Being a good monarch in the medieval period and the Renaissance involved more than making good laws and sober judgements. It was also necessary to preside over a splendid court, with entertainments to delight friends and visitors. In particular, one part of these entertainments has gone down in history – the court jester.
In modern times, the jester tends to appear on the edge of dramatic action. He or she is often depicted in bright, even outlandish clothing, reinforcing a farcical reputation.
But fools and jesters seem to have had prominent places at European courts. They often appear in household records when many others go unnoticed, suggesting that they played an important role in courtly life. Henry VIII even had his most famous fool, Will Somers, included in a portrait of the royal family, albeit on the side-lines.
Providing physical or slapstick humour was a large part of their role. However, many were also renowned for their witty banter. They were there to provide more than just entertainment. The English physician Andre Boorde wrote in 1542 that ‘mirth is one of the chiefest things of Physick’ – that laughter is the best medicine! Fools could also get away with saying things other members of the court could not. Be it delivering bad news or criticising the monarch or other courtiers, the royal fool could use humour as the proverbial ‘spoonful of sugar’ to help the bad news go down.
There is much debate as to how intelligent such members of the court were – were they simply clowns or insightful satirists? It is difficult to judge from the sources we have, especially for Scotland.
Research indicates that there were two classes of fool – the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’. The former were people that we would now describe as having learning difficulties. Henry VIII’s Will Somers was such a fool.
There are at least two ‘fools’ recorded in Scotland in the reign of James V, John Maccrery and John Lowes, and it is very possible they were in this class as well. Their innocence was thought to bring them closer to God and so they were thought better able to speak the truth – no doubt a quality highly prised by monarchs.
‘Artificial’ fools were ‘jesters’. They were either well-educated satirists or physical clowns. One of this category was Mary of Guise’ jester Ferat, who may well have assisted James Atkinson the juggler in some more ‘low-brow’ entertainment.
Today, children are often chastised for ‘playing the fool’ or acting the ‘class clown’. Yet laughter, and the people who create it, should be highly valued, just as they were in those courts of times past. Laughter lightens us and makes us glad. And if someone can help us laugh at ourselves? Well, that’s even better.
Join us this Easter weekend and meet our jesters who will teach you everything you need to know about playing the fool.
Cultural Resouces Advisor, Historic Scotland