Physical Appearance

The physical appearance of a jester was sometimes their biggest asset. Both the licensed fool and the natural fool would often play off their own appearance as a part of their comedic routine.

Medieval Jesters

Many will say that the jester’s most valuable asset was their tongue, being able to make witty retorts, or even perform ballads to the court. However, this was not the case for all jesters (especially Roland the Farter). For some their physical appearance or deformities would play a bigger role in their life as a jester.

There were many different types of jesters throughout history, but many can be categorised into two fields, the natural fool, and the professional jester. While they sometimes differed in appearance, these fools also stood apart for one reason, the licensed fool intentionally created humour, whereas the natural fools were often a source of humour without them realising.

Many will say that the jester’s most valuable asset was their tongue, being able to make witty retorts, or even perform ballads to the court. However, this was not the case for all jesters (especially Roland the Farter). For some their physical appearance or deformities would play a bigger role in their life as a jester.

There were many different types of jesters throughout history, but many can be categorised into two fields, the natural fool, and the professional jester. While they sometimes differed in appearance, these fools also stood apart for one reason, the licensed fool intentionally created humour, whereas the natural fools were often a source of humour without them realising.

jester smiling evil with sceptre

Photo by Ursula Kuprat

The Licensed Fool

The licensed fool, also called the professional fool or artificial fool, was an intentional jokester or trickster. Many licensed fools are recognisable for their motley clothing and razor-sharp tongue.

Shen Jiangao was a licensed fool to Emperor Liezu and known for his wit and saved his patron by drinking poison wine and allowing the Emperor to escape. Another licensed fool was the Scottish jester, Jamie Fleeman. Fleeman worked for Countess Mary Hay who would become the High Chancellor of Scotland, and as her jester he was tasked with delivering her messages as he possessed inhuman strength.

painting of jester with an evil smile holding a scepter

Schalksnarr | Heinrich Vogtherr (1540)

The Natural Fool

The natural fool was particularly popular during the Middle Ages and was often found in accounts of historic royal palaces of Tudor times. The physical appearance of the natural fool often included deformities, dwarfism, and hunchbacks. These physical traits often made them favoured by their patrons.

Often the natural fools of the royal court would be allowed permissions due to their inability to behave in a court-like fashion, giving these fools more free rein than the professional jesters.

Throughout history there are numerous accounts of the reigning royal family having a personal jester that was a natural fool. William Somer was one such natural fool, someone who would be considered in modern times to have a learning disability. Somer was a court jester in the time of King Henry VIII and used his wit to both entertain and counsel as the King’s fool.

Jeffrey Hudson was a dwarf in the court of Henrietta Maria of France and chosen for the role because of his appearance. Born of a poor farming family, he was gifted to the Queen and would serve as her loyal companion. Another natural fool, the dwarf Perkeo was a German jester to the royal family in the 18th Century, and well known for his penchant of drinking enormous amounts of wine.

Part of the Recruiting Process

Many jesters in Russia were picked due to their older age. They were selected from the peasant or serf classes and favoured for their deformed or hideous appearance. This was a popular custom around the world and was an important part of the recruiting process. Often high-ranking nobles or traders would come across someone who stood out thanks to their physical appearance or wit, and they would be chosen to become a fool.

In Thailand, Nai Teh a dwarf was found on a hunting trip and trained to become a master of jokes and athletic feats, he was then given to the King Mongkut of Siam. In India, the story of Tenali Rama won his position as court jester by making the king laugh. This story like many others shows that first impressions really do make a difference, especially for the witty and humorous jesters of history. 

two jester smiling with sceptre

A.L. Grace | Medieval Jester (19th Cent.)

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