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, 2019 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, 2019 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, 2019 at 23:01
  • @CMonsour As a qualification
    – Bob Tway
    Dec 12, 2019 at 11:35

3 Answers 3


So there is actually a difference in Medieval and Renaissance times, between a Jester and a Fool.

Jesters were typically known for their witticisms and wordplay - essentially their ability to work clever jests.

Fools were typically physically and/or mentally impaired people who provided entertainment because of unintentional behaviour or speech.

There was a great desire for dwarves as well, and while such fools and dwarves were seen as 'pets' or treated in a manner we would find generally unacceptable today, the understanding of the time meant that people believed that those who were mentally or physically disadvantaged were actually possessed or cursed by demons or fairies (who were also the cause of autism by this periods understanding - changeling child or fey child being those who interacted with the world in a different manner than was usual).

However, such individuals were generally well treated and looked after, partly because of the fear of The Fair Folk's retribution for ill treatment, or the fear that without a proper outlet, the demons or power of mischief might cause terrible harm.

Being taken in as a fool was a great deal better than having someone of religious persuasion attempt to excorsize or beat out the devils.

That is not to say that they were not subject to verbal abuse and mockery, as that was unfortunately part of the role imposed upon them. Joao de Sa, known as Panasco, who served King Joao III of Portugal, did very well in the court and was elevated to Gentleman status, but was seen as inferior and was constantly verbally abused and treated as sub-human due to the physical impairment of being a Black African. This was the ugly truth of racist belief in the 16th century, that not being white was seen as a physical disability.

Whilst some Jesters & dwarves in particular took advantage of education and opportunities available when serving at Royal Courts or wealthy households, like Richard Gibson, the miniscule portrait 'minaturist' of the Stuart Court, or Francois de Cuvillies, decorative designer and architect attributed to being pivotal to the arrival of the Rococo style to Cenytral Europe, they often had to endure being seen as possessions and treated as such for entertainment, like Jeffrey Hudson given as a gift to Queen Henrietta Maria by King Charles I, her husband, when he presented her with a pie, in which Jefferey was served.

Those who were classed as 'Fools' often had carers, like Nichola La Jardiniere - Fool to Mary Stewart/Stuart, Queen of Scots - who had Jacquiline Cristoflat as a 'keeper', to look after them and would generally be given a pension when they became too old to continue in service. Whilst far from what we in modern times would ever think acceptable, at the time, it generally meant they had a place of protection, with regular meals and often luxuries not available to the larger population (for example, Nichola La Jardinier had a gown made of yellow and violet by the Royal Tailor, velvet caps and bonnets, and was served sugared fancies and such).

As you mentioned, Jesters & Fools were not only found in Royal Courts, but in wealthy households and Jesters at least, on stage and as part of travelling players troups.

Robert Armin (c.1563-1615), who followed after William Kempe (who performed comical roles in Shakespears plays) as a Jester on Stage, actually wrote a book about the subject in 1605, called "Foole Upon Foole", where he describes the various different talents and jests associated with the position, and distinguishes the difference between the 'natural fool' and the 'artificial fool'. In an expanded version called "Nest of Ninnies" published in 1608, he also included histories of some celebrated Jesters and some of their recorded jokes, such as those by William Sommers, Jester to Henry VIII & Edward VI.

~edited to add~ It's difficult to be certain of the meaning behind the usage of words such as "fool" and "jester" or other terms, as unless you are looking at original sources, the two terms were often used indiscriminately by some writers in different eras, and translation issues can also make it difficult to be certain, let alone regional differences of meaning (this is always problematic when dealing with original sources, which is why Mary Queen Of Scots inventories are so useful, as her master of the household actually added notes telling us how some items previously appearing in inventories of the Queen's Mother, Marie de Guise/Lorraine, were referred to in his time).


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).

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