The History of Medieval Jesters

What is a Jester? Are Court Jesters & Medieval Jesters the same? Who are some Famous Court Jesters?
The History of Medieval Jesters

In Medieval times, people would get paid to make fun of themselves to entertain others. These entertainers were known as medieval jesters or court jesters. This article discusses the history of medieval jesters, court jesters, and some famous court jesters.

1. Definition of Medieval Jesters

Jester is a word that originated during Tudor times in the mid-16th century. Also called medieval jesters, court jesters, or fools, were a part of the working class of the monarch and noblemen. Their job was to entertain people in the castle or the visitors that came to the castle. They were required to perform different sorts of acts and stunts, as desired by the higher classes.

In simpler words, they were the circus clowns who weren’t paid much, nor did they have a say in their performance. The jesters who refused to do what was asked of them would even be punished or executed. Nowadays, a jester or a buffoon is used in more of a light-hearted tone and for comic relief. (See Let the Cat Out of the Bag Origin)

2. Origin of Medieval Jesters

The tradition of fools performing to entertain the rich dates back to Ancient Rome, more than 2000 years ago. They ran on the idea that people of the lower-income groups, seen as slaves, could also be used to entertain them for the prices that they would be offered. Sometimes, they would gamble and place bets on these jesters to see who wins to be the most entertaining buffoon.

Some jesters also performed in markets or during festivals. In the olden days, they were known as ba’latro or balatrones, the Romanian translation of the word buffoon. Some other earlier terms used to describe a jester were fol, and minstrel. The words gestour or jestour also came into use, which later lead to the origin of the English word jester. (See Mounted Police Jobs)

3. The Job of Jesters

Jesters were not always the entertainers – this is because of the term minstrel, which meant little servant. Jesters would often work as a messenger as well, whose job required to transfer a message from their king to someone else, like an opposing party. If the message sent wasn’t pleasing to them, like an appeal to forfeit the land or give up the ownership of a property owned by the opposition, it was usually the messenger who paid the price. This popularized the phrases kill the messenger or shoot the messenger, which now means to blame the person who brought the news originated from here. I am sure you didn’t know that & now you do! (See 4 Interesting Black Friday History Myths and Facts)

4. Life of a Jester

A jester was only as useful as the talents they had and how willing they were to do the job while being paid dust. A jester was known as an entertainer, so talents such as playing music, dancing, singing, doing magic, and any kind of entertaining performance were expected of them.

However, anyone who was a musician, singer, dancer, etc., was not a jester. A person who could make fun of themselves by going to extreme lengths to make the higher class laugh was considered a jester. The term highly retreated the reputation of a person as a jester. They often wore bright clothes and had to do dangerous tasks just to get a laugh from the noblemen or the visitors. (See Shipwrecks In The Ocean)

The History of Medieval Jesters

5. Types of Jesters

There were three types of jesters or fools during the progression of the Middle Age.

  • The first category of fools was known as professional fools. They were in the employment of the nobleman who hired them. They were usually well-educated and never performed in the open market or during a festival in front of common people. They only catered to the rich noblemen.
  • The second category of fools was known as the innocent fools. These people were suffering from mental illnesses or physical disabilities, making their disability the laughing point. They were treated as pets or zoo animals, with little to no wage and extreme torture. (See True Basket Case Definition)
  • The third and last category was fool societies. These were the common folks and amateurs who didn’t possess the requirements for a professional fool, so they entertained in markets and carnivals.

6. Portrayal of Medieval Jesters

Jesters, in literature, were a more curated version of what reality was like. They were often portrayed as being harmless and noble to their king, and a good bond between them was often the highlight of their stories.

  • They represented honesty and common sense to which the noblemen turned to for any kind of advice on different matters.
  • They were seen to be treated with respect and had no consequences for their actions or advice, whereas, in reality, it would lead them to execution.
  • Shakespeare also didn’t portray the jester in the correct way. Rather as a highly-witted peasant or a commoner who outsmarted everyone with their intelligence.

7. Some famous Court Jesters

  • Tom le Fol is a very famous jester of Edward I in the 13th century, He was a resident at Conwy, North Wales.
  • Russel Erwood was the second resident after Tom le Fol to jester at Conwy in 1981.
  • Triboulet jested for King Louis and Francis of France between the 14th and 15th centuries.
  • Stańczyk is a famous Polish jester.
  • Sebastian de Morra was a court-drawn jester.

8. End of Medieval Jesters

Many people stood against the idea of this job due to the harm and dangers linked with it and how little the payment was that was given to the jesters. Supporters of this job compared it with the job of soldiers, who also risk their lives, whereas people opposing the idea said that the soldiers were paid higher. They also argued that entertainers don’t have to physically torture themselves with insufferable pain. The idea sparked conflict and finally, a resolution arose to give up on this tradition. By the end of the 18th century, the tradition of jesters had slowly died out. (See Why do people fight?)

9. Modernization of Jesters

Although, in the 21st century, the tradition was revived, albeit in much less danger to life. It poses no danger to their lives and the people do it of their own free will as freelancing. They usually perform in a circus and during the festive season in carnivals to entertain the audience. They earn a little bit of cash here and there as well. If the performances are deemed to be dangerous to the performer or the public, it is stopped right away. (See Why did the Pilgrims leave England?)

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