How Dangerous Was It To Be A Jester

The article explores the history and influence of jesters throughout different cultures and time periods. It highlights the unique talents and roles of jesters, as well as their ability to influence rulers and speak truth to power. The article also discusses the fate of jesters, including instances where they were fired or killed for taking their mockery too far.

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The Tale of Jing Xinmo

In the 10th century, a jester named Jing Xinmo may have overstepped his boundaries when he was chased by a dog and then teasingly told the Chinese emperor that he shouldn’t let his children go around biting people. The emperor took offense and trained an arrow on Jing. However, instead of begging for his life, Jing cracked another joke. Fortunately for him, this pun landed, and the emperor’s arrow did not.

Jesters: A Global Phenomenon

Contrary to common belief, jesters weren’t just a medieval European phenomenon but flourished in other times and cultures. The first reliably recorded jester is thought to be You Shi, of 7th century BCE China. He declared that, as a jester, his words could not give offense. This privilege was important to the jester’s position but was sometimes violated. Jesters had unique relationships with power: they could be viewed as objects of mockery and also as entertainers and trusted companions.

The Path to Becoming a Jester

People became jesters by various routes. They could be appointed due to physical or neurological differences, plucked from a pool of entertainers, or recruited by a traveling courtier. Such was the case when a royal servant wrote King Henry VIII’s chief minister in the 1530s. He recommended a young boy to replace the king’s aging jester, Sexten, with the assurance that he’d be much more pleasant than Sexten ever was.

Unique Talents of Jesters

Some jesters boasted unique talents, like Roland the Farter, of Henry II’s 12th Century court. Every Christmas, he performed a special routine, the finale of which was a simultaneous jump, whistle, and fart. Additionally, jesters could influence important decisions. For example, if the clowns of the Tübatulabal nation of the Sierra Nevada mountains thought a chief was leading poorly, they could apparently get the elders to appoint a new one.

Jesters and Their Influence on Rulers

Jing Xinmo knew how to sway the Chinese emperor. A local magistrate once requested that the emperor stop trampling farmland during his hunting sprees. Infuriated, the emperor had the magistrate hauled before him. Jing facetiously suggested that the magistrate be put to death immediately and that the emperor let the peasants starve instead of harvesting the land and paying taxes, all so he could gallop about freely. Presumably seeing the absurdity of his own behavior, the emperor laughed and pardoned the magistrate.

The Fate of Jesters

Although rare, jesters were sometimes fired or even killed for taking their mockery or criticism too far. In 1638, Scottish jester Archy Armstrong worsened his already contentious relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop had recently revised the Scottish Book of Common Prayer—an act that garnered strong opposition and incited riots. Taking the opportunity to further humiliate him, Archy asked the Archbishop, “Who’s the fool now?” For which he was banished from the court.

Jesters Mocking Their Royal Bosses

Meanwhile, some jesters openly mocked their royal bosses without consequence. 11th-century Persian jester Talhak suggested the sultan was a cuckold, implying his wife was unfaithful to him. One day, as the sultan rested his head on Talhak’s knee, he is said to have inquired, “What is your relation to cuckolds?” To which Talhak replied, “I am their pillow.” And when 19th century Persian shah asked whether there was a food shortage, jester Karim Shir’ei joked, “Yes, I see Your Majesty is eating only five times a day.” Even when rulers were considered divinely appointed, some jesters managed to speak truth directly to power and reveal— in so many riddles, jokes, or skits—who the real fools were.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did jesters in different cultures and time periods navigate the delicate balance between mockery and entertainment?
  2. What unique talents or skills did jesters possess that set them apart from other entertainers?
  3. Can you think of any modern-day equivalents to jesters who influence decision-making through humor or satire?
  4. What do you think motivated jesters to openly mock their royal bosses, knowing the potential consequences?
  5. How did jesters like Jing Xinmo and Talhak use their wit and humor to influence the rulers they served?
  6. Do you think jesters played a significant role in shaping the actions and decisions of rulers, or were they simply entertainment?
  7. Why do you think some jesters were able to openly criticize their royal bosses without facing repercussions, while others were fired or banished?
  8. In what ways do jesters, or similar figures, continue to exist in our society today?

Lesson Vocabulary

jestersentertainers who used humor, tricks, and jokes to amuse others – The jesters at the king’s court always kept everyone laughing with their funny antics.

emperora supreme ruler of an empire – The emperor of Rome was known for his powerful reign and vast empire.

jokea funny or amusing story, often with a punchline, that is meant to entertain or make people laugh – The comedian told a hilarious joke that had the entire audience roaring with laughter.

arrowa slender, pointed missile shot from a bow – The archer aimed his bow and released the arrow, hitting the target bullseye.

privilegea special right or advantage that is granted to a person or group – It is a privilege to have access to the exclusive members-only club.

entertainerspeople who perform for the enjoyment of others, often through music, dance, or comedy – The circus had a variety of entertainers, including acrobats, clowns, and magicians.

courtiera person who attends a royal court as a companion or advisor to a monarch or a noble – The courtier offered wise counsel to the queen, helping her make important decisions.

talentsnatural aptitudes, skills, or abilities that a person possesses – The young girl showed exceptional artistic talents, creating beautiful paintings at a very young age.

rulersthose who have authority or control over others, often in a political or governing sense – The ancient pharaohs were powerful rulers who commanded great respect and obedience.

mockeryridicule or derision through mimicry, imitation, or scornful actions or words – The bullies made a mockery of the student, laughing at his every mistake.

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