years ago from Croatia, Europe

... it sure does, thanks! You seem to know a lot about history. Here too in the Mediterranean the donkey is a favorite animal and even the expression "MAGARAC!" or "IDIOT!" alludes to a donkey. Parents call their kids that when they do something stupid (I don't!). The twelve days of Christmas is a popular song but no one knows the history behind it - maybe a future Hub? Regards, ECAL


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

And there's Puck too? Jester's are truly fascinating; there's a double edged sword about their role isn't there? Don't you hate Oliver Cromwell for getting rid of them in England? Thanks for your interesting Hub.


chrissieklinger profile image

chrissieklinger 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Very interesting information, I did not realize that jesters were more than just entertainment.....voted up!


Jodah profile image

Jodah 16 months ago from Queensland Australia

I enjoyed learning about the history of the jester. Always an intriguing figure in the courts of the day. I can recommend the novel "The Jester" by James Patterson and Andrew Gross. Voted up.

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