Jesters in the Middle Ages

History - Middle Ages




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During the Middle Ages, members of nobility enjoyed a leisure life and often they used to appoint or employ a professional clown whose major task was to entertain a king or noblemen of the medieval period. These jesters also referred to as a clown, or buffoon, or a fool. These jesters in the Middle Ages were similar to the circus clown of current period. Those jesters who got work of entertaining the king and his court were considered highly respectable and powerful and they had influence over the medieval society.

Role of Jesters in the middle ages

While jesters played an insignificant role in court life, they certainly played a role that brightened up the entertainment for the court and the courtiers. The tradition of keeping jesters in courts was much older than the Middle Ages time. Medieval jesters were considered responsible to ease down the tensions of the king, of noble and to bring smile on his face whenever he felt tensed, worried, angry or ill. Thus, the role of jesters of medieval period was to amuse their masters and to excite them to pay more concentration about their duties. In this way, jesters also played a role to prevent over-oppression due to the political affairs and they also helped the members of nobility to rule well.

The jesters of royal courts were considered very powerful and they had significant powers. Most of the European royal courts of medieval period appointed jesters to perform during celebrations and palace parties. These jesters also used to depict the plays and dramas written by famous writers of medieval period. During the medieval period, women had little or no privileges and they were often considered as the property of their husbands. However, some women succeeded in becoming jesters and they used to accompany the queens of royal courts.

In many cases, the kings, queens, and confidants all used to have their personal jesters who often developed close relations and friendship with them. As a result, some jesters had gained significant political position during the medieval period. In some cases, Royal Courts used to consult with the jesters to make strategies for battles. One such case is mentioned in the book Fools are Everywhere, which was written by Beatrice Otto and was published in 2001. According to the book, in 1386, the Duke of Austria, Lepold the Pious, planned to attack Switzerland. Before beginning the war, he asked his personal jester about his opinion to attack the Swiss.

The name of personal jester of the Duke of Austria was Jenny von Stockach. He reportedly answered the Duke bluntly and said, “You fools, you’re all debating how to get into the country, but none of you have thought how you’re going to get out again.” The duke of Austria ignored his jester and began the war. However, the result of this war wasn’t good for Austria as the army suffered badly and a full brigade of knight passed out from thirst and heat and couldn’t make to the battlefield.

Clothing and dresses of Jesters in Medieval period

Jesters had their special clothing sense which often helped them to excite their masters and make them laugh. Jesters used to keep their heads shaved while their coats were used to be motley and they used tight breeches. In general, one leg of their breeches used to be of different color from the other. Jesters used to cover their shaven head with a garment which used to resemble with a monk’s cowl. This garment used to fall over the shoulders and chest of jesters. Medieval jesters also used to wear a hat which often depicted the ears of an ass. Later on, the assess tail was also added to the costume of a jester.

Gradually, the clothes and costume of jesters appointed in courts became gaudier with bright colors and humorous attire. Later on, jesters of middle ages started wearing a hat which was also known as a Fool’s hat. This hat was considered to be the most distinctive attire of a jester and it consisted of three points with a jingle bell attached at each of the three points of the hat. The jesters which were appointed in courts also used to carry a mock scepter which used to be known as a bauble. This mock scepter used to be adorned by an inflated bladder of an animal or a carved head.

Freedom of speech for Jesters in Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, jesters had a specific task and that was to entertain their noble masters. In order to achieve this task, they often used tricks and jokes and also used satire. These medieval jesters were provided with specific privileges which were not offered to many other persons of the court.

There used to be very few people in a court who could speak or criticize any act of the court especially if it was directly against the lord or the king of the court. Jester was one such person who could freely speak his mind out without worrying about the consequences. Jesters were not afraid of causing offence by telling what they thought. They often used humor to jibe, mock and joke about the lords, ladies and other members of nobility of the court. Usually, jesters were well educated and they used to come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

The Custom of Lord of Misrule

During the Middle Ages, the master of the Christmas revels was also known as the Lord of Misrule. He was also provided with similar privileges as accorded to the jester of courts. Masters of Misrule were provided with a specific privilege too as they could act as mock-monarchs. Masters of Misrule used to begin their reign on Allhallows Eve and their misrule used to end during the Candlemas.

Recognized English historian and antiquarian John Stow mentions, "In the feast of Christmas there was in the King's House, wheresoever he lodged, a Lord of Misrule or Master of merry disports, and the like had ye in the house of every nobleman of honour or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal."

During these days, the masters used to serve as the servants of Lord of Misrule. These mock-monarchs used to have all power to command anyone to do anything during these days of holiday.





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