To Mock the Mighty: A History of Court Jesters
Stańczyk, court jester to kings of Poland in The Prussian Homage by Jan Matejko
For centuries, jesters were a common sight in the courts of emperors, kings, sultans, dukes, caliphs, Tzars, the occasional Kaiser, Cardinal and Archbishop, various 19th century nobles, and at least one Pope.
Though they were often referred to as “royal fools” the jester’s role was far more complex than that of a prancing dwarf or hunchback (being physically “challenged,” though not all were, was considered a jester attribute) decked out in a silly cap and jangling bells.
Many held positions of privilege and considerable influence, accompanying sovereigns on war campaigns, to treaty negotiations and weddings. Some were keepers of secrets not safely committed to paper, others gatekeepers between a monarch and his supplicants, still others were trusted envoys.
Jesters almost always hailed from the lower classes, which gave them a different perspective and often, a vital detachment. Actor-fencing master-playwright Richard Tarlton had been a swineherd before being brought to the English court, where his “happy unhappy answers” made him a favorite. He told the formidable Queen Elizabeth I “more of her faults than most of her chaplains.” And yet she adored him.
Portrait of a Buffoon with a Dog by Diego Velazquez
“I can assign no reason for these pieces of deformity,” wrote Lady Mary Montague, a well-traveled, 17th century aristocrat, “but ‘tis the opinion all absolute princes have, that ’tis below them to converse with the rest of mankind and, not to be quite alone, they are forced to seek their companions amongst the refuse of human nature – these creatures being the only part of their court privileged to talk freely to them.”
Beatrice Otto, author of Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around The World, takes a different view. “If you were a big shot and used to being able to scare the hell out of people, wouldn’t you have respect for some funny chap who wasn’t scared of you and didn’t mind saying what he thought you ought to hear even if you didn’t like it?”
Perhaps the most familiar jester is Will Sommers, who served three successive British monarchs, most notably Henry VIII. Velasquez painted portraits of several of the 110 dwarves on King Philip IV of Spain’s payroll; Van Dyck paired English queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669) with her trusted dwarf, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, a.k.a. Lord Minimus, who was said to have been 18 inches tall and to have made his debut at court by popping out of a pie. Court jesters also appear in paintings by Rubens, Vasari, Veronese, and Botticelli.
Triboulet (a.k.a. Nicolas Ferrial), employed by both Louis XII and Francis I of France, served as a model for Rabelais and Victor Hugo characters, as well as for Verdi’s Rigoletto. The likenesses of others were carved in wood and chiseled in stone to decorate churches and public buildings.
Though the majority of royal jesters were male, there’s evidence of at least 16 females who graced the courts of Britain, France, Italy, Scotland, Saxony, and especially Spain.
Elizabeth I also kept company with Thomasina “our woman dwarf.” The jestress dwarf Mathurine (who famously risked her life blocking the exit of a young boy who’d attempted to stab her liege, Henry IV, in the throat) favored Amazon attire — armor, shield, wooden sword, and flowing robes. Though some jesters were treated as amusing oddities (and in the case of Emperor Hsuan-Tsung’s court, possibly even sexual playthings), many others were cherished and indulged.
Queen Henrietta of France with Lord Minimus, painted by Anthony van Dyck
Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, created a series of ornate, low-ceilinged, rooms, connected by staircases and scaled to size, both as living quarters for her “little people” and as backdrop for their display, tucked within the corridors of Palazzo Ducale, Europe’s largest palace at the time. A listing for 32 pair of custom-made shoes for “the queen’s dwarf” (presumably female) can be found in French court accounts of 1319; similar expenditures were recorded for Jesteress Jane, companion to Mary, Queen of Scots and for Artuade de Puy (companion to the wife of Charles I of France), who had a preference for fur collars and cuffs. In 1543, Catherine de Medici, patron of a jesteress named La Jardiniere, gifted a taffeta dress with silver trim to the dwarf of the visiting queen of Hungary.
The golden age of European jesters covered some 500 years, beginning in the 12th century. Scholars have identified 68 individual “fools” who graced the courts of Spain, 57 in France, 45 in England (not counting Ireland and Scotland), 23 in Italy, 19 in Germany, even a few in Iceland.
China, in contrast, was home to a 2,000-year jester tradition that began somewhere between 770 and 476 BC.
They sported names like Baldy Chunyu, Moving Bucket, Many Grandsons, Tall Towering Mountain, Wild Pig, Mole, Fitting New Bridle, Going Round in Circles, Subtle Reformer King, and Openly Flawless Jade.
Dongfang Shuo, Han Dynasty mandarin and court jester to Emperor Wu
Like their European counterparts, Chinese jesters aimed their arrows at anything deemed sacrosanct, mocking their sovereigns’ enemies and friends alike. They goaded the wise and challenged the virtuous. Not even Lao Tze or the Buddha was spared. Surpassable Li (Li Keji), jester to the Tang Dynasty court of Yizong (860-74) created a dangerously irreverent argument to the effect that Confucius was actually a woman. They diffused a monarch’s melancholy and, as one chronicler put it, provided “pleasant conceits…to take the edge off [his] displeasure.”
Like their European counterparts, Chinese jesters aimed their arrows at anything deemed sacrosanct, mocking their sovereigns’ enemies and friends alike.
Beyond that, they could voice disagreement (when others could not), use humor to highlight a monarch’s shortcomings, or simply opt for bluntness, a rare breath of fresh air for rulers constantly surrounded by unctuous, sycophantic courtiers. To these ends, it was essential that they were able to make their responsibility-laden employers laugh.
The expression wu guo chi – “fools of no offense” – is a Chinese nickname for jesters. But as comedians throughout time are well aware, knowing how far to push the envelope is an inexact science with shifting variables. Speaking truth to power will always be a paradoxical privilege. There were instances when excessive zeal resulted in banishment, imprisonment, or worse. In several cases, execution was evaded – at the eleventh hour – by the same silver tongue that had led to the fix in the first place.
Triboulet is said to have once slapped France’s Louis XII on the backside, an outrage to the royal person punishable by death. Allowed a reprieve if he could offer an apology more insulting than the deed, the jester managed to save his neck by replying that he’d mistaken the King for the Queen. The story, credited to numerous jesters at various times, is believed to have originated in the Far East.
A number of Chinese jesters were accomplished musicians. A Tang dynasty manuscript attributes Full Streamer Huang (Huang Fan Chu) with a particularly sharp musical ear.
One afternoon, already running late after having been summoned, he loitered outside the hall to gauge Emperor Xuanzong’s anger from the tune he was playing. Only when a new tune began did he enter the royal presence. The emperor demanded an explanation for his tardiness and was amazed at the response. How, he asked, could a slave know a ruler’s deepest feelings from his playing?
“Tell me,” he commanded, “how do I feel now?”
Bowing low, Full Streamer replied, “I respectfully accept Your Majesty’s royal pardon.” The emperor laughed and all was forgiven.
Jesters sometimes helped expose corruption at court. In 1499, aware that the chief civil service examiner was accepting bribes from candidates seeking the answers to the exam in advance, several jesters organized a wordplay game that turned on “cooked” and “uncooked pig’s feet,” homophones for “seen” and “unseen questions.”
Jesters sometimes helped expose corruption at court.
Parading before the emperor with a tray, one of the jesters hawked his wares: “Buy my trotters!” Someone asked “How much?” An enormous sum was quoted. “Why so expensive?” “Because,” the vendor explained, “these are all cooked trotters (shu ti), not raw ones (sheng ti).” The court erupted and the emperor suddenly realized what was afoot.
Jesters, themselves, weren’t above bribery. The misnamed Upright Fellow Wish (Zhu Hanzhen) served several emperors before receiving 20 lashes, followed by banishment, for accepting gifts of gold and silk from a court follower hoping for a prefecture from Upright’s boss, Emperor Gaozu of Northern Qi (555-59).
Jesters sometimes also provided reality checks on royal extravagance. Reverse psychology often did the trick.
Jesters sometimes also provided reality checks on royal extravagance.
When Er Shi (209-207 BC) decided to lacquer the Great Wall (which thousands had already died building), jester Twisty Pole praised the idea — into absurdity. “Magnificent! Smooth and shiny! Too slippery for any invaders to climb over!” And then, the calculated punchline: “ How big will the drying room need to be?”
When his favorite horse died of overindulgence and obesity, Emperor Weiwang decided it deserved a dignitary’s funeral and, not in the mood for debate, threatened death to anyone who disagreed. Jester Meng entered the king’s presence weeping profusely:
“It’s that horse of yours, Your Majesty,” he sobbed. “You loved him so much. Powerful as you are, anything you wish is yours for the asking. Yet all you desire is a minister’s burial. I beg you to give him all the honors due a monarch.”
Then he listed all the various sumptuous arrangements, including a fiefdom of 10,000 households to be bestowed on his equine descendants. “By these gestures, the world will know,” Meng summed up, with feigned innocence, “that Your Majesty prizes horses above mere men.”
When, duly chastised, the emperor asked how he might rectify his error, the pragmatic Meng suggested an immense cauldron as a coffin, a respectful showering of ginger, dates and flowers, a sacrifice of the most expensive rice, and a final resting place “in the bellies of men.”
Humorously indirect criticism, be it through riddles, impromptu verses or skits, was known as guifeng or fengjian.
When a debilitating cutback on the amount of grain paid to a mandarin as part of his salary was proposed, the court’s jester dressed up like a mandarin, then proceeded to remove his hat, belt and part of his robe. Asked what he was doing, he replied, “Cutting down by half!” Not satisfied with having made his point, he proceeded to stuff both legs into one pant leg and hop around. What are you doing now? “Cutting down by half!”
The grain cutback was cancelled.
Returning from exile after having quelled a rebellion, Emperor Xuanzong commented on the tinkling bells adorning one of his camels, suggesting they sounded like a human voice. Full Streamer took the opportunity to remark — in inimitable jester fashion — that the rebellion had been the result of the country being mismanaged. Combining the emperor’s name (Sanlang) with “sloppy” (langdang), he created an onomatopoetic imitation of bells. “Those camel bells,” the jester replied, “sound like someone saying ‘Sanlang. Langdang, san dangling dang.’” The emperor laughed, we’re told, and felt ashamed.
Jesters “are far from historical curios,” Beatrice Otto observed in an interview. “A few more jesters in politics,” she continued, “and we might not have to listen to as much soundbite silliness” — a prescient comment made five years before the launch of Twitter.
The obvious candidates for the job today are certain politically inspired entertainers like Stephen Colbert, John Stewart, Bill Maher and George Carlin, filmmaker Michael Moore, and the “raise Hell” contrarian journalist Molly Ivins. Not to mention their remarkable satirist predecessors, from Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken to Charlie Chaplin and Lenny Bruce.
Stephen Colbert pretends to interview Barack Obama on The Late Show
Perhaps more notable still, the mantle is carried by astute, witty, social commentators like Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury, who argued with colorful drawings that, on cursory glance, might be mistaken for children’s fare.
Political cartooning is often equated with the canary in democracy’s coal mine, a first alert when things turn toxic. “We need humor like we need the air we breathe,” notes Patrick Chappatte, a multi-award-winning talent whose “cartoon” reportage has raged from the war in Gaza and the slums of Nairobi to gang violence in Central America and the less savory aspects of Silicon Valley culture.
In July 2019, the New York Times (which had been awarded its first-ever Pulitzer for political cartooning the year before) summarily cut all political cartooning from its editions following a social media uproar over an image, reprinted from a Lisbon newspaper, that depicts President Donald Trump, blind and wearing a yarmulke, being led by Israeli president Netanyahu, depicted as a guide dog wearing a Star of David collar. As a result, all its cartoonists, including Chappatte, lost their jobs over a cartoon they didn’t draw. Instead of recognizing an opportunity for meaningful discussion, the New York Times kowtowed to the often-anonymous, moralistic mobs that inhabit cyberspace, opting for what Chappatte calls “preventive self-censorship” in the name of political correctness.
Political cartoons are meant to be thought-provoking. Satire breathes fresh air into the hothouse corridors of power; it points to the emperor and dares to proclaim “He’s naked!” Twitter, Chappatte notes on his blog, is a place for furor, not debate. “Freedom of expression is not incompatible with dialogue and listening to each other, but it is incompatible with intolerance.”
Satire breathes fresh air into the hothouse corridors of power; it points to the emperor and dares to proclaim “He’s naked!”
The Cartoonists Rights Network International monitors threats and abuses to the profession. Since 1999, it’s documented over a hundred cartoonists who’ve been victims of “murder, assault, kidnapping, physical intimidation, imprisonment, arrest, travel bans, police harassment, politically motivated lawsuits, freezing or seizure of assets, vandalism, cyber attack, online harassment, blacklisting, and bullying.”
And not just in places like Turkey, Malaysia, Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, and Russia. In January 2015, local Islamist gunmen attacked the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo – an irreverent satirical weekly that has poked fun at everything from Catholicism and Judaism to Charles de Gaulle – because it published a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. Twelve people were killed in what was the deadliest terrorist attack in France in 50 years.
Last month, China’s censors permanently banned the boundary-pushing animation, South Park, from its airwaves in response to its episode “Banned in China.” This episode managed to lambast everything from China’s death grip on artistic expression, its “re-education through forced labor” practices, and its sensitivity about homosexuality and illegal organ transplants, to corporate America’s shameless kowtowing for access to China’s 1.4 billion consumers. Specific jabs were aimed at Disney (Mickey Mouse as head despot), the Star Wars franchise, Google executives, and the National Basketball Association (which recently chastised a team manager who tweeted support for the Hong Kong protests).
The creators of South Park responded to the censure in true jester fashion, with a fake apology: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We, too, love money more than freedom and democracy. Long live the great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now, China?”
Fools, wrote Erasmus in 1511, have a gift “not to be despised. They’re the only ones who speak frankly and tell the truth…” “There’s always going to be a lot that deserves to be mocked or cut down to size…even in democratic societies,” observed Otto, half a millennium later. The world’s power brokers “need [jesters] as much as they ever did — they may just not be aware of how badly…It will be a sad and dangerous day if they ever go out of business.”