In Hilary Mantel's famous historical fiction Wolf Hall, she implies more than once that the court fools of figures in the era of Henry VIII often had some form of learning difficulty. Indeed in one passage, she suggests that fools were often taken in by nobles as a way of protecting and providing employment for disadvantaged members of the community.

Here's an example concerning Henry Pattinson, a fool employed by Thomas More:

The man is a great brawler; normally you take in a fool to protect him, but in Pattinson’s case it’s the rest of the world needs protection. Is he really simple? There’s something sly in More, he enjoys embarrassing people; it would be like him to have a fool that wasn’t.

This contrasts strongly with the picture given in Wikipedia and other online sources, which posits fools as well-trained professional entertainers.

Mantel seems to be very well researched in considerable detail on many other aspects of the history she portrays. But her portrayal of fools is a total mismatch with anything I can find on the subject. Is there any accuracy to it?

  • 1
    Note that your descriptions of Mantel's and Wikipedia's accounts are not necessarily contradictory - people with disabilities, learning or otherwise, can nevertheless become well trained professionals. Not saying that is definitely the case, jesters having some kind of disability seems to be a fairly widespread idea. – Semaphore Dec 11 '19 at 13:50
  • @Semaphore thanks, that's an important distinction. I've just added a quote that might illustrate the question a bit better. To me, it implies that fools are "taken in" for their own "protection" and that's what makes me feel she's suggesting a lack of training or professionalism, rather than the disability. Similarly, Cardinal Wolsey's fool is portrayed as being too incapable to receive training. – Bob Tway Dec 11 '19 at 14:06
  • Are you positing disability as a qualification, like with cashiers, or as a professional hazard, like with jockeys? – C Monsour Dec 11 '19 at 23:01
  • @CMonsour As a qualification – Bob Tway Dec 12 '19 at 11:35

As i remember, there are jesters & fools in the triumphal procession of Maximilian I, a paper procession printed by the Emperor as dynastic and personal propaganda.

The woodcuts have often be reproduced, as in my copy of The Triumph of Maximilian I: 137 woodcuts by Hans Burgkemair and Others, Stanley Applebaum, Dover Press, NY, 1964.

On page 6 of the introduction, Maximilian's written instructions for plates 27, 28, & 29 are translated:

After them shall come a man on horseback dressed as jester, bearing a verse for the jesters and natural fools; he shall be Conrad von der Sosen. This verse is not yet ready.

Assiduously always did I try

to keep buffoons in good supply

always to furnish the merriest jest

to this one end I did my best

and from my diligent employment

the Emperor derived enjoyment

After him shall come a small car drawn by two wild ponies; on it shall be these jesters: Lenz and Caspar, Bauer, Meterschy, and Dyweynndl.

And a boy shall be driver and all shall wear laurel wreaths.

After them depict yet another small car, on which shall be these natural fools: Gylyme, Pock, Gulichisch, Caspar, Hans Winter, Guggeryllis.

And a mules (two donkeys) shall drive the car, and a boy shall be driver.

Another group is drawing near

within this Triumph to appear

These are the fools of the natural sort,

very well known in the Emperor's court.

Their sayings and deeds, without reason or rhyme

have occasioned great laughter many a time.

So apparently Maximilian I had both Jesters of normal intelligence and "natural fools" at his court.


Hardly definitive, but I just took a search through the Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online database (MEMSO). There are about 150 references to jesters over about 300 years, and no indication of any disability associated with them, whether physical or mental. If anything, the implication is usually of sharp-wittedness and cunning. For instance, James VI and I's jester 'Archy' was a former sheep thief from the Scottish borders.

As a side note, there was at least one female jester at the court of the king of Scotland in the 16th century. Serat was the Queen Mary of Guise's jester, and the queen also had a female dwarf. In the 16th century there appears to have been something of a fad for dwarfs, who were tragically treated as pets and possessions and were even given as gifts to other aristocrats. Nevertheless, in 1627 when 'little Geoffrey' the Queen's dwarf fell out of a window at Denmark House, the queen was so upset that she didn't dress that day.

It would take longer to assess the word 'fool' as it is used far more often to mean somebody with mental disabilities as well as a synonym for jester, however there is nothing much on a surface reading to suggest court 'fools' were considered to be actual 'fools' (in the language of the time).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.