Many of us have grown accustomed to buffoons in positions of power, but historically the jester was a job title. Plucked out of obscurity for making people laugh (whether they actually intended to or not), they held a special place in royal courts and were given “comic dispensation” to say whatever they wished—even, or especially, to the monarch—without any fear of reprisal.
These fellows “of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” as Hamlet put it, were there to keep rulers in check, to question their logic or otherwise lighten the mood. And although they went out of fashion from around the 19th century in most countries, they continue to live on through political satire.
These are just 10 of the most notable jesters in history—nine from their “golden age,” the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and one from the very founding of China.
10. Roland the Farter (12th Century)
Oscar Wilde famously remarked that “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”—which means farting must be at least one rung up. That’s certainly what Roland the Farter, medieval master of the flatulent arts, thought anyway, along with his patron King Henry II of England. In the Middle Ages, it may even have been a form of philosophy—an offhand reminder of our existential finitude, not to mention our feculence and sin. And this was no doubt important for keeping otherwise near-omnipotent rulers from becoming pompous assholes themselves.
In return for “a jump, a whistle, and a fart” (unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum) each Christmas, Roland was awarded acres of land and a sizeable manor in Suffolk. He wasn’t the only performance fartist either; the braigetoír of 8th-century Ireland were paid in shoulder fat to fart at feasts, while Edo period street freaks like Kirifuri-hanasaki-otoko, the “mist-descending flower-blossom man” or so-called “shogun of sh**-gassers,” performed “modulated flatulent arias” on Tokyo’s Ryogoku Bridge. The ancient Sumerians and Greeks, as well as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Mark Twain, and others, also appreciated the art form.
But not everyone thought it belonged in polite society, even though Roland sometimes used the more sophisticated, French-sounding name “Roland le Fartere.” When Henry III took the throne in the early 1200s, he confiscated the jester’s land and denounced the fool as “indecent,” banishing him for good from the royal court.
9. Triboulet (15th/16th Century)
Triboulet was in many ways the archetypal court jester, immortalized in Victor Hugo’s banned play, Le roi s’amuse, Verdi’s operatic adaptation, Rigoletto, and, each year in his red cap and bells, as the mascot of the Monthey Carnival in Switzerland.
He was known for his sharp mind and quick wit, and for constantly getting into trouble—as well as orchestrating it for others. Like many jesters, he was also afflicted with several physical deformities—in this case microcephaly, a hunched back, “short and twisted legs [and]long and hanging arms,” for which he was mercilessly mocked as a monkey or bird.
With the exceptions of his patron kings, Louis XII and Francis I of France, Triboulet was widely disliked in court and regularly beaten by nobles, pages, and other courtiers. On one occasion, he complained to Francis I that a nobleman, hurt by one of his jokes, had threatened to cudgel him to death. When the monarch told him not to worry, that he would hang the man fifteen minutes after any such attack, Triboulet said: “Well, couldn’t you hang him fifteen minutes before instead?”
In the end, however, Triboulet went too far for even the king to put up with by insulting the queen and her courtesans. Having already decreed them off limits, Francis I had no choice but to execute the jester—although as a final show of appreciation, he did grant him the right to choose how he died. To this, Triboulet cleverly responded: “For Saint Nitouche’s and Saint Pansard’s sake, patrons of insanity, I choose to die from old age.” The king is said to have been so amused by this that he commuted Triboulet’s execution and had him banished from the realm instead.
8. Jane Foole (16th Century)
One of only a few female jesters in history, Jane Foole had the unusual honor of inclusion in a royal family portrait—seen peeking through a door opposite her male jester counterpart Will Sommers.
As an “innocent” or “natural fool,” Jane probably had some kind of mental handicap, such as Down’s syndrome, and was never actually trained as a jester. Instead, she likely made people laugh by way of her peculiar manner, for saying things out of turn, and reminding the court that “all men were fools before God.” She did, however, have the same skinhead haircut as others of the jester profession, and remained close to King Henry VIII’s second and sixth wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr, as well as Queen Mary I—all of whom showered her with gowns, geese, and shoes. In fact, according to payment records, Jane was better dressed than anyone in the royal court, except for the queen herself.
Unfortunately, following Queen Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne, the fate of Jane Foole is unknown. But there’s a chance she may have followed Will Sommers, who once called Elizabeth “a bastard,” into relatively squalid retirement.
7. Stanczyk (15th/16th Century)
Stanczyk is among the better known jesters on this list, and certainly the most famous in Poland. But he was so much more than that. Employed by three Polish kings (Alexander I Jagiellon, Sigismund I the Old, and Sigismund II Augustus), Stanczyk was more of a “wise fool” than a clown, and a kind of “grey eminence” in court—a man known for astute philosophical insights and his awareness of matters of state.
His wit was primarily satirical, verging on the passive-aggressive, and often showed frustration with the king. In 1533, for instance, Sigismund I imported a giant bear from Lithuania and released it into the wild to hunt, only for it to turn on the king and his courtiers and topple Queen Bona Sforza from her horse, resulting in a miscarriage. Stanczyk simply ran away and was criticized by the king for doing so—but he defended himself with the remark: “It is a greater folly to let out a bear that was already locked in a cage.” This was a barbed allusion, it is thought, to the king’s complacence over Prussia, having already defeated the nation but never fully incorporated it into Poland.
Stanczyk’s brooding frustration with policy was captured in a painting by Jan Matejko, in which the jester—juxtaposed against revelry in the background—sits alone with a downcast look. On the table beside him is news of the fall of Smolensk to the Russians, a loss only he can foresee as catastrophic. Ironically, even this 1862 painting was later stolen from Poland, only to be returned by the Russians in 1956.
6. Panasco (16th Century)
In the 16th century, black Africans appealed to the wealthy as symbols of power and prestige—which explains how João de Sá “Panasco,” a former slave, came to be in the employ of King João III of Portugal. Not only did he eat with the royal family, he was also the king’s closest advisor and confidante. Eventually, he was even promoted from the lowly position of jester to cavaleiro, a fully fledged gentleman courtier and personal valet to the king, as well as a member of the prestigious Order of Santiago.
Of course, he was not without his detractors. Many courtiers became jealous of his rank and scornful of his race, cruelly referring to Panasco as “a dog” or the “fly in the milk.” But he also made light of his difference himself, referring to his own expensive gold chain as a “dog’s leash.” After all, given his access and loyalty to the king, they had far more reason to fear him than he ever had to fear them—which is why he always gave as good as he got, mocking and even informing on the other courtiers and living up to his name that meant “rudeness.”
5. Claus Narr (15th/16th Century)
Narr means “fool” in German and probably wasn’t a real surname, but for Claus it was the name that stuck.
He was tending geese in Ranstadt, sometime in the 15th century, when he was discovered by the Elector of Saxony. Having heard a commotion of horses and wagons—the sound of the elector passing by—he went to see the spectacle for himself, first tucking his goslings through his belt by their necks and the older geese under his arms.
But when he saw it, the elector found the sight of this goose-bedecked simpleton so hilarious—especially considering the birds had been strangled to death—that he offered him the role of court jester.
And Claus’s father jumped at the chance, saying to the elector: “I’d be relieved of a great encumbrance thereby; the youth is no good to me—he makes nothing but trouble in my house and stirs up the whole village with his pranks.”
Like Jane Foole, Claus Narr was a “natural fool,” a mentally challenged “innocent” recruited (at least in part) as a charitable act.
4. Lord Minimus, the Queen’s Dwarf (17th Century)
Sir Jeffrey Hudson, as he was sometimes more nobly known, was a man of tiny proportions from England’s tiniest county, Rutland—which to this day bears the motto Multum in Parvo, or “much in little.”
By the age of 25, having reached 3-foot-9 in height, he was roughly as tall as a hobbit. And though it was likely a case of hypopituitarism, a condition easily treated today, Hudson’s curiously proportionate dwarfism was at the time attributed to his mother choking on a gherkin while pregnant.
He was born to the Duke of Buckingham’s baiting bull keeper, and was only seven years old (and a mere 18 inches tall) when he entered the royal court. But he knew how to make a big entrance, leaping from a cold baked pie in tiny armor for the queen consort Henrietta Maria (the wife of King Charles I), whose mother kept dwarves of her own.
He spent much of his childhood playing with monkeys and appearing in royal paintings, often to make others look grander. But he quickly grew tired of the jokes—especially after serving his country as “Captain of the Horse” during the English Civil War. In 1644, in exile with his mistress in France, Hudson was finally pushed to his limit—provoked into duelling a nobleman who was only armed with a water squirt. It was meant to be a mock fight, of course, another dull humiliation for “Lord Minimus,” but Hudson arrived with loaded pistols and shot the laughing man dead.
Since dueling was illegal in France, the “vengeful dwarf” was banished in disgrace and forced to take the long route home, a meandering journey that saw him captured by Barbary pirates, sold as a slave in North Africa, and basically lost abroad for 25 years before retiring to his cottage in Rutland. Evidence suggests he also worked as a spy towards the end of his life, for which he was briefly imprisoned.
3. Perkeo (18th Century)
Another dwarf—raised as a humble button maker—Perkeo was renowned for his capacity to drink. In fact, the name Perkeo itself came from his stock response to any offer of wine: “Perché no?”—the Italian for “why not?”
Even more comical, though, once in the employ of Count Palatine Karl (Charles) III Philipp, was his official position in court: Chamberlain and Knight of the Royal Vat in Heidelberg. In other words, the short, stocky wino—reputed to drink 5-8 gallons a day—was in charge of the world’s biggest wine barrel.
Like other dwarven jesters, he was often seen playing with monkeys, but not to the dereliction of duty. In one painting, for example, despite playing around with a mandrill while dressed in the robe of state, his oversized key to the cellar remains securely fixed to his waist.
It’s not entirely clear how Perkeo died, but alcohol withdrawal seems likely. According to legend, his doctor persuaded him to drink a little water, instead of his customary wine, and the very next day he was dead.
2. Twisty Pole (3rd Century BC)
Jesters were around long before their heyday in the Renaissance. In ancient China, they were known as you, with additional characters indicating their specialty—for instance, chang for music, ling for foolery, and pai for humor.
Twisty Pole, jester to the First and Second Emperors of Qin (in other words of a unified China), may have been a little of each. He was described by the ancient historian Sima Qian as “a dwarf and a first-class funster,” but he was also rather astute. “Behind his every joke,” Qian noted, “was a grasp of universal principles.” Hence, when the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang decided to build a game park—an impractical and costly undertaking that probably had his court worried—Twisty Pole decided to stop him. However, instead of criticizing the plan outright, he sarcastically applauded its “logic,” exclaiming: “What a marvelous idea! And then, if there’s an invasion, you can just let the gazelles and deer butt the invaders with their horns. That’ll send them packing!” Taking the hint, the emperor turned to more practical matters—like his quest for the elixir of life.
Later, the Second Emperor Qin Er Shi had an even more ridiculous idea: to lacquer the Great Wall of China. Again, Twisty Pole came to the rescue, enthusiastically praising this “splendid idea,” and saying: “If you hadn’t mentioned it, Your Majesty, I’d have certainly suggested it myself … Lacquer the Great Wall all smooth and shiny, then it’ll be too slippery for any invaders to climb over.” In case he hadn’t made his point, though, he added: “The lacquering’s easy enough, but building the drying room may present a problem or two.” Bursting into laughter, the emperor shelved the idea.
1. Birbal (16th Century)
Birbal is a well-known, almost legendary figure in Indian history, credited with a great many witticisms and jokes. Of course, Indian history is replete with fantastic embellishments, so he may not have come out with them all. But his patron, the Mughal Emperor Akbar I, was apparently so fond of the jester that he personally designed a bhavan, the magnificently ornate Birbal’s House, in his honor. He also gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after he fell from his horse playing polo and, on one occasion, even stood in the way of an enraged elephant as it wildly charged at the man.
Clearly Birbal was irreplaceably dear to the king, and perhaps he was something of a guru; he was certainly thought to be wise.
Once, a scholar seeking to test Birbal offered him the choice of a hundred easy questions or just a single difficult one. Having already had a long day, Birbal went for the latter and was asked: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” To this, Birbal confidently replied “the chicken.” And when the scholar asked how he knew, Birbal refused to answer. “You said you’d ask me only one difficult question,” he said, “so why are you asking me two?”
On another occasion, the chief eunuch of the court posed three impossible questions: “Where is the center of the Earth?”; “How many stars are in the sky?”; and “How many men and women are there in the world?” With his usual quick wit, Birbal hammered an iron nail into the ground and declared it the center of the Earth, adding: “If you don’t believe me, have the Earth measured.” To the second question, he presented a ram and said: “As many hairs as there are on its body, there are just so many stars in the sky. If there’s any doubt, count them.” Finally, he came to the third question, to which he claimed to know the right answer. But there was a problem, he said; he could only be sure of this answer if all the eunuchs, whose gender was ambiguous, were killed. Naturally, the chief eunuch took the hint and left with his tail between his legs (in a manner of speaking), but Akbar was pleased with the jester and that was all that ever really mattered.