FOOL (O. Fr. fol, modern fou, foolish, from a Late Latin use of follis, bellows, a ball filled with air, for a stupid person, a jester, a wind-bag), a buffoon or jester.
The class of professional fools or jesters, which reached its culminating point of influence and recognized place and function in the social organism during the middle ages, appears to have existed in all times and countries. Not only have there always been individuals naturally inclined and endowed to amuse others; there has been besides in most communities a definite class, the members of which have used their powers or weaknesses in this direction as a regular means of getting a livelihood. Savage jugglers, medicine-men, and even priests, have certainly much in common with the jester by profession. There existed in ancient Greece a distinct class of professed fools whose habits were not essentially different from those of the jesters of the middle ages. Of the behaviour of one of these, named Philip, Xenophon has given a picturesque account in the Banquet. Philip of Macedon is said to have possessed a court fool, and certainly these (as well as court poets and court philosophers, with whom they have sometimes been not unreasonably confounded) were common in a number of the petty courts at that era of civilization. Scurrae and moriones were the Roman parallels of the medieval witty fool; and during the empire the manufacture of human monstrosities was a regular practice, slaves of this kind being much in request to relieve the languid hours. The jester again has from time immemorial existed at eastern courts. Witty stories are told of Bahalul (see D'Herbelot, s.v.) the jester of Harun al-Reshid, which have long had a place in Western fiction. On the conquest of Mexico court fools and deformed human creatures of all kinds were found at the court of Montezuma. But that monarch no doubt hit upon one great cause of the favour of monarchs for this class when he said that "more instruction was to be gathered from them than from wiser men, for they dared to tell the truth." Douce, in his essay On the Clowns and Fools of Shakespeare, has made a ninefold division of English fools, according to quality and place of employment, as the domestic fool, the city or corporation fool, the tavern fool, the fool of the mysteries and moralities. The last is generally called the "vice," and is the original of the stage clowns so common among the dramatists of the time of Elizabeth, and who embody so much of the wit of Shakespeare. A very palpable classification is that which distinguishes between such creatures as were chosen to excite to laughter from some deformity of mind or body, and such as were so chosen for a certain (to all appearance generally very shallow) alertness of mind and power of repartee, - or briefly, butts and wits. The dress of the regular court fool of the middle ages was not altogether a rigid uniform. To judge from the prints and illuminations which are the sources of our knowledge on this matter, it seems to have changed considerably from time to time. The head was shaved, the coat was motley, and the breeches tight, with generally one leg different in colour from the other. The head was covered with a garment resembling a monk's cowl, which fell over the breast and shoulders, and often bore asses' ears, and was crested with a cockscomb, while bells hung from various parts of the attire. The fool's bauble was a short staff bearing a ridiculous head, to which was sometimes attached an inflated bladder, by means of which sham castigations were effected. A long petticoat was also occasionally worn, but seems to have belonged rather to the idiots than to the wits.
The fool's business was to amuse his master, to excite him to laughter by sharp contrast, to prevent the over-oppression of state affairs, and, in harmony with a well-known physiological precept, by his liveliness at meals to assist his lord's digestion. The names and the witticisms of many of the official jesters at the courts of Europe have been preserved by popular or state records. In England the list is long between Hitard, the fool of Edmund Ironside, and Muckle John, the fool of Charles I., and probably the last official royal fool of England. Many are remembered from some connexion with general or literary history. Scogan was attached to Edward IV., and later was published a collection of poor jests ascribed to him, to which Andrew Boorde's name was attached, but without authority.
Will Sommers, of the time of Henry VIII., seems to have been a kind-hearted as well as a witty man, and occasionally used his influence with the king for good and charitable purposes. Armin, who, in his Nest of Ninnies, gives a full description of Sommers, and introduces many popular fools, says of him -
"Only this much, he was a poor man's friend.
And helpt the widow often in her end.
The king would ever grant what he would crave.
For well he knew Will no exacting knave."
The literature of the period immediately succeeding his death is full of allusions to Will Sommers.
Richard Tarleton, famous as a comic actor, cannot be omitted from any list of jesters. A book of Tarleton's Jests was published in 1611, and, together with his News out of Purgatory, was reprinted by Halliwell Phillips for the Shakespeare Society in 1844. Archie Armstrong, for a too free use of wit and tongue against Laud, lost his office and was banished the court. The conduct of the archbishop against the poor fool is not the least item of the evidence which convicts him of a certain narrow-mindedness and pettiness. In French history, too, the figure of the court-jester flits across the gay or sombre scene at times with fantastic effect. Caillette and Triboulet are well-known characters of the times of Francis I. Triboulet appears in Rabelais's romance, and is the hero of Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse, and, with some changes, of Verdi's opera Rigoletto; while Chicot, the lithe and acute Gascon, who was so close a friend of Henry III., is portrayed with considerable justness by Dumas in his Dame de Monsoreau. In Germany Rudolph of Habsburg had his Pfaff Cappadox, Maximilian I. his Kunz von der Rosen (whose features, as well as those of Will Sommers, have been preserved by the pencil of Holbein), and many a petty court its jester after jester.
Late in the 16th century appeared Le Sottilissime Astuzie di Bertoldo, which is one of the most remarkable books ever written about a jester. It is by Giulio Cesare Croce, a street musician of Bologna, and is a comic romance giving an account of the appearance at the court of Alboin king of the Lombards of a peasant wonderful in ugliness, good sense and wit. The book was for a time the most popular in Italy. A great number of editions and translations appeared, and it was even versified. Though fiction, both the character and the career of Bertoldo are typical of the jester. That the private fool existed as late as the 18th century is proved by Swift's epitaph on Dicky Pearce, the earl of Suffolk's jester.
See Flögel, Geschichte der Hofnarren (Leipzig, 1789); Doran, The History of Court Fools (1858).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)