Playing The Fool
Updated: May 15, 2022
"Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere."
—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
In the opening of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the citizens of Medieval Paris gather for the annual Feast of Fools celebrating the new year. It also happens to be the king's wedding day as well. Part of the festivities is the selection of the Pape des FousPope of Fools. In the novel, the people get to vote for the ugliest person to be the Pope of Fools. The contenders try to outdo each other in contorting their faces. Only Quasimodo, the hunchback, is naturally disfigured enough to win the election. With great frivolity and mockery, Quasimodo is crowned the Pope of Fools. In the Disney version of the story, this scene is the backdrop for the song "Topsy-Turvey." The idea, of course, was to turn the world upside down for a day.
Victor Hugo is noted for his historically accurate account of Medieval Paris, including the celebration of the Feast of Fools. Written documentation of the feast begins in the late 12th century, but the celebration probably goes back to an earlier time period. The feast was celebrated in Northern France on or about January 1st. It was a day where the lower clergy of the church switched roles with the higher clergy. They donned grotesque masks, burned foul-smelling incense, and parodied the mass service. At the start, the church tolerated this hierarchal inversion. The word "fool" had a different connotation than it does today. In this case, fools represented the humble lower classes favored by God in the Bible. It was only when the liturgical celebration was grafted onto more secular activities that the church grew concerned. University students were known to march through the streets, faces covered with mud or dung as they mocked their professors, priests, officials, and even kings. These parades involved cross-dressing, lots of singing, lots of drinking, and pranks. In time, the Feast of Fools developed to be more licentious and bawdy, where the rich and powerful became the butt of jokes and mockery. By the 15th century, the church condemned the Feast of Fools, and subsequently, it was made illegal.
Similarly, the English had the Lord of Misrule, and in Scotland, there was the Abbot of Unreasons. These were associated with Yuletide activities in those countries. For most of Christiandom, the time before Lent was allotted to Carnival. Carnival, in part, was meant to be the last period of feasting prior to the strict fasting rules of Lent. Though specific traditions and names varied from region to region, Carnival meant drinking, eating, and overindulging. Mock battles waged as food fights. Authorities were the subject of satire and parody. Masks, like in other similar festivals, played an important part. Masks and costumes tended to be grotesque in nature, with excessively large features such as noses, mouths, and genitalia. Many incorporated aspects of animal bodies. Revelers were irreverent, and humiliating and degrading acts were acceptable. Everyday rules were gleefully broken.
The Feast of Fools, Carnival, the Lord of Misrule are examples of festivities centered around the idea of social hierarchies and social norms being upended. The exact origins of such traditions are debated among historians, but most agree that they can be traced back to ancient festivals. For instance, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia and Hilaria, where social inversion played an important. These themselves were adaptations of older Greek and Egyptian festivals. Nor was this just a singularly Western phenomenon. Around the time of the Vernal Equinox, the Hindus celebrate Holi. Celebrants throw colored powder and water at each other, and the restrictions of caste, gender, and status are broken for one day.
Why these types of festivals developed is uncertain. The most popular argument is that they provide a proscribed outlet for societies with strict social order. They diffuse the energies of the populace with the hopes of mitigating feelings of unrest. It was a societal release valve. Others point to the more egalitarian nature of the celebrations. The concept that everyone has the same human urges regardless of perceived status. The rich and powerful can be as foolish as the common person. It was a way to knock them down to everyone else's level.
Regardless, this societal misrule was more than symbolic. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, the fool, or jester, was an actual person within courtly households.
Despite today's stereotypes, the jester played an important role. Many depictions of jesters show them as social outcasts lacking in physical or mental capacities. For the most part, the opposite was true. Much like contemporary stand-up comedians, aspiring jesters worked at local pubs or as part of a company of mummers. They could be discovered from any social class. Jesters displayed several skills. They sang, played instruments, told puns, were acrobats, and performed magic tricks. Though they were primarily for entertainment, a jester could not entertain a lord or lady every night. Therefore, jesters also fulfilled other roles within the household. They worked as servants in the kitchen, stables, or other occupations. In the end, they were known for their quick wit.
There is a story about Triboulet, the jester at Francis I's court I (1494 - 1547) of France. He swatted the king on the royal backside. The king was furious, but he would forgive the transgression if Triboulet could apologize in a more offensive manner. It is reported that Triboulet apologized by saying he mistook the king for the queen. In King Lear, Shakespeare portrays the fool or jester as an advocate of the court. He is a trusted advisor, loyal to the king, but honest and able to point out the king's flaws. Shakespeare's depiction is not far from the role jesters played at court.
Some jesters were even assassins. During the 16th century, Tom Skelton was the jester for the Pennington family that owned Muncaster Castle in England. As the story goes, the unmarried daughter of Sir Pennington was having an affair with a carpenter's son. A local knight, who wished to marry the girl, discovered the illicit romance. He hired Skelton to murder the boy, which Skelton did. It is not known how much of this story is simple folklore. Still, considering that jesters were in a position to obtain the confidences of members of a household, it is not unreasonable to believe that some jesters didn't leverage this knowledge.
Since the 17th century, the meaning of the word fool began to change. Closer to our modern conceptions, a fool was regarded as a silly person, a simpleton who was easily duped. During this time, April Fool's Day, whose origins are murky, started to become popular. This when we played pranks on the foolishly gullible folks. In literature and drama, the fool became the comedic relief. The fool also became the object of derision. He went from the one mocking to the one being mocked.
Yet, the role of the fool and role reversal, gender-switching, and mistaken identity, has grown to be a universal staple of the comedic arts. Our modern-day comedies can trace their ancestry back to mummer plays, the Feast of Fools, and the Commedia dell'arte of Italian Carnival.
The New Year's Feast That Transformed Fools Into Popes And Kings: Sarah Laskow (Atlas Obscura)
Fools Are Everywhere: Beatrice Otto
The Life of A Court Jester in Medieval and Tudor Times: Karen Maitland (HistoryExtra)