Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World

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In this lively work, Beatrice K. Otto takes us around the world in search of one of the most colorful characters in history—the court jester.  These quick-witted, quirky characters crop up everywhere, from the courts of ancient China and Mogul India to those of medieval Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. A cornucopia of anecdotes, jokes, quotations, epigraphs, and illustrations (including flip art) brings to light little-known jesters, highlighting their humanizing influence on the head honchos of history, and shining a more idiosyncratic, intimate light on figures of power and position.

Written with wit and humor, Fools Are Everywhere is the most comprehensive look at these roguish, vital personalities who risked their necks not only to mock and entertain but also to fulfill a deep and widespread human and social need.

“Through anecdotes, historical details, analyses, and commentary, Otto brilliantly delineates the court jester, and quotations and illustrations do much to enhance this eminently readable text."—Library Journal

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Editorial Reviews

Merle Rubin
A pleasure to read, this book was clearly a labor of love: engagingly written, assiduously documented, finely illustrated, and handsomely designed.
The Christian Science Monitor
Library Journal
Mention a court jester, and one pictures a whimsical creature in a belled hat or, perhaps, the ill-fated character in King Lear. Otto's lively, well-researched text proves that there are centuries of other examples and that the jester has a rich tradition worldwide. Recounting stories about jesters from You Zhan of the Qin dynasty (third century B.C.E.) to Gabriel La Mena of 16th-century Spain, Otto defines the many facets of the role--one who provides amusement, wit, diversion, advice, entertainment, companionship, undying loyalty, and more. Through anecdotes, historical details, analyses, and commentary, Otto brilliantly delineates the court jester, and quotations and illustrations do much to enhance this eminently readable text. She also discusses stage and literature portrayals and draws parallels to modern versions of the character, such as Will Rogers and Groucho Marx. The appendix contains a table of jesters and the courts, dates, and countries with which they were associated. Although intended for a scholarly audience, this is well worth a look by avid readers with an eye for an informative yet uncommon title.--Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226640921
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 444
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Beatrice K. Otto lives and works in Geneva.

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Read an Excerpt

Fools Are Everywhere

The Court Jester Around the World

By Beatrice K. Otto

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-64091-4

Chapter One

Fooling Around the World:
The History of the Jester
(from Chapter 1:
Facets of the Fool and Chapter 7:
Stultorum Plena Sunt Omnia, or Fools Are

"Who Is Not a Fool?" ["Qui non
-Horace (65-8 B.C.), Satires, 2.3.158

Then come jesters, 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.
-Sima Xiangru (ca. 179-117 B.C.),
Rhapsody on the Shanglin Park

The jester is an elusive character. The European words used to denote him
can now seem as nebulous as they are numerous, reflecting the mercurial
man behind them: fool, buffoon, clown, jongleur, jogleor, joculator, sot,
stultor, scurra, fou, fol, truhan, mimus, histrio, morio
. He can be any of
these, while the German word Narr is not so much a stem as the sturdy
trunk of a tree efflorescent with fool vocabulary. The jester's
quicksilver qualities are equally difficult to pin down, butnevertheless
not beyond definition.

The Chinese terms used for "jester" now seem vaguer than the European,
most of them having a wider meaning of "actor" or "entertainer." In
Chinese there is no direct translation of the English "jester," no single
word that to the present-day Chinese conjures an image as vividly as
"court jester," fou du roi, or Hofnarr would to a Westerner. In Chinese
the jester element often has to be singled out according to context,
although the key character you does seem to have referred specifically to
jesters, originally meaning somebody who would use humor to mock and joke,
who could speak without causing offense, and who also had the ability to
sing or dance: "The you was also allowed a certain privilege, that is, his
'words were without offence' ... but the you could not offer his
remonstrances in earnest, he had to make use of jokes, songs and dance."
The term is often combined with other characters giving differing shades
to his jesterdom, an acting or a musical slant, for example: paiyou,
youren, youling, changyou, lingren, linglun
. All could include musical and
other talents, chang suggesting music, ling, playing or fooling, and pai a
humorous element to bring delight. Several of these terms are too
frequently translated as "actor" regardless of where they appear on the
etymological chain of evolution and even though they were used long before
the advent of Chinese drama.

Perhaps the earliest antecedents of the European court jester were the
comic actors of ancient Rome. Several Latin terms used in medieval
references to jesters (including numerous church condemnations of them),
such as scurrae, mimi, or histriones, originally referred either to
amusing hangers-on or to the comic actors and entertainers of Rome. Just
as there is now no clear distinction between the terms for "actor" and
"jester" in Chinese, so the Latin terms could merge the two. If there was
no formal professional jester in Rome, the comic actors fulfilled his
functions, sometimes even bearing a striking physical resemblance to what
is usually considered a medieval and Renaissance archetype. With periodic
imperial purges against actors for their outspokenness, many of them took
to the road and fanned out across the empire in search of new audiences
and greater freedom. Successive waves of such wandering comics may well
have laid the foundations for medieval and Renaissance jesterdom, possibly
contributing to the rising tide of folly worship that swept across the
Continent from the late Middle Ages.

An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a wide range of
backgrounds: an erudite but nonconformist university dropout, a monk
thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal
or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose
fooling amused a passing nobleman. Just as a modern-day television
stand-up comedian might begin his career on the pub and club circuit, so a
would-be jester could make it big time in court if he was lucky enough to
be spotted. In addition, a poet, musician, or scholar could also become a
court jester.

The recruiting of jesters was tremendously informal and meritocratic,
perhaps indicating greater mobility and fluidity in past society than is
often supposed. A man with the right qualifications might be found
anywhere: in Russia "they were generally selected from among the older and
uglier of the serf-servants, and the older the fool or she-fool was, the
droller they were supposed and expected to be. The fool had the right to
sit at table with his master, and say whatever came into his head."
Noblemen might keep an eye out for potential jesters, and a letter dated
26 January 1535/36 from Thomas Bedyll to Thomas Cromwell (ca. 1485-1540)
recommends a possible replacement for the king's old jester:

Ye know the Kinges grace hath one
old fole: Sexten as good as myght be
whiche because of aige is not like to
cotinew. I haue spied one yong fole
at Croland whiche in myne opinion
shalbe muche mor pleasaunt than
euer Sexten was ... and he is not past
xv yere old.

Fuller's History of the Worthies of England (1662) gives an account of the
recruiting of Tarlton, jester to Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), that further
illustrates this informality:

Here he was in the field, keeping his
Father's Swine, when a Servant of
Robert Earl of Leicester ... was so
highly pleased with his happy
answers, that he brought
him to Court, where he became the most
famous Jester to Queen Elizabeth.

A dwarf-jester called Nai Teh (Mr. Little) at the court of King Mongkut of
Siam (r. 1851-68), described by Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King of
, was similarly recruited:

He was discovered by one of the
King's half-brothers on a hunting trip
into the north and brought to
Bangkok to be trained in athletic and
gymnastic tricks. When he had
learned these, he was presented to the
king as a comedian and a buffoon.

A German, Paul Wust, declined an offer of a post as jester with the sort
of brazen dismissiveness that explains why he was asked. When Duke
Eberhard the Bearded of Wurtemburg (1445-96) invited him to be his jester
he replied, "My father sired his own fool; if you want one too, then go
and sire one for yourself" ("Mein Vater hat einen Narren fur sich gezeugt,
willst du aber einen Narren haben, so zeuge dir auch einen"). The same
story is attributed to Will Somers, who uses the joke to mock Henry's
predilection for chalking up wives:

His Majesty after some discourse
growing into some good liking of
him, said; fellow, wilt thou be my
fool? who answered him again, that
he had rather be his own father's still,
then the king asking him why? he
told him again, that his father had got
him a fool for himself, (having but
one wife) and no body could justly
claim him from him: now you have
had so many wives, and still living in
hope to have more, why, of some one
of them, cannot you get a fool as he
did? and so you shall be sure to have
a fool of your own.

The post of court jester might also appeal to somebody in need of a safe
haven. The thirteenth-century French tale of Robert le Diable has him
fleeing a populace baying for blood and forcing his way past the footmen
to gain access to the emperor, who duly takes him under his wing as a
jester, saying that nobody should be allowed to beat him. Alfred de
Musset's play Fantasio (1834) is about a dandy whose job as jester allows
him to escape and evade creditors, and a Scottish miscellany tells us how
one of the most roguish historical jesters found his vocation:

Archie Armstrong ... after having
long distinguished himself as a most
dexterous sheep-stealer, and when
Eskdale at last became too hot for
him, on account of his nefarious
practices, he had the honour of being
appointed jester to James I. of
England, which office he held for
several years.

Tarlton tended pigs, Archy stole sheep, and Claus Hinsse (d. 1599), jester
to Duke Johann Friedrich of Pomerania (d. 1600), began his working life as
a cowherd. Wamba, "son of Witless," the jester in Sir Walter Scott's
Ivanhoe, was, like Tarlton, a swineherd, and Claus Narr (Fool), one of
Germany's most famous and long-serving jesters, was tending geese when he
was recruited. He was jester to four Saxon electors and one archbishop
during the last quarter of the fifteenth century and first quarter of the
sixteenth, and there are more than six hundred stories about him. One day
when the first of his patrons, Elector Ernst (d. 1486), was traveling
through Ranstadt with a lot of horses and wagons, Claus became curious
about all the commotion and went to see what was happening. Worried that
his geese would be stolen, he secured the goslings by putting their necks
through his belt while he carried the older geese under his arms. When
Ernst saw him he laughed at his simplicity and decided he was a born
jester. He asked Claus's father's permission to take him to court:

"That would be great, Sir! I'd be
relieved of a great encumbrance
thereby; the youth is no good to
me-he makes nothing but trouble in
my house and stirs up the whole
village with his pranks." ["Sehr gern,
Gnadiger Herr, ich wurde dadurch
eines grossen Verdrusses uberhoben,
denn der Junge ist mir nichts nutze,
in meinem Hause macht er nichts als
Unruh, und durch seine Possen
wiegelt er dass ganze Dorf auf."]

Ernst then gave Claus's father twenty guilders as compensation for the
strangled goslings and other gifts besides. The story is an insight into
the charitable element often involved in the recruiting of "naturals." To
a poor family, a natural might be a heavy burden, and it could clearly be
a relief to have him taken in and looked after by a wealthy family.
Generally speaking there is little to suggest that this was not done in a
humane and kindly manner, although in England there was a law allowing the
estates of a natural to be handed over to a person offering to care for
him, which could lead to their being recruited under false pretenses.

A similar story is told of Jamie Fleeman (1713-78), the Scottish jester to
the laird of Udny. He complemented his jesting duties with those of a
cowherd and goose guardian, and when he one day grew irritated by the
geese wandering willy-nilly, he twisted some straw rope around their necks
and started walking home, unaware that they were being throttled one by
one. By the time he realized it was too late, and since it was a rare
breed of geese, he would have been in big trouble. So he dragged the
corpses into the poultry yard and stuffed their throats with food. When
asked whether the geese were safe and sound, he replied cheerfully, "Safe!
they're gobble, gobble, gobblin' as if they had nae seen meat for a
twalmonth! Safe! Ise warran' they're safe aneuch, if they hae nae choked

In India the same entrance requirements prevailed: make me laugh and
you're in. Tenali Rama, one of the three superstar jesters of India, is
said to have earned his position as jester by making King Krsnadevaraya
laugh. According to one story, he contrived for the king's guru to carry
him around on his shoulders within sight of the king. Outraged at the
humiliation of his holy man, the king sent some guards out to beat the man
riding on the guru's shoulders. Tenali Rama, smelling impending danger,
jumped down and begged forgiveness of the guru, insisting that to make
amends he should carry him on his own shoulders. The guru agreed, and when
the guards arrived the guru was duly beaten. The king found the trick
amusing enough to appoint Tenali Rama his jester. In China, despite the
abundance of anecdotes about jesters once they enter royal service, there
is very little background information available. Nevertheless the
universal jester skills displayed by the Chinese jesters suggest that
their appointment was as meritocratic as in Europe.

A description of Rabelais's Panurge encompasses many of the jester's
characteristics: "Irreverent, libertine, self-indulgent, witty, clever,
roguish, he is the fool as court jester, the fool as companion, the fool
as goad to the wise and challenge to the virtuous, the fool as critic of
the world." He could be juggler, confidant, scapegoat, prophet, and
counselor all in one. If we follow his family tree along its many branches
we encounter musicians and actors, acrobats and poets, dwarfs, hunchbacks,
tricksters, madmen, and mountebanks.

A Cavalcade of Cavorting Fools

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb
like the sun, it shines everywhere.
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth

We have all seen how an appropriate
and well-timed joke can sometimes
influence even grim tyrants.... The
most violent tyrants put up with their
clowns and fools, though these often
made them the butt of open insults.
-Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly

The court jester is a universal phenomenon. He crops up in every court
worth its salt in medieval and Renaissance Europe, in China, India, Japan,
Russia, America and Africa. A cavalcade of jesters tumble across centuries
and continents, and one could circle the globe tracing their footsteps.
But to China the laurels. China has undoubtedly the longest, richest, and
most thoroughly documented history of court jesters. From Twisty Pole and
Baldy Chunyu to Moving Bucket and Newly Polished Mirror, it boasts perhaps
more of the brightest stars in the jester firmament than any other
country, spanning a far wider segment of time. The jester's decline began
with the rise of the stage actor as the Chinese theater became fully
established during the Yuan dynasty. In many respects actors seem to have
taken up the jester's baton not only in entertaining their patrons, but
also in offering criticism and advice no less clear for being couched in
wit. Perhaps only in ancient Rome did jesters and actors overlap so much.

In comparison with those of China, the numerous jesters of Europe,
although flourishing for some four hundred years, are something of a
dazzling display of shooting stars. Perhaps because the European court
jesters were so inextricably linked with the tradition of folly that
straddled the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, their time was relatively
short-lived, and they died out more or less as the fashion for folly
faded. But for as long as they lasted, which was no mere blip, their
influence permeated court life. It is a common belief that Europe was the
center of the court jester's cosmos, providing the control against which
other jesters, such as they are, may be measured.


Excerpted from Fools Are Everywhere
by Beatrice K. Otto
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Number of Fools Is Infinite
1. Facets of the Fool
2. The Scepter and the Bauble
3. In Risu Veritas, or Many a True Word Spoken in Jest
4. Overstepping the Mark: The Limits of His License
5. Religion, Erudition, and Irreverence
6. All the World's a Stage
7. Stultorum Plena Sunt Omnia, or Fools Are Everywhere
Epilogue: Future Fooling?
Appendix: Table of Named Jesters
Glossary of Chinese Characters
List of Abbreviations
Illustration Credits

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