While recognizing that it is difficult to know exactly what these fools were in the first period of their existence, some people think that they must have been chosen among the mentally ill.
We do know that, in Antiquity, folly is the object of almost superstitious respect. Hippocrates believes that it is of divine essence. But is this enough for us to say that buffoons were really mentally alienated people?
We are more inclined to presume that princes surrounded themselves with people capable of making them laugh by their alert and incisive wits, always prompt with a retort.
Are ugliness and deformity obligatory? Beautiful and noble young ladies looked for this contrast which allowed them to shine with a brighter light. The presence of dwarves and hunchbacks in the courts can therefore be justified by this comparison value.
But the buffoon is not necessarily deformed, with an ugly face, and we believe it to be an exaggeration to say that “ugliness and deformity were as looked for in a fool, as intelligence in a monkey, beautiful feathers in a peacock, and speech in a parrot”.
Perhaps it would be truer to say that wit or ingeniosity sometimes go hand-in-hand with physical disgrace, and that would explain how the most horrible magot had the privilege of being admitted first into the royal bedchamber, to say whatever he liked without being interrupted, and to fire nasty barbs at the noblest coats of arms.
The fool could say anything, with the acceptance, and under the protection, of his lord.
Crushed by everyone’s disdain, laughing out of duty in public and swallowing his tears in secret, his heart aching from being the toy of the stupid crowd of courtiers, treated on the same level as the hunting hounds and falcons, he had the compensation of spitting his indignation and his disgust into the faces of his mockers, with no risk of reprisal.
In the shelter of their hoods, and thanks to their marottes (sceptres mounted by grotesque, hooded heads, decorated with bells, and carried by insane people to warn of their approach) the official fools could let their masters hear their hardest words and, sometimes, the complaints of the people. But, in exchange for this privilege and the favours accorded by the sovereigns, what painful sufferings, what humiliations!
An official fool who knows his job well, jumps and capers like a monkey, plays the bagpipes, the trumpet and the rebec (mediaeval musical instrument with three cords and a bow, played by minstrels and jugglers), throws a lot of words around, knows his prayers by heart, as well as poems, charades and funny stories.
He tries, in any way he can, to show his superiority over the favourite greyhound and the disciplined falcon, with which he is assimilated.
A fool from a good House is raised with as much care, trouble and money as a trained donkey. He has his governor to lead and teach him. He studies tonalities, learns retorts and songs, just like the caged parrots and crows.
If he is rebellious, he is whipped with stirrup leathers or birches and is relegated to the kitchens, in the company of kitchen boys and kennel valets. Those who have enough instruction and sense to do without a governor, whip others, instead of receiving the birch themselves.
What does it matter if he is reduced to the level of an animal who crawls at the feet of its master, if he has a rounded back, the better to receive the blow aimed at it? The job of paid fool never remains vacant for long because the need for a fool is deeply embedded in custom.
Fools are owned by whomever can afford this luxury.
Laws reserve certain materials and furs for the use of nobles. Only knights are allowed to wear golden spurs. Weather vanes and dovecottes are the exclusive prerogative of lordly homes. Fools belong to whomever pays them.
If we speak particularly of the court fools and buffoons (or jesters), it is because they have left their mark in History. They have been associated with the deeds and gestures of the monarch whom they serve. But a class of domestic buffoons also exists.
Third part tomorrow.