see it clearly
Learn more

Jesters of the Middle Ages

Jesters of the Middle Ages were well-paid attendants of European royal courts. During this time, power was consolidated into a tiered society where children of serfs became serfs, the children of craftsmen became craftsmen, and the children of nobility became nobility. Social climbing and shifting of station did not occur, except for jesters.

Jesters of the Middle Ages

The Original Social Climbers

Jesters came from a wide-range of backgrounds, including farms, towns, castles, monasteries, and universities. Much like the modern stand-up comedian, they were able to comment on social justice and injustice in such a way as to be both fun and funny. Many were physically deformed and could use their deformities to engender laughs and entertainment. Shakespeare remarked upon the power and trust in the Jester in King Lear when the title character refuses any company save for his fool.

By standing outside of society's organized tiers, the jester could serve as both entertainer and conscience. Typically, it was only the jester who could mock a king to his face. Jesters could develop close and trusted relationships with the royal people they served. Particularly because of all the courtiers, the jester would not offer false compliments or praise; instead, they focused their efforts on wisecracks, wit, and, in some cases, criticism.

Jesters did more than just crack jokes, they also:

  • Played instruments
  • Danced
  • Pantomimed
  • Juggled
  • Yodeled
  • Played voice tricks
  • Performed mimicry

The role of the jester as confidant is demonstrated throughout western literature, particularly in Shakespeare's work. Jesters, fools, and confidants from his works include:

  • Touchstone – As You Like It
  • Trinculo – The Tempest
  • Costard – Love's Labors Lost
  • Puck – A Midsummer's Night Dream
  • Yorick - Hamlet

Street Performers

Not all jesters served in royal courts, many also worked for a living in town squares and festivals. These performers would showcase their talents using any type of stage. The jesters would yell out invitations to the crowd, inviting them to come and see amazing tricks, feats, and dances. Most hoped to earn a coin, a meal, or a drink for their performances. The more amusing the performer, the more likely he was to receive an invitation to the local lord's manor or the king's court.

This tradition has continued through the ages and can be found in many modern day Renaissance festivals where jugglers, sword fighters, and performers invite the audience into their 'stages' to see their acts.

Not Just a Man's World

While many jesters of the middle ages are portrayed as men, women also served as jesters (or jestresses) in courts through the medieval world. Among some of the more notable women were:

  • La Jardinaire – Performed for the court of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland
  • Mathurine la Folle – Served the Parisian court of the French monarchy in the 1600s
  • Maria Barbara Asquin – Served Queen Isabel of Spain for nearly fifty years until her death in 1700

Social Commentary

Since the Middle Ages, jesters have engaged their audiences, poking fun at the privileged and championing the underdog while offering social commentary on the day's ills.