Friday, May 25, 2007

Oh Al

Oh, Al ...


"In the Middle Ages, often the Court Jester was the only guy who could tell the truth without getting his head cut off..."


*headdesk*


By the way, what do we even know about court jesters? I can't think of a single reference to them in any historical source. I mean, there's Lear, and there's the elevation of the Fool at Carnival, but does anyone know when/how this idea (and the whole Queen of Hearts, "off with her head" thing) came into our common (mis)perception of the MA?

16 comments:

Dr. Virago said...

ADM, where's the wire tap you put in our house? -- Because that's *exactly* what I said to Bullock last night as we were watching the show (except for the bit about the Queen of Hearts).

The only other English clown/fool I can think of is also Shakespeare's -- Feste in Twelfth Night. And there are the Commedia del Arte clowns. But like Shakespeare, they're early modern and fictional. There are the 'natural' fools in 17th/18th c. paintings of royalty (especially Spanish, I think) I can hazily bring to mind.

But no medieval fools. But then I'm a literature person, so I'm sure there's lots I'm unfamiliar with. Still, I'll be intrigued and surprised if anyone come up with a non-fictional "court jester" from a medieval source.

jim said...

The 1911 Britannica (sub "fool", written by W. He.) claims Hitard was the fool of Edmund Ironside, Scogan of Edward IV, Will Sommers of Henry VIII (which is post-MA, I guess) and "Muckle John" of Charles I (even more post-MA). Sources cited are Foegel, Geschichte der Hofnarren (1789) and Doran, History of Court Fools (1858).

jim said...

Oh, and the "off with his head" stuff is probably a memory of Henry VIII, who did, in fact, have quite a number of his political opponents (or potential opponents) executed by beheading.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Dr. V -- that's so funny! I'm glad to have my amazement confirmed, at least. I'd have felt pretty dumb if someone had come up with a ton of fools! Another friend mentioned Rahere, who was Henry I's (?) fool. And there is the fool in Lear, I think I said, but again, that's Shakespeare and late. Could we count C-C-Claudius?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, jim. Those are all relatively late for me, but I suppose I have to admit they are medieval. Still, I don't know enough about them to know whether they fit into the image of fool to which Gore refers...

Steve Muhlberger said...

How much does anyone know about Edmund Ironside, much less his fool?

Are the post Conquest English fools taken from the royal financial accounts?

jim said...

Prof. Muhlberger,

Hitard was the supposed beneficiary of a grant of land which afterwards came into the holdings of Canterbury. But monks forged these things, so he may not have existed.

Doran is in Google Books. His claims for post-conquest "joculatores" are based (second hand -- he quotes people who cite them) on wardrobe accounts.

My impression from the Britannica article was it was unlikely that there would be an 18th century Geschichte der Hofnarren if there really hadn't been any Hofnarren.

Dr. Virago said...

You know, I'm still willing to blame all of this on Enlightenment and Victorian medievalism (the 1911 Britannica included). The clearest images I can recall of literary "court jester" style fools, complete with the belled cap, are from Edgar Allen Poe and the like. (The jester who gets bricked up in the wall -- is that "The Cask of Amantillado"?) In fact, hmm, maybe Poe's 19th century gothic medievalism has a lot to answer for.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, I've already babbled too much, but I have something legitimate to add now -- as opposed to my "pulling it out of my you-know-where" last comment.

There's the late medieval visual, literary, and dramatic trope of Christ-as-fool in his trial before Herod. Most of it is a visual/dramatic variation or elaboration of what's already in the Gospels, but in late medieval terms. And though Christ doesn't speak at all in the dramatic representations of his appearance before Herod, the irony of Christ as fool works because of course Christ is Wisdom -- as well as Truth 'speaking' to power. I think Lear is definitely drawing on that imagery from the late medieval passion dramas -- in Cordelia's "nothing, my lord" as well as in the Fool. But in this case Christ-as-Fool is imagined a "natural fool" -- i.e., someone with a mental disability -- not someone paid to be a fool. But maybe the idea that the Middle Ages was full of professional Fools speaking truth to power is coming from these literary tropes.

jim said...

Dr. Virago is right, I think, that the images that are conjured up by the phrase "Court Jester" -- think of Danny Kaye in the movie -- derive basically from Victorian medievalism. It's probably time to unpack the notions in the Gore quote. I think there's at least three. (1) There were persons in large households whose only function was to amuse the head of the household. (2) Such people had a license to speak truth to the head of the household. (3) No others did. In fact, in royal courts, others who did would be beheaded.

The first is, I think, fundamentally true. There are documentation problems for medieval households: how do you distinguish payment to a musician from payment to a Fool? But early modern fools are well documented and there's no sign they've just been invented. I'd argue that a twelfth century monk inventing the land grant to Hitard to explain why the Cathedral owns this land tells us that court fools were sufficiently established that the invention was credible. We forgot one of Shakespeare's jesters: Yorick: "He hath borne me on his back a thousand times." Amuse the master by playing with his son. There's a fine line between fool and parasite.

Yes, the cap and bells are a medievalism. I know of only one picture of a household fool. Sir Thomas More kept a half-wit, Henry Patenson. He seems to have been a kind of pet. Valued enough that he was included in the group portrait of the More family that Holbein did. The painting was destroyed in a fire, but the sketch survives with the figures labeled. Patenson stares fixedly at the artist. He's dressed more poorly than the (rest of the) family, but in ordinary clothes, a laced-up jerkin and some kind of cap.

On the other hand, Nash, in Summer's Last Will and Testament, brings Will Sommers on at the beginning and has him say he's still wearing his Fool's coat. (Yes, there are puns all over the piece: it's a masque of the death of Summer and Autumn's succession, but as Summer makes out her will, Will Sommers comments on the action. The masque, by the way, is where "Brightness Falls From The Air" comes from.) The idea, I think, is that Sommers has just come from amusing the King and now he's going to amuse us -- an early modern twist. But it does show there was some sort of clothing that you could recognise a Fool by.

The second we get from Shakespeare. Lear's Fool and Feste exemplify it. Dr. Virago may be right that Shakespeare got it from Christ as Fool. But to some degree it's implicit in fool as pet. You don't blame your dog for barking; you don't blame your fool for what comes out of his mouth. He is, like a baby, innocent: "Out of the mouths of babes . . .."

The third notion, "off with his/her head," is a Victorianism. The Victorians had a morbid interest in beheading. It's not just Carroll. Think of Gilbert: "Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock/from a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block." The last actual beheadings had been after the '45.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Jim, most of those examples of fools aren't -- at least not in the sense that Gore is talking about. Or at least, they seem to be fools who are in fact fools -- the examples are of people who are mentally retarded, it seems. Taking care of such people, even as 'pets' as you put it, would have been seen as almsgiving, not as any form of entertainment. I can certainly see this in More's case -- what better way (in addition to wearing his hair shirt under his everyday clothes) to fulfill his obligation for good works and penance?

I think the only one that might count in the sense of court jester is Hitard, but I'd like to see that land grant and the original Latin (presumably it was in Latin?) first.

Michael said...

When it comes to the clothing of fools - particolor and dagging (the jagged hem) the place to go is Ruth Mellinkoff's amazing two volume _Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Norhtern European Art of the Late Middle Ages" (SUCH plates!). She explains it all to you - yes, the weird patchy cloth and the jagged hem have a coherent meaning - though they get adopted by elite fashion in the late m.a.

She really, really would like to be able to say the source is Roman, because there are surviving Roman examples of dagging, especiallly, for entertainers - but there's a lost chain of transmission right through our (ADM's and my) period. It shows up again in the 11th C.

Now as to the role of the jester in the court I'm not sure what she has to say (I don't have my own copy - it's in the library), but she will SURE have the bibliography.

Michael Tinkler
The Cranky Professor

Jonathan Dresner said...

I just remembered, thanks to an odd email (long story) that I posted a link to this book on jesters, which might be of some use.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

excellent! Thanks!

MDB said...

I can't speak much to the documentary record on fools, but the "truth-telling fool" was a common literary topos in the later MA-- there are several in Book 7 of Gower's Confessio Amantis, for example, and the fool shows up in some of the truth-telling rhetoric in Ricardian England (Piers Plowman, Mum and the Sothsegger). But I suspect he was always more of a convenient myth than a figure that would actually be tolerated in most courts. I'd guess that the modern/Victorian image of the jester derives, like so many other things, from Ivanhoe.

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