Jesters Around the World
Jesters, colorful entertainers with the gift of holding a crowd captive, are noted throughout world history. In fact, some form of the royal court jester has been recorded in nearly every country and continent around the globe. If you’ve ever thought of the jester as just a part of a monarch’s court in medieval Europe, you are missing out on other rich stories and tales of these entertainers.
Author Beatrice K. Otto explained in her cross cultural study, Fools Are Everywhere, that the court jester character was a universal staple throughout time and place. Otto states,
I argue that the jester is very much a universal character, more or less interchangeable regardless of the time or culture in which he happens to cavort – the same techniques, the same functions, the same license.
Let’s take an international trip around the world and throughout history to learn more about the jester, a crowd’s favorite fool. You’ll quickly see that Otto draws attention to the fact that jesters are not simply remote historical figures. In fact, these colorful characters often played an important part, albeit behind the scenes, throughout history.
Jesters in Ancient China
The tale of jesters, the most colorful characters in all of history, begins long before the kings and queens of Europe. Their stories begin in much more ancient times, long before medieval Europe was even around. You can find jesters in literature from 100 B.C. through Sima Xiangru’s Rhapsody on the Shanglin Park:
Then come jesterds, 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.
While the jester in ancient China doesn’t have a particular title or word in the Chinese language. However, that doesn’t mean court jesters in some form were not around. They were of course because we know by know that quirky characters crop up any time they can be paid for their talents. Chinese jesters used humor to joke and mock mogul emperors, other leaders, and even commoners. Entertainment from Chinese jesters of the past were performing for crowds long before drama through plays began in the area. However, the words for “court jester” and “actor” in Chinese are very similar, which shows us how important these entertainers were throughout big and small cities.
Photo by Fynn Schmidt
Jesters in Ancient Egypt
Of course, the ancient Chinese dynasties were not the only ones benefiting from the levity brought about by jokes and humor from these fools. These quirky characters crop up as early as the pyramids, literally. Ancient Egypt was also being entertained by these witty and occasionally off color humorists. Pharaohs and the other royal families of ancient Egypt were entertained by court jesters, though these jesters were not exactly giving their performances voluntarily. Instead, Pygmies were brought in from other parts of Africa and paraded around for the entertainment of the ancient court. While this type of court jester was more a slave than a free performer, the ancient Egypt court jester still played an important part in the history of the craft.
Photo by Robert Bye
Jesters in the Middle East
There are even reports of jesters throughout the Middle East throughout history. Beatrice K. Otto takes us on a journey to Ghazna where Sultan Mahmud led from 998-1030. Otto brings a story of more than just a court jester’s lively work. She tells a story of true friendship. His personal jester was named Talhak. The two were close and had an easy friendship that came in handy when the Sultan was feeling angry or upset. Talhak used his sense of humor and his knowledge of the Sultan’s favorite jokes to move the leader into a better mood.
Jesters in Europe
Of course, jesters were a highlight of European life. European jesters perfected their craft, becoming more than street performers or joke tellers. Instead, they became jugglers and dancers, musicians and contortionists. While medieval jesters performed for leaders like Henry VIII, Charles I, and Queen Elizabeth, these comic actors were staples in other cultures throughout Europe too.
For example, there is a story about two court musicians in Louis XIII’s France. These two musicians apparently made the king angry by serving him badly. Out of anger, Louis XIII told the musicians that he was going to cut their pay in half.
The musicians were upset and commiserate about it in front of the French jester Marais. Otto tells us that Marais brought his wit and humanizing influence to the situation telling the musicians to perform only half clothed during their next royal performance.
As you can imagine, the king was shocked and confused. When he asked what was going on, the musicians said what Marais had told them to – that they were only half-dressed since they were getting half-pay. The king couldn’t help but laugh and returned the musicians to their full-pay standing.
The French, like the English and Polish, formed unique bonds with jesters. They had favorites and followed the drama that sometimes followed a court jester around. For example, Jeffrey Hudson was a favorite throughout France. He was a dwarf, now referred to as a little person, but back then was something of a rarity. He ended up being a favorite of Queen Henrietta Maria and Otto reminds us that fools often took on other duties in the court. Hudson, for example, didn’t just tell jokes. He also fought alongside the Royalists during the English Civil War.
The English played favorites too. Samuel Johnson, for example, performed throughout the early 1700s. When he retired from his duties, he became known as Maggoty and in his death apparently haunts the forest his grave is in. It appears that any fool around the world is beloved even in death.
Fools Around the World
Jesters, or some form of them, are noted in nearly every culture around the world from Indian traditions to ancient lands, according to Beatrice K. Otto. Otto’s book reminds us that the jester around the world was more than wit and humor. The jester around the world often had delicate psychological prerequisites that gave them the gift of performance and ability to wow a crowd. Otto’s lively survey reminds us that the jester around the world met a widespread human need to laugh and connect with a performer during both good and bad times. Black Plague during the Middle Ages?
A well timed joke from a court jester could make things seem lighter for even a moment. Only the most colorful characters could bring a smile to the crowd during the darkest of times.
Everywhere the court jester performed, no matter where or when in time it was, the crowd was sure to be entertained, if not offended. Getting to know history’s witty professional jesters in an intimate light reminds us today that these roguish characters were more talented than perhaps they were given credit for.