This week’s entry: Jesters
What it’s about: Ruling a medieval kingdom is a serious business, what with all the warfare and beheading and dying of the plague. Yet a staple of royal courts was the jester, an entertainer whose skills could include jokes, music, storytelling, juggling, acrobatics, or magic.
Strangest fact: Being a fool could be serious business. Because the jester was the one person in the court expected to ignore seriousness and protocol, he was in a unique position to dispense advice or even criticism to the monarch. While Elizabeth I was never shy about beheading her critics, she supposedly once complained that her jester had been taking it easy on her. When the French fleet was destroyed in 1340 in the Battle Of Sluys, only the jester could get away with breaking the bad news to King Philip VI, telling the English opposition that they “don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French.”
Biggest controversy: There have been several attempts to revive jesting for modern times, but only a few have been successful. English Heritage—a branch of the British government that protects historic sites and other aspects of the nation’s history—appointed Nigel Roder as “State Jester” in 2004, the first person to hold the position since Muckle John, who served Charles I until his overthrow and death in 1649. But a group called the National Guild Of Jesters objected, saying English Heritage had no right to grant such a title. They compromised on the title “Heritage Jester,” a position currently held by Pete Cooper.
Controversy also exists over Poland’s most famous court jester, Stańczyk, still widely remembered as a satirist and political philosopher. While he looms large as a cultural figure—he’s still written about and referenced more than 400 years later—it’s possible he didn’t actually exist, or is a composite of multiple jesters from the same time period.
Thing we were happiest to learn: While European court jesters are the best known to Americans, court entertainers have been a staple all over the world. The profession dates back at least to the Egyptian pharaohs. The Aztecs had jesters as far back as the 14th century. Medieval Japan had taikomochi, considered a male equivalent to the geisha, who entertained feudal lords with dancing and storytelling, but also dispensed strategic advice, and often went into battle alongside their lords.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The noble occupation of jesting has become obsolete, and nearly always because of political strife. When the Puritans overthrew the British monarchy in 1640, Oliver Cromwell had about as much interest in jesters as you’d expect any humorless religious fanatic to, and the practice was discontinued. After the Restoration, Charles II was a great patron of theater and music halls, but did not reinstate the court jester position. Likewise, French royalty generally employed a court jester, but the jester’s position ended along with the rest of the court after the French Revolution.
Also noteworthy: While jesters haven’t entertained the crowned heads of Europe for centuries, they aren’t entirely extinct. Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, king of the Pacific island nation of Tonga from 1965 until his death in 2006, appointed a court jester 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, possibly while juggling. 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. He currently resides in California, and is the sole practitioner of the completely above-board-sounding Open Window Institute Of Emotional Freedom.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: As the jester was in the unique position to both play the simpleton, and dispense wisdom that others would dare not speak, jesters have been a favorite figure in literature. William Shakespeare in particular used jesters so often that the Shakespearean fool is considered a recurring motif in the Bard’s work. King Lear’s fool is the gold standard, providing both levity and wit to one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, and astutely seeing Lear’s situation even when the king himself does not. Fools often appeared to lighten the mood after a particularly gruesome scene—the Porter appears in Macbeth just after the murder of the king; Hamlet encounters the gravediggers after Ophelia’s suicide.
Further down the wormhole: One of the only places to find jesters in 2015 is at a medieval reenactment, where you’ll find a subtle mix of detailed historical preservation and people dressing up in silly costumes and pretending to sword fight. Europe’s medieval era began with the Migration Period, which involved a dramatic increase of movement around Europe, both by violent invaders and peaceful immigrants. This upheaval is believed to be a principal factor in the decline of the Roman Empire. We’ll look at that pivotal event (if something that took place over centuries can be called an event) next week.