A jester is a specific type of clown mostly associated with the Middle Ages. Jesters typically wore brightly colored clothing in a motley pattern. Their hats were especially distinctive; made of cloth, they were floppy with three points, each of which had a jingle bell at the end. The three points of the hat represent the asses' ears and tail worn by jesters in earlier times. Other things distinctive about the jester were his incessant laughter and his mock scepter, known as a bauble or marrotte.
The Art of the Jester
The court jester was often summoned to try to lift the monarch out of an angry or melancholy mood. Medieval medicine considered human health to be largely governed by The four humours: Sanguine, meaning an increased amount of blood in the system, Melancholia, an increased amount of black bile, Choleric, an increased amount of yellow bile and Phlegmatic, meaning an increased amount of phlegm. The balance or imbalance of the humours was believed to produce four distinct emotional states which could be re-balanced either by the doctor's craft (which, in those days, was largely alchemy-based) or by the court entertainers which included the Fool or Jester. Although these alchemical theories of human mind-body-spirit relationship fell into disrepute after the renaissance these ideas have been re-examined in more recent times by psychologist Carl Jung and the idea that laughter aids recovery given more credence. In the US The Gesundheit! Institute established by Patch Adams attempts to make good use of clowning and laughter as medicine.
The History of Jesters
The origins of the jester are possibly in prehistoric tribal society. Pliny the Elder mentions a royal jester (planus regium) when recounting Apelles' visit to the palace of the Hellenistic king Ptolemy I. However, jesters are mainly thought of in association with the Middle Ages.
All jesters and fools, in those days, were thought of as special cases where God had touched the fool with a childlike madness, perhaps a gift or a curse. Mentally handicapped people sometimes found employment by capering and behaving in an amusing way. In the harsh world of medieval Europe people who might not be able to survive any other way thus found a social niche.
All royal courts in those days employed entertainers and most had professional fools of various types. Entertainment included early music, juggling, clowning, and the telling of riddles. King Henry the Eighth of England employed a jester named Will Somers.
During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth the First and King James the First of England (James the 6th of Scotland) William Shakespeare wrote his plays and performed with his theatre company "The Lord Chancellor's Men" (later called "The King's Men"). Clowns and jesters were often featured in Shakespeare's plays and the company's expert on Jesting was Robert Armin, author of the book "Foole upon Foole".
King James employed a famous jester called Archibald Armstrong. During his lifetime Armstrong was given great honours at court. He was eventually thrown out of the King's employment when he over-reached himself and insulted too many influential people. Even after his disgrace books were sold in London streets of his jests. He held some influence at court still in the Reign of Charles the First and estates of land in Ireland.
The tradition of Court Jesters came to an end in Britain when Charles the First was overthrown in the Civil War. As a fundamentalist Christian republic, England under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had no place for such fripperies as jesters. English theatre also suffered and a good many actors and entertainers relocated to Ireland where things were little better (See Irish theatre).
After the Restoration King Charles the Second didn't reinstate the tradition of the Court Jester but he did greatly patronise the theatre and proto-music hall style entertainments, especially favouring the work of Thomas Killigrew.
In France and Italy travelling groups of jesters performed plays featuring stylised characters. These were called the Commedia dell'arte. A version of this passed into British folk tradition in the form of a puppet show Punch and Judy.
The Jester in literature
The Jester on film
The Jester as a symbol
In Tarot, "The Fool" card of the Major Arcana (card 0, in Rider-Waite numbering, card 22 in Belgian decks, and sometimes unnumbered) represents the Spirit, God, the Monad; The Lord of the Universe; the Absolute Being. Other permutations include: Eternity, Life Power, Originating Creative Power, the Will of God, the Essence or Essential Self, Tao, Aether, Prana, Akasha, the Void, the White Brilliance, the Radiant Field of God, Omnirevelation, the Universal Light, Boundless Space, Superconsciousness, the Inner Ruler, the Plenitude, the Unmanifest, the Ancient of Days (repeated in manifest form within Key 9, the Hermit), Mysterium Magnum, the Sun at a 45 degree angle in the Eastern Heaven -- always increasing, never decreasing.
It represents a number of human conditions: innocence, ignorance, heterodoxy, freedom, great cheer, freedom from earthly desires or passions but also perversity, audacity, truth, confidence.
It also represents cultural power.
The root of the word, Fool, is from the Latin 'Follis' which means "Bag of Wind" or that which contains air or breath.
Welsford, Enid: The Fool : His Social and Literary History (Out of Print) (1935 + subsequent reprints): ISBN 1299142745