“Here cometh April again, and as far as I can see the world hath more fools in it than ever.” – Charles Lamb.
Today, our usual interaction with the concept of a fool is centered on what my daughter calls the “worst day of the year” – April 1st, when you should be even more suspicious of everything on the internet than usual, and when you have to be on your guard lest a prank mar your day.
While there is some disagreement, most historians trace the idea of an April’s fool to the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in 1563. Before this switch, the new year began with the spring equinox around April 1st. Those who continued to celebrate the new year around the time were known as April’s fools, and could have paper fish pinned to their back, as they were seen as gullible and easy to catch – poisson d’avril, or April fish.
It may have earlier origins, though. In ancient Rome followers of the cult of Cybele celebrated the festival of Hilaria at the end of March by disguising themselves and mocking others. It has been tied to the vernal equinox as spring weather meant Mother Nature was fooling with them with the changeable temperatures and precipitation of the season. Our modern day understanding of the April Fool’s day gained traction in the 17th century, and has now evolved to an opportunity for businesses’ to work their social media accounts and teachers everywhere to be on high alert should the fateful day fall during a school day.
Fools were not always restricted to April 1st, of course. Delving back into history we find a jester, or joculatrix named Adeline who owned land in Hampshire in 1086. While earlier a number of entertainers were known as minstrels, or “little servants”, including those we’d call jesters, it was not until the 12th century we see the term “follus”, or “fool”, in legal documents. England’s King Henry II gave Roland le Pettour, his fool, as long as he came to court every Christmas to “leap, whistle, and fart”. It was not yet a full-time gig, with the majority of their time spent doing more mundane household jobs.
Kings Edward II and III had full-time jesters, all called Robert, while Edward I had Tom le Fol who was given the princely wage of 50 pence to perform at his daughter’s marriage at a time when a skilled workman might command only 2 1/2 pence for a day’s wage. Fools became highly sought after, with those at the pinnacle of their profession working for royalty and achieving super star status with both fortune and property.
It wasn’t all fun and games. They were sometimes used as messengers between opposing sides before battle, and that could result in literally killing the messenger, with the unfortunate fool, or his severed head, being hurled back via trebuchet. If he was not killed for delivering a message, he would have to be the pre-battle entertainment, helping calm nerves by juggling or telling jokes to the assembled army.
Perhaps the most famous of royal fools was Will Sommers (sometimes spelled Somers), Henry VIII’s jester. Judging from the picture of him in the king’s psalter, he suffered from scoliosis, but it doesn’t seem to have become an issue, as we find him mentioned up to and in the court of Mary I. He was said to be the only person who could make her smile. After performing at the coronation of Elizabeth I, he seems to have retired. He was the only person who could call Henry “uncle” or “Harry”, and was featured in 3 family portraits. He was famous enough to merit his own biography in 1676: . . . this Will Summers was of an easie nature, and tractable disposition, who . . . gained not only grace and favour from his Majesty, but a general love of the Nobility; for he was no carry-tale, nor whisperer, nor flattering insinuater, to breed discord and dissension, but an honest plain down-right, that would speak home without halting, and tell the truth of purpose to shame the Devil; so that his plainness mixt with a kind of facetiousness, and tartness with pleasantness made him very acceptable into the companies of all men. —A Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers (Author anonymous).
In addition to the performing fools, there were other categories of people called “fools”. Natural fools, or innocent fools, were those with mental or physical disabilities. They were not paid, nor expected to perform, but were kept by the aristocracy almost like pets, as acts of Christian charity. Unfortunately, there was no security in their position, and some ended up as beggars. England’s most famous example is Jane the Fool, who was owed money by Anne Boleyn upon her death, and joined the households of Princess Mary and later Catherine Howard. She was part of the court of Mary I, who seemed to have been fond of her, as there are frequent expenses listed in the records of the court for the care of Jane. In France, groups of amateurs formed “Fools Societies” and donned what we think of as the classic fools’ motley, performing at Christmas and at local festivals.
Over in Russia, “holy fools” could aspire to canonization in recognition of the holiness of their vocation. “The holy fool’s exploit is that of secret sanctity, which above all promotes the non-ontological understanding that all of God’s created world is a sacred place. By his feigned madness the holy fool opts to say that the lowliest of the low can be not the poor wretch he appears to be, but a holy one and God’s prophet. He shares his power and authority with all the weak, mocked and despised thus symbolically destroying clear-cut distinctions between the profane and the sacred.”- Svetlana Kobets, Russian Orthodox scholar. St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square was named for the most famous of these, Basil the Blessed. This holy fool was renowned for throwing rocks at the homes of the wealthy while clad in only his long beard, and boldly forcing Tsar Ivan the Terrible to eat meat on Good Friday, saying “Why abstain from eating meat when you murder men?” Even Ivan the Terrible was in awe of this holy fool. Blessed Basil, the man who got away with scolding Ivan the Terrible – Russia Beyond
Back in England, jesters moved into the theatre during the Elizabethan period. In literature, Shakespeare immortalized them, especially in the role of the Fool in “King Lear” Jeffrey Hudson, a dwarf jester who first met Charles I when Jeffrey popped out of a pie, accompanied Queen Henrietta Marie when she fled to Holland, and later came back and fought for her crown with the Royalists. Alas, he was later imprisoned and died shortly after release.( GettyImages-463977115-5421fa4 )
The Duke of Montague employed one of the last of the professional jesters, Samuel Johnson, known as Maggotty. He performed in plays in London, and upon his death in 1773 he was buried in what is now Maggotty Wood in Cheshire.
The difference between the inscription placed on his tomb in 1773:
“Stay, thou whom Chance directs or ease persuades,
To seek the Quiet of these Sylvan shades,
Here, undesturbed and hid from Vulgar Eyes,
A Wit, Musician, Poet, Player, lies
A Dancing master too in Grace he shone,
And all the arts of Opera were his own,
In Comedy well skilled he drew Lord Flame,
Acted the Part and gaind himself the Name . . . “
and that placed later by Victorians in 1853:
“If chance has brought thee here, or curious eyes /
To see the spot where this poor jester lies /
A thoughtless jester even in his death /
Uttering his jibes beyond his latest breath . . . ”
underscores that the era of the fool had well and truly come to an end. He lives on, both in the portrayal of a mad-cap (literally) jester in media, and at festivals and faires across the country.
For a peek at some of the jesters and fools who entertain at Renaissance Fests all over the country, click on our feature, “It’s All Fun and Games!”
Interested in learning more? Weird History has you covered!
Christine Boyett Barr is an award winning journalist and English instructor, teaching middle school and college English.In addition to her pedagogical pursuits, she hosts movie events for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and portrays Catherine of Aragon at the Texas Renaissance Festival. She is the mother of four, and is owned by two cats.