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 The Curious And Precarious Life Of A Medieval Jester

The Curious And Precarious Life Of A Medieval Jester

The medieval jester has become an iconoclastic figure in society, regularly appearing in the TV shows, films, and video-games of the modern era. The classic jester, replete with flamboyant colorful dress and a nimble wit to match, was a popular mainstay of medieval courts, which prized the artistic talents and stark honesty of the professional funnyman, delivered with a characteristic comedic flair. The wide range of names given to jesters in a variety of languages illustrated their widespread popularity not only in Europe. Among the English estates they were called menestrels or joculatores’, in France they were jongleurs, in Russia skomorokhi, in India komali, and for the tribes of Tonga, faakaluma. The word ‘jester’ was an Anglo-German construct, emerging in the 16th century from the word gestour which meant ‘storyteller’. 

The Jester by Claude Andrew Calthrop (1871) (Public Domain)

The Jester by Claude Andrew Calthrop (1871) (Public Domain)

Jesters could be found plying their trade in the streets, squares, and palaces of medieval Europe and in realms far beyond. Jesters could be divided into two types: a licensed fool was a person pretending to be a buffoon, but a natural fool was an individual who often suffered from some sort of mental illness to the amusement of noble keepers. In fact, the word ‘fool’ was completely synonymous with ‘jester’ in European courts, however, to call a jester an ‘idiot’ was a mistake. An enormous amount of talent and intelligence was required to become a successful jester, and the lucky few who were good enough could live a comfortable life under the wing of a wealthy patron, providing they were up to sufficient standard.


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