Jesters and April Fools on the Web
April Fool's DayHistory, Traditions, and Foolishness
The Court Jester
The Jester Pages
Jonathan the Jester
Mindspring Celebrates a Festival of Fools!
Nasreddin Hodja: We Are Still Cutting the Branch That We Are All Sitting On
Notre Dame de Paris and the Feast of Fools
Roger the Jester
Urban Legends Reference Page on April Fool's Day
Web Holidays on April Fool's Day
An interview with
Read an excerpt from the book.
Q. Why is the jester so widespread? What are his distinguishing characteristics? And what purpose does the jester serve in these very different times and places?
A. First of all, I guess most people, however highly placed, have always wanted to take time off to relax. In the past they'd have been more reliant on live entertainment than now, and jesters would generally have sprung from that poolthere's a great deal of overlap between jesters and the acrobats, actors, musicians, storytellers, poets, jugglers and so on who could liven up the life of a big shot.
But it isn't just the need for entertainment that makes jesters so widespread, since pure entertainment could come from a variety of sources. There simply seems to have been a need (or desire) among the ruling elements of many cultures to allow certain individuals (or even small groups) of entertainers to be more intimate with those at the top.
For the most part this was an ongoing relationship, though in some places it could be a license that was limited to a specific, usually festive, occasionsome ritual clowns in America, India, or Africa (and I dare say other places) might fall into this category, or the fools-for-a-day that could pop up during a medieval European festival of fools, or the occasional liberties enjoyed by slaves during Roman Saturnalian topsy-turvy fun-days.
The intimacy enjoyed by jesters could manifest itself in different waysthe freedom to offer advice, to comment on or to criticize politics and policies; the trust that allowed confidences to be shared; or a certain readiness to let the jester have access to or address the king-pin without the formality that other members of his entourage might observe. It's this recognized license to speak freely which really distinguishes jesters from their colleagues, although of course that isn't to say nobody else could or did speak freely.
But it's also their tendency to offer opinions or criticisms using witty or quirkily indirect meansor stunning candorthat would distinguish them from most ministers or advisers. And unlike ministers they would usually (but not inevitably) come from a relatively humble background which could help give bigwigs insights into popular feelings to which they might not regularly have access.
And of course they could be further distinguished by an array of physical or mental abnormalitiesdwarfs and hunchbacks seem to have been prime candidates for the jester's role in many parts of the world, from the Chinese to the Aztec courts. In terms of mental quirks, while madnessreal or feignedhas occasionally enjoyed a certain respect in the Islamic world, as well as in China, Russia, and elsewhere, medieval Europe appears to have made a bigger deal out of it.
Despite the visual archetype of the jester that Westerners carry around with themthe chap wearing the cap and bellshis distinguishing characteristics aren't so much to do with costume. In some places he perhaps occasionally wore some kind of outfit that would mark him out from other entertainers, but by and large it's his qualities and function that make him different.
So, although he might have many features in common with other entertainers, a musical element for example, or the ability to juggle or perform tricks, it's really in the fact that he'd be more likely to have a personal and easy relationship with the head honcho in the establishment. That could be an emperor, king, lord, or in the case of Europe, a cleric. But there are no hard and fast distinctions, given that a court musician or a passing juggler could catch the eye of the ruler and thereby find themselves, explicitly or implicitly, appointed jester.
Q. Why do you think the Chinese have virtually forgotten their court jesters while they are remembered so fondly in Europe?
A. This is a great question. I'm not sure the Chinese have forgotten their court jesters in that if you mention some of the key historical jesters by name, Chinese people will often know exactly who you mean and what they were about. Where they seem out of touch with their own past is in a lack of awareness of the role and influence of jesters in Chinese history, besides one or two household names.
Furthermore, jesters don't really feature in modern Chinese culture (whereas references to jesters or jesterlike behavior are fairly common in the West) despite the fact that China, just like the West, still has people fulfilling a jesterlike role. And modern Chinese doesn't seem to have a single word like 'jester' which clearly communicates the function. So to clarify 'jester' you end up referring to a few by name to trigger recognition of the role, and if they're reasonably well versed in history, they'll cotton on.
Partly the confusion in Chinese is that one of the main terms that originally was used to mean 'jester' can also now mean 'entertainer' or 'actor'. Since Chinese drama partly originated with jester skits, and there was for a time some overlap between actors and jesters as the dramatic tradition developed, it's understandable that the word is more likely to mean 'actor' in most people's minds.
In contrast to China, Westerners usually know exactly what you mean when you use the word 'jester' (or the French, German, Spanish, or whatever equivalent). I've been surprised at the unconscious grasp people have of what distinguishes a jesterfew people seem to identify him by his costume as much as by his license to speak freely. Yet unlike the Chinese, it's extremely unlikely that even a very well educated Westerner would recognise the name of a single historical jester. Interestingly, English speakers almost without fail use Shakespeare's jesters as their point of reference, with King Lear's Fool being the most commonly cited, while continental Europeans could more readily name one of the many folk-fools who've enjoyed widespread popularity.
There may be another reason tooperhaps it hasn't been politically correct to view Chinese emperors as being too human and approachable. Yet their recorded interactions with jesters do show them often acting in a warm, spontaneous, humorous, and humane manner. However, this perhaps applies also to our common view of kings and other rulers in the past, given that history books don't tend to accentuate this human, intimate aspect of them. So by looking at people in authority through their relationships with their jesters, we can perhaps enrich our understanding of what made these rulers tick (and therefore find them more likeable).
Q. What was the nature of the relationship between rulers and their jesters? Why did kings, queens and emperors not only tolerate their fools, but often treat them with respect and affection? How did jesters get away with 'speaking truth to power' in situations that would have gotten almost anyone else in the court (and sometimes even the jesters themselves!) exiled or beheaded?
A. I guess some rulers just inherited jesters or had them because it was the thing to do, but there's a huge amount of evidence pointing to the majority having enjoyed the company and closeness that jesters could offer. As for treating them with respect and affection, which seems to have been pretty common, well, 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? (I suspect this is where the difference between powerful rulers and dictators liesa dictator is unlikely to tolerate somebody telling him what he doesn't want to hear.) And how about if he made you laugh into the bargain, and lightened up some formal do you had to sit through with his antics? Imagine, next time you sit in a dull committee meeting, having a jester sitting on your shoulder cracking jokeshe'd win my affection in double time.
I think they got away with speaking truth to power by not threatening power. Rarely were jesters likely (or much inclined) to try stealing power for their own benefit (though they weren't averse to winning gifts and goodies here and there). This lack of threat to incumbent power could also be reflected in their sometimes having a quirky appearance or a mental abnormality. They also worked within the status quo; they might risk their life to tell the ruler a thing or two, but they weren't revolutionary in the sense of trying to destroy the existing power structure, preferring to change behavior as the outsider operating within the system.
And they also got away with it because of the trust that could exist between king and foolpart of the jester's role included that of confidant. And of course candor itself can be disarming, particularly when combined with the tendency among jesters to be true to themselves and hang the consequences. They could be tricksterish, mischievous, and irreverent, but they weren't generally scheming or conspiratorial. So while a jester might trick the king into landing him a fat present, he wasn't likely to plot his overthrow.
But all of that aside, they were just plain funny, and knew how to make things palatable or how to defuse situations with witty logic. Don't most people find it easier to take criticism that makes them laugh in the delivery? And even when that failed and they found themselves on the brink of exile or execution, they managed with surprising frequency to wriggle out of trouble with another joke.
Q. In your book you recount numerous stories and sayings about jesters from around the world. How about telling us one or two of your favorites?
A. How long have you got? It depends which day of the week you ask me; I can come up with one today and by next week I'll remember one I think is better. . . . But let me try.
In the ninth century, the mad yet wise Buhlul of the Arabic world, who was jester to Harun al-Rashid, was once asked by the great caliph whom he most admired. 'The person who most fills my belly,' he answered. The caliph asked, 'If I fill it, will you admire me?' The irreverent jester said, 'Perhaps, but you can't obtain admiration on credit.'
The Chinese emperor gave Dong Fangshuo a list of China's most renowned scholars and asked him to rate himself by comparison. The jokester said brazenly: 'When I see them clacking teeth and fangs, puffing out jowls, spluttering from the mouth, craning necks and chins, lining up flank by thigh, pairing off buttock bones, snaking their way along, mincing side by side in crook-backed ranks, then I say to myself, Shuo, you may not be much, but you're still equal to all these gentlemen put together.'
And of course, I always like the one about the French jester Marais telling the monarch that there were two things he couldn't stand about being a kingeating alone and shitting in public.
There's a less blunt but punchier example of forthrightness regarding a Middle Eastern king who was meting out pretty harsh punishments800 lashes for this man, 1200 for that, 1500 for the other. His jester, the folk-fool mullah Nasrudin, interrupted him with an apparently irrelevant question: 'Oh King, do you know everything?' 'Of course I do,' snapped the king. 'Then how could you inflict such punishment? Either you don't know the meaning of the number 1500, or you don't know the sting of a whip.'
OK, I'd better move on here, or I'll keep adding more favorites. . . .
Q. Why were some fools considered holy?
A. The issue of fools and religion is vast and intriguing, but to begin with I'd say that it's less a case of some fools being considered holy, than some holy men being considered foolsand that could be as much in the pejorative sense as in the notion of the 'wise fool.'
In a religious context, the fool could be the man who spurned worldly success for a more spiritual calling, which might apply in Europe or Russia for example; or it could be a Chinese Buddhist monk or a Muslim dervish whose humor or apparent nuttiness could challenge people's beliefs. That said, not all holy fools were humorous, although they might still have the jester's fearless forthrightness, and could similarly be indifferent to the earthly power of a king.
And distinct from holy foolsreligious men who acted outside the norm of their profession either out of eccentricity or to make a pointare jesters who happened to be clerics. Europe has quite a number of stories of real or folk-fools who happened to be priests, though there's often nothing about them to tell you they were priests beyond their being named so. In Italy there were a few such jester-priests (or do I mean priest-jesters?) who would mock religion and even get in trouble when they went too far. In German there are stories about the folk-fool Priest of Kalenberg, some being adaptations of stock anecdotes and some being original to him. Either way, a real priest-joker could become the basis for a legend which would grow until no one could be sure what was a true story, what was an embellishment, and what was plain fiction.
Q. Have scholars ever played the fool? Why?
A. Yes, they have. Why? Because they had a sense of humor, or because they figured it was a better way to communicate than by earnest instruction or entreaty, having noticed perhaps (which scholars don't always) that people might grasp what you're saying better if you make it funny or quirky or colorful.
Thomas More was a kind of jester-scholar, but this seems to have been simply to do with his personality rather than out of any calculated communications strategyhe just couldn't help cracking jokes. On the other hand, there's one instance of a Chinese scholar saying he decided to start acting the fool because he figured no one listened to him when he presented his opinions in a serious way, so by fooling he could get the point across a lot better. But then he must have had the talent of a jester to succeed in that approachhave you ever seen people who aren't funny try to be funny because they think it seems like a good idea at the time? Dull as ditchwater and embarrassing to boot.
Q. Throughout your book you mention various famous jesters across time and space. Can you tell us about some of the best known jesters?
A. This is a bit like 'tell us your favorite jester story'I can't decide which of them I like best. The Chinese Dong Fangshuo is a hell of a character to get to grips with and I've only really looked at him in his jester capacity. He was also a courtier, a scholar who has a number of works attributed to him, a Taoist Immortal, and a couple of planets (Jupiter and Venus, or is it Jupiter or Venus depending on your standpoint?). Imagine trying to write his biography? He's cheeky as anything and one of my favorite stories above is about him.
I also feel warmly towards Henry VIII's Will Somershe comes across as merry and plain-speaking, very kind, but pulls no punches. There are a lot of stories about him, although some of them are legends built on the real Will. I like Archy Armstrong too (who served with James I and Charles I), though he wasn't as gentle as Will Somers seems to have been, being rather a boisterous and wonderfully irrepressible character who always ended up having the last laugh even when he upset some powerful people.
The Persian Talhak, Turkish Nasrudin, and Arab Buhlul (with a bit of overlap here and there) are a terrific trio of sharp-witted jesters. Buhlul was known simultaneously as a madman and a wise fool. Nasrudin crops up all over the place and people tussle over whether he was born in their country or somewhere else. Talhak is kind of the archetype for Persian jesters who was always joking at the expense of the Sultan by suggesting he was a cuckold. Not that the Sultan was offended at all.
And in India the jester scene is dominated by a triumvirate of Tenali Rama, Gopal, and Birbal. There's even a soup named after Birbal (although I've no idea how it tastes). And you can buy comic books about them, which is interestingI don't know of anywhere else that you can find comic strips about jesters.
Q. In your Epilogue, you mention that we need jesters today in the halls of industry every bit as much as we did in the courts of old. What role does the jester have to play in the twenty-first century?
A. I'd say not just in industry, but in politics and society at large. My feeling is that perhaps in the business world jesters are more likely to flourish than in the traditional political arena, although that doesn't mean those who govern us now don't need them as much as they ever didthey may just not be aware of how badly. A few more jesters in politics and we might not have to listen to as much soundbite silliness as we now hear.
So jesters may expect a revival in the corporate world, either as outsiders brought in to liven up a gathering or a brain-storming, or appointed from within, on an occasional or even ongoing basis.
For society at large, and politics, I suspect the jester's role will continue to be fulfilled by political cartoonists and stand-up comedians who have the same knack of sussing out the general mood and communicating its essence in a funny way.
I guess we'll always need jesters or jester types because there's always going to be a lot that deserves to be mocked or cut down to sizeuntil we either lose our ability to laugh, or the world becomes miraculously devoid of daftness, dullness, and corruption. Looking at the record so far, it'll take the extinction of the human race for that to happen, so I don't see jesters going out of business soon, and it'll be a sad and dangerous day if they do. They have a very strong role to play even in democratic societies, since those are far from perfect. And in totalitarian states my impression is that jesterlike humor is quite hard to suppress because it's part of the survival mechanismit just goes underground and acquires a sharper edge.
So all in all, the jester is not just a historical curio, but a dynamic element of human society. I just hope I can add a bit to that joyous dynamism with Fools Are Everywhere.
Beatrice K. Otto
Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World
©2001, 444 pages, 49 halftones, 66 line drawings
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-64091-4
Paper $27.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-64092-1
For information on purchasing the bookfrom bookstores or here onlineplease go to the webpage for Fools Are Everywhere.
- Our catalog of History books
- Our catalog of books in Asian studies
- Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters
- Murray S. Davis, What's So Funny? The Comic Conception of Culture and Society
- Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies
- John Allen Paulos, Mathematics and Humor: A Study of the Logic of Humor