Skip to main content

Everything You Need to Know About Jesters

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I've been writing about history online for more than eight years.

A classic jester

A classic jester

All About Jesters

A jester is a person who was employed by a European monarch to provide entertainment and tell jokes. Jesters wore bright, eccentric, distinctive hats that were floppy, made of cloth, and had a jingle bell on the end of each of its three points. These three points were a recreation of a donkey's tail and ears (worn by earlier jesters). A jester also carried a scepter which was an ornamental, symbolic staff that represented authority. This particular scepter was called a marotte. It had a head carved on the top and was meant to reflect the jester's costume. Medieval jesters are comparable to today's clowns.

Jesters played a small role in the courts and brightened up the events. The medieval jesters held the great responsibility of having to bring a smile to an angry or sick Monarch's face. He was employed solely to excite and amuse his master, prevent state affairs from becoming over-oppressed, and brought liveliness to meals to help aid with digestion.

Medieval Jesters' Clothing

Their breeches were tight, usually comprised of two different colored legs that were complemented by a motley coat. Their heads were shaved and covered with a piece of cloth that resembled something a monk would wear and fell to their shoulders and over their chest. A hat that depicted the tail and ears of a donkey was worn by the very first medieval jesters. With time the jester's clothes became more and more brightly colored, humorous and gaudy. Their hat became known as the fool's hat which became the stereotypical three-pointed one that everyone is so familiar with today.

History Of The Jester

The jester was a very familiar face in the Middle Ages. British, aristocratic households would employ Jesters who were often regarded as mascots or pets. Occasionally they would dress like servants but more frequently they dressed in eccentric apparel. Jesters were not only hired to amuse the master and guests but to criticize them as well.

Jesters held freedom of speech. They were one of the very few people in the court that could speak their minds freely and use humor to joke about the nobles, ladies, and lords without causing offense. Most jesters were well educated and they came from diverse backgrounds. Although they were granted quite a bit of freedom, excessive behavior commonly resulted in a jester being whipped.

There were two types of jesters (or, fools). The first type was a natural fool that was moronic and nit-witted and could not help what he said. The second type was the licensed fool to whom the courts gave leeway. Both were fully excused by the courts within reason. Another job of the jester was to deliver the bad news that no one else would deliver to the king.

Stone Jester

A jester sculpture

A jester sculpture

Historical Roots of the Jester

The earliest European jesters were said to be ancient Rome's comic actors. They were referred to as Latin terms such as mimi and scurrae. These comic actors of Rome filled similar functions that the jesters later were known for. Due to purges against comedians and actors because of their outspokenness, a large percentage of them were forced to flee to other frontiers in search of a more appreciative audience. These actors and wandering comics laid the foundation for later medieval jesters.

The European jester inherited common traits of Roman historians and bards of Gaul. During the summer months, they dressed in colorful costumes and carried a viol or a harp across their shoulder and traveled to various castles and towns. Their acts and songs represented feats of agility and were often accompanied by music. Stories of scripture, miracles of saints, and legends of heroes were all common themes. They were commonly found in castles and at fairs as well as marketplaces. Lords and ladies loved to reward them with gifts and the princes and kings employed the most skilled ones to work in their court. Even bishops were known to retain the works of a jester.

Medieval Jester Eric Haines Stilt Walker

The Trade of a Jester

European jesters emerged from a wide variety of backgrounds. He could be a monk thrown from a priory, a university dropout, a jongleur with a phenomenal vocabulary, a musician, a poet, or even a random apprentice who was amusing. A jester could start his career in the club circuit and if he was lucky enough to be discovered then he could make it big in the courts.

Since jesters were granted freedom of speech, they could speak out if they chose, against their ruler's ideas. It was the jester's nature to speak their mind, regardless of any consequences. Since they were rarely in any type of position to pose any kind of power threat, their outspokenness was not to be taken seriously since they had nothing to gain by their words.

The End of the Jester

Due to the Civil War, Charles I was overthrown and jesters came to an end. England was under Oliver Cromwell and as a Puritan Christian republic, there was no longer a place for jesters. Additionally, English theater suffered and entertainers moved to Ireland.

After the restoration, the tradition of the court jester was not reinstated. In the 18th century, the tradition of jesters had pretty much died except for in Spain, Germany, and Russia. Jesters were still found in Romania until the 19th century.

Many jesters were essentially household names, almost equivalent to a popular television comedian. They lived luxuriously in their master's palace, often dined with the king, and were given gifts of appreciation.

Jesters were permitted to hurl insults but still had to be cautious not to take it too far. Kings for the most part were loyal to their jesters but on occasion, they were banished and sometimes even executed if they crossed that dreaded invisible line.

Jester Stuff


CalGaf on June 05, 2019:

What is a jesters social ranking? What were the challenges of a jester?

jestersincognito on October 28, 2012:

Hello! Awesome information here, all of which is very accurate. Happy to provide another jester resource to add to your list. Please consider Jesters Incognito a valid source of literary entertainment about our ancient fools in a modern, speculative setting. Thanks!

JLaszlo (author) from Northwest on June 19, 2011:

Wendi_w thank you for voting this hub up. You might also like the one I wrote on knights or even the one I wrote on gypsies:

JLaszlo (author) from Northwest on June 19, 2011:

Alocsin Thank you it was an idea I came up with awhile back but just recently put on hubpages. If you like this one you might also like the my article on Knights:

wendi_w from Midwest on June 18, 2011:

Fantastic hub and utterly original I never though about the history of the jester before. very interesting voting it up

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on June 18, 2011:

What an awesome idea for a hub. Never thought about jesters like this before. Voting this Awesome and Up.