Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Jesters Jokers Fools Tricksters
Crack open a new deck of cards, and what do you pull out? The jokers , of course. Also called jester, fool, trickster, buffoon, jack-pudding, and wearer of the motley, this character is nearly universally recognized, but seldom seen live anymore.
Historians believe that jesters entertained prehistoric tribal society with their Wise Fool antics. What is certain though is that court jesters grew and flourished in the Middle Ages as well-paid attendants of Europe’s Royal Courts. Power was highly consolidated in medieval times and social mobility was difficult. A child of peasants was likely to become a peasant, and stone masons gave the world more masons, just as royalty bred royalty. In contrast, jesters could move up the social ladder. They came from a wide range of backgrounds — from peasant farms and monasteries to universities. Quite a few had physical deformities and learned to wring laughs from what otherwise could’ve been an unfortunate situation. Usually, they climbed up the social ladder and were prized for their outsider’s humorous take on life. For instance, when Shakespeare’s King Lear was brooding alone in the woods, the only company he wanted was his amusing fool.
Not all jesters were so lucky to do lunch with the royals. Most subsisted by performing in the marketplace or town square, showcasing their art on a simple stage they “built,” such as a decorative carpet thrown on the ground, or a circle drawn with a stick in a village square. These resourceful jesters would gather an audience with clever attention-grabbing techniques (“Come see me leap from the bell tower…while sipping an ale!”) and after enough curious bystanders gathered, they’d begin their show, which steadily climbed to a climax, at which point they would solicit donations from the crowd. If an especially amusing jester was lucky enough to be seen by a royal court representative, he could get an invitation to audition as a court jester. Definitely a gig not to turn down!
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