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What did court jesters actually do?

Court jesters are frequently portrayed as cartoonish figures dressed in colorful pointed hats and jangling bells. Though their qualities have often been caricatured over time, court jesters were indeed real, and they played a significant role at courts across Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance era.

The roots of the court jester can be traced back to the comedic actors, or balatrones, of ancient Rome. Due to Rome’s periodic censorship crackdowns on these outspoken actors, many became roving performers, traveling throughout the empire in search of new audiences and opportunities. These roving comics may have helped lay the groundwork for medieval jesters, and contributed to the growing popularity of comedic folly across Europe.

Historical references to what we now know as jesters became more frequent between the 12th and 15th centuries. At the time, they were commonly known as “fools”; the word “jester,” from the Middle English “gestour,” meaning “entertainer,” became more common throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. The jester’s primary function was to serve and entertain royalty through stories, music, juggling, acrobatics, magic tricks, and other humorous acts. One famously funny figure even made a living out of flatulence. In the late 12th century, King Henry II of England gave a fool named Roland le Petour (Roland the Farter) 30 acres of land for visiting the royal court each year on Christmas Day to jump, whistle, and, yes, fart. 

While the jester’s clownlike reputation speaks to its primary role as a playful performer, their position at court was more complex. They not only entertained with great skill, but also were often intelligent and trusted advisers who could critique political decisions, social norms, and behaviors of the nobility under the guise of humor — a significant departure from the “fool” image they have in contemporary culture. Jesters were also expected to assist with household chores and partake in more serious matters, including accompanying soldiers to the battlefield in times of conflict. Beyond their entertainment duties for the troops, they would also be tasked with distracting the opposition, and delivering sometimes-dangerous messages across enemy lines

One of the jester’s most distinctive features is their unique clothing, but it wasn’t always as flamboyant as depicted today. In the early medieval period, they often wore hooded hats with donkey ears, then later, a monk’s cowl draped over their head and shoulders. By the 1600s, jesters were more likely to be seen in what’s now regarded as the iconic pointed hat, the jagged tunic, bells, and a scepter (known as a bauble). 

While the role was most often fulfilled by men, there were also female jesters. Mathurine de Vallois, who served in the French court for Henry III, Henry IV, and Louis XIII, was known for her elaborate Amazonian costume. Jane Foole, also known as Jane the Fool, is another well-known jestress who served the English court during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. While information on Jane is scarce, depictions in portraits show her outfitted not in typical jester clothing, but in nice, if plain, attire; she is also shown with a shaved head and a tight-fitting cap, an unusual style for women at the time.

One of the jester’s most distinctive features is their unique clothing, but it wasn’t always as flamboyant as depicted today. In the early medieval period, they often wore hooded hats with donkey ears, then later, a monk’s cowl draped over their head and shoulders. By the 1600s, jesters were more likely to be seen in what’s now regarded as the iconic pointed hat, the jagged tunic, bells, and a scepter (known as a bauble). 

While the role was most often fulfilled by men, there were also female jesters. Mathurine de Vallois, who served in the French court for Henry III, Henry IV, and Louis XIII, was known for her elaborate Amazonian costume. Jane Foole, also known as Jane the Fool, is another well-known jestress who served the English court during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. While information on Jane is scarce, depictions in portraits show her outfitted not in typical jester clothing, but in nice, if plain, attire; she is also shown with a shaved head and a tight-fitting cap, an unusual style for women at the time.

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