Court jesters conjure images of medieval feasts, where the fool, brightly dressed and belled, would entertain his Lords guests with mockery, mimicry, and jests. The role of the Fool, however, predates the medieval period. The Egyptians Pharaohs enjoyed being entertained by their fools as much as their later counterparts in Europe. Even the Romans loved a Fool, especially the “farting jesters” who, according to St Augustine could “produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seemed to be singing from that region.”
If the tradition of the fool was an ancient one, it was also much more varied than we imagine. For the role of the Fool was about much more than telling jokes and entertaining the aristocracy. For although many fools were mentally or physically disabled, others were highly trained, skilled individuals who acted as popular entertainers at carnivals and fair. Then there were the wise fools with a broader role, the councilors, and comforters whose advice even Kings would heed. These fools often acted as political go-betweens- even going into battle.
The ‘Little Servants’
By the 11thand 12th centuries, medieval Fools fell into the general category of Minstrels or ‘Little Servants. The term covered a whole range of entertainers besides jesters, including acrobats, musicians, and singers. However, “little servant’was an appropriate term for the household fools. For jesters were expected to perform a much broader role in the household than keeping people amused.
Noblemen did not entertain every night and certainly did not want the repetition of listening to the same entertainer, telling the same jokes. So when they were not performing, Fools would be found other work about the household. They might be put in charge of the care of their Lord’s hounds or work in the kitchens. They could also be sent to the market to buy goods for the household.
Highly trained medieval jongleurs may have felt such tasks to be beneath them. However, other fools would have been more than grateful to be of any use at all. For many noble families often adopted as their fools men and women marked by mental or physical disabilities. These ‘innocent fools’ were kept almost as pets under the guise of so-called Christian charity. Their masters provided them with food, clothing and a place to sleep in return for being a curiosity about the court. However, if their Lord decided they were no longer an asset to the household, they would be cast out. The lucky ones might receive a small pension. However, most were left to beg.
Some fools, however, performed much darker duties than a bit of housework. Thomas Skelton was the last professional fool at Muncaster Castle, near Ravenglass in Cumbria. Skelton was in the service of the Pennington family who had owned the castle for eight hundred years and was believed to have been the model for the royal jester in Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, legend tells that Skelton was also an assassin. For Helwise, the unmarried daughter of Sir Alan Pennington had taken Dick, a carpenter’s son and one of the servants at the castle as a lover. When one of Helwise’s other suitors, a local Knight, discovered the affair, he enlisted Skelton to take his revenge.
The knight asked Skelton to behead Dick with his own ax while he slept- and the jester was more than happy to oblige as he believed the young man had stolen money from him. In the aftermath, he bragged about his crime. “I have hid Dick’s head under a heap of shavings, ” he told the other servants. “And he will not find that so easily when he awakes as he did my shillings.”