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— Chapter One —

Natural &
Among the Hopi Indians of the American South-
west, an ancient ritual of holy dancers and merry
clowns is still performed today. TheHopi way of
life might seem very foreign to most of us, but the
comic antics of its tribal clowns are remarkably
familiar. The dance of the "kachinas" (gods of fer-
tility) is held in the plaza formed by the pueblos of
the Hopi village, and lasts a full day, if not two.
Early in the afternoon of the first day, as the masked
kachinas dance to musical accompaniment, the
audience at this sacred ceremony is suddenly dis-
tracted by the noisy and somewhat supernatural ap-
The charivari, a mock celebration popular with medieval
pearance of several Chk'wimkya clowns on the amateur fool societies. Illumination from Le Roman de Fauvel,
rooftop of one of the buildings that line the plaza. courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
The bodies of these clowns are smeared with mud
from the sacred springs, while on their heads they wear improvised wigs made from stocking caps and
rabbit fur. They accentuate their facial expressions with a black inverted v over each eye and u-shaped
black marks under the eyes
and mouth.
The clowns pretend to step
off the edge of the roof, one
foot suspended in mid-air,
then retreat in mock fear,
provoking uproarious
laughter from the spectators
below, who quickly lose in-
terest in the dancers. The
clowns lower a long plank
to the ground and attempt to
slide down it headfirst, and
considerable comic horse-
Rare 19th-century photo by H.R. Voth of Koyemsi clowns entering the plaza over
the rooftops in the traditional Hopi dance. The publication of Voth’s photographs in
play follows in which they
the 1890s led the Hopi to restrict the taking of pictures during sacred ceremonies, almost lose their balance
and since then only sketches of the dances have appeared.
Courtesy of the Mennonite Museum & Library.
before finally tumbling
to the ground. Parading
around the plaza, the
clowns suddenly feign
great surprise at seeing
the kachinas dancing,
and immediately decide
to join in. Showing little
respect for the holiness
of the occasion, they
form their own line
alongside the kachinas,
dancing out of step and
Rare 19th-century photo of H.R. Voth of Koyemsi stick game in Hopi Mixed Kachina even chanting irreverent
Dance. Courtesy of the Mennonite Library & Archives. parodies of the kachina
songs. Inevitably, their clumsy shuffling motions deteriorate into a shoving contest in which the clowns
fall all over one another.
The remainder of this long ceremony consists of dancing by the kachinas, interspersed with rest
periods during which the clowns entertain until the kachinas are sufficiently refreshed to
resume their dancing. When the kachinas return, the clowns cease their antics, step out
of character, and participate in the sacred ritual of sprinkling the dancers with corn-
meal. The clowns also pass out food to the audience and exchange gifts with them.
At all other times, however, the clowns have free rein to do as they please. During
one interlude, they might entertain with ribald songs. Vulgar skits likewise prove
quite popular. During one session of dancing, another clown enters carrying a con-
cealed wine bottle and plodding along like a feeble old man. Miming poor eyesight,
he walks right up to the holy dancers and stares at them from a distance of a few
inches, oblivious to all that is going on around him. Later, he and the other clowns
pretend to get roaring drunk and engage in a raucous and comical conversation.
Some of the intermissions will be used for games and competitions, with the
clowns leading the children in barrel races and other fun-filled activities; if the
clowns themselves compete, a riotous free-for-all is the likely result. As in the
circus or rodeo, the role of clowns in the ceremony is to burlesque the other
performers, at the same time ensuring a smooth-flowing production. (1)
Similar examples of ceremonial clowning no doubt existed in prehistoric
times, for the clown appears in one form or another in nearly all cultures. The
clown was not invented by a single individual, nor is he exclusively a product
of Western civilization. Instead, the clown has been perpetually rediscovered
by society because as fool, jester, and trickster he meets compelling human
needs. Historically, the figure of the clown encompasses far more than the ob-
vious funny costume and painted face, for he represents a vision of the world
that both intellectual and so-called primitive cultures have valued highly, a
sense of the comic meaningful to children and adults alike, and a
Zuni Kachina doll, 21 5/8” in height,
dynamic form of acting based on startling technique and inspired
depicting mudhead clowns trying to
improvisation. climb to top of pole. It’s a bad omen
if clowns fail to reach food at top.
Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.
ABOVE: Sketch of Pueblo Indian Koshare clown by Frank Bock.
LEFT: Sketch of Pueblo Indian Koyemsi clown by Frank Bock.


Throughout history, the idea of the clown has been linked with the fool. "Fool" is usually taken to
mean someone lacking common sense, if not totally devoid of reason and encompasses a broad range
of characters, including both the village idiot and the harmless eccentric. Today we might speak of the
clinically diagnosed schizophrenic in the same sense. The fool's characteristic traits are very much
those of "natural" man. Lacking social graces and blissfully operating outside the laws of logic, the
clown is often seen as a child or even an animal, but only rarely as a mature adult the clown's percep-
tions are too crudely structured, the use of language a parody of normal speech. Unimpressed with
sacred ceremonies or the power of rulers, the clown is liable to be openly blasphemous and defiant;
uninhibited in sexual matters, the clown often delights in obscene humor.
The prevalence of the fool in most human cultures is paralleled by the universal myth of the trick-
ster. Although associated most frequently with the legends of the North American Indian, the trickster
figure plays an important role in the folklore of most societies. He is an instinctual creature who, like
the real-life fool, is often compared to a child or an animal: psychologist Carl Jung, for example,
describes Trickster's consciousness as "corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level."
The mental aberration attributed to both the fool and the trickster is often mirrored in his appear-
ance, his bizarre attire or grotesque deformity immediately setting him apart from his fellow man.
Many fools, in fact, have been freaks of nature dwarfs or hunchbacks, for example of quite normal
mentality. (3) In many cultures the trickster spirit is incarnated in an animal such as the sly fox of
European folk tales or the cunning coyote-clown of the
California Indians.
Society may ostracize those it considers to be fools, but
it also has shown an abiding interest in them. On one level,
this paradox reflects man's recognition of folly as an un-
avoidable part of his life. The stupidity we laugh at in the
fool reflects our own potential foolishness, the realization
that we too may slip on the proverbial banana peel. The
clown's antics, although exaggerated, are not as removed
from our own realm of experience as we might choose to
believe. "If every fool wore a crown," goes an old proverb,
"we should all be kings." (4)
On another level, the fool represents the free spirit, the
unconventional thinker whose example encourages others
to view the world in new and extraordinary ways. Most cul-
tures recognize, consciously or unconsciously, the value of
the fool's perceptions. Often he is seen as an inspired mad-
man or even as a spiritual prophet. In the trickster cycle of
the Winnebago Indians, he evolves into a hero, a healer,
and a bearer of culture, who eventually ascends to his right-
ful place in heaven. Likewise, many psychiatrists today ar-
gue that the madman's modes of perception represent a way
of structuring reality that is not necessarily incorrect, and
that may in some cases prove quite illuminating.
But if the fool's vision is to be of any use to society, it
must be presented in a more palpable form. While the real Great Doctor mask of Iroquois False
fool, the village idiot, may merely be an object of pity, the Face Society. Made of basswood with
horsehair trim, it represents Hadúigona,
performer who can present the fool's perceptions in a so- the Great Humpbacked One. Courtesy
cially acceptable manner often proves quite popular even if of the Museum of the American Indian.
everything he stands for runs counter to prevailing beliefs.
A formal distinction is therefore often made between
"natural" and "artificial" fools. In the first category is the
legitimate idiot, in the second an entertainer who plays the role of the fool. In many cultures, the
artificial fool the clown, the jester is an individual selected by society to enact a very important role,
and clowning thus becomes institutionalized, an integral part of the community life.


Many communal cultures, especially those of the North American Indian, possess indigenous clown
clans or societies. One anthropologist, surveying 136 cultures throughout the world, found that at least
forty had ritual clowns. (5) Some of the groups are devoted exclusively to clowning during public
ceremonies, but many have other cultural functions as well. In many cases these clown societies come
in pairs, each society representing a different type of clown. Sometimes there are separate male and
female clown groups. Membership is likely to be hereditary, as with the Kwakiutl Fool Dancers of the
Northwest coast, but performers may at times be drawn from outside the clan.
The Hopi concept of burlesquing the sacred while also supporting it is repeated in most North
American Indian cultures. In the Navajo Night Chant, the clowns join directly in tile masked dances,
getting in the way of the holy dancers and even trying to usurp the leader's function by giving signals to
the other dancers before he can do so. These Navajo clowns also burlesque performances of magic,
revealing the sleight-of-hand technique underlying the illusion. The clown of the Jemez Pueblos mocks
the cornmeal offering by sprinkling the spectators with ashes and sand. Members of the Zui Ne'wekwe
clown society joke with the gods in Spanish and English a practice strictly taboo to ordinary mortals
and even rig up a mock telephone to carry on an animated conversation with Zui heaven.
In all of these performances, the clown's role is officially sanctioned by the culture. The clown
keeps the people in touch with everyday reality while fulfilling the need for a connection with the
sacred. While ostensibly mocking the entire performance, he also supports and embellishes it. The
clown's role is especially ambivalent in the Easter ritual of the Southwest Yaqui Indians, a re-enactment
of the crucifixion that was undoubtedly introduced to the Yaqui by Spanish conquerors: the chapayeka
clowns are cast as the villains, but each clown holds between his teeth a small cross, unseen behind his
mask. (6)
The positive social role of the ceremonial clown is reflected in his other functions as well, including
that of sergeant-at-arms during the dances. He may also announce the ceremony and, like the stage-
hands in a theater, help the sacred dancers solve any small problems that may arise. The clown's role as
social regulator is even more in evidence in the comic skits they perform. With their freedom to pub-
licly ridicule whomever they please, the clowns represent strong deterrents to antisocial behavior. Among
the Tbatulabal of California, in fact, the clown's opinions are held in such high esteem that if he criti-
cizes the chief, a new leader is likely to be selected.
In the Hopi kachina dance described at the beginning of the chapter, the clown skits are very often
satirical. The drunken scene with the old man, for example, is understood by Hopi audiences as an
attack on growing alcoholism within the community. Other activities contrary to the Hopi way of life
are likewise ridiculed in public. The actual target of the clown's scorn is often a member of the audience
and it is usually perfectly clear to the spectators just who the individual is. This
public chastisement may be quite harsh, yet it serves many of the same func-
tions as do legal sanctions in our society. "The clowns can make the individual
comments about the people, and the people can get mad or not, whatever they
want, it's up to them," explained a Hopi clown. "We simply come out and show
the people what they are doing is wrong, and through the social pressure of
having it done in public, we don't need the jails as the bahana
[white man] does."
The clown's satire is also frequently directed at elements
outside the community. Poking fun at foreigners is certainly
nothing new, but among "primitive" cultures threatened by
attempts to "civilize" them, the burlesque of outsiders is more
than mere xenophobia: it reflects a crucial need to resist the

Assiniboin Fool Dancers (1906), one of the few Northern Plains

masked dances. The dancers wore canvas costumes and masks
and exhibited contrary behavior during the two- to four-hour
ceremony. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Collection.

imposition of a foreign culture. Through comic ridicule, the clowns bolster the collective ego while
discrediting the ways of the enemy.
This is particularly true of the American Indian, who has seen his culture decimated since the arrival
of Europeans on the American continent. Accordingly, the Indian clown's sharpest satirical thrusts are
directed at the white man. His mannerisms and dress are caricatured, as are the personality traits the
Indian clowns attribute to him: boorish behavior, gluttony and drunkenness, and vicious exploitation.
In recent years, with most Indian reservations open to the public, burlesques of American tourists both
middle-class and "hippie" have become quite common.
The impact of the ceremonial buffoon on his audience is derived in part from his portrayal of a
grotesque yet comic spirit, in many ways just as supernatural as that of the shaman. His makeup and
costume, of course, contribute to the creation of an other-worldly character, but equally important is the
clown's behavior, which is variously described as "contrary," "backward," or "crazy." Inverted speech,
illogical actions, animal mimicry, and difficult acrobatic
stunts are common examples of this contrary behavior.
Among the Plains Indians, there are many "contrary
societies" whose clowns specialize in such actions. (7)
Among the Crow Indians, ludicrous antics on
horseback and absurd dances are the contrary's stock-
in-trade. The Thanigratha ("those who imitate mad-
men") contraries were known to ford a stream by strip-
ping one leg and then hopping across on the clothed
leg. The Real Dog contraries use several forms of ec-
centric speech, including howling like dogs. Members
of the Cheyenne contrary society dress in rags, walk on
their hands, run backwards, stand on their heads rather
than sit on their rear ends, say the opposite of what they
mean, and awkwardly dance and tumble about. Some
Cheyenne contraries rode their horses while facing the
wrong way and shot their arrows back over their shoul-
ders, yet would revert to natural behavior in critical situ-
ations and were said to make the very best warriors.
The Windigokan, clown-doctors of the Plains Ojibwa,
Cayuga Indian wearing a false face mask and also had an original approach to battle: meeting a large
carrying a turtle-shell rattle (1907). Courtesy of the body of enemy, Sioux, they danced and danced until
Museum of the American Indian. the Sioux took them for deities and, so the story goes,
made offerings to them.
The similarity between contrary behavior and circus clowning was noted by several Cheyenne
Indians when they paid a rare visit to a show. "They told about a circus they saw," recounted Mari
Sandoz in Cheyenne Autumn, "with elephants and the clowns who seemed to be like the Indian contrar-
ies, doing everything foolish and backward to lift the hearts of the people from the ground in unhappy
times. Black Bear here among them did such things in the ceremonies."
Much of the humor of the ceremonial clown tends to be therapeutic, and may even include curing
functions the comic exorcism of the demons believed to be the cause of disease. (8) This varies from
culture to culture: Hopi clowns do not cure, but the Ne'wekwe clowns of the neighboring Zui Indians
are a medicine society and are also said to possess the power of black magic.

Any illness diagnosed as spirit intrusion is
treated by the clowns of the Plains Ojibwa by
dancing, singing, whistling, and the shaking of
rattles. Members of the Iroquois False Face
society wear basswood masks and perform vio-
lent theatrics to exorcise the demons of disease.
The Canadian Dakotas believe the clown to be
the most powerful of shamans, for he is said to
derive his curing ability from the guardian spirit,
As many as eighteen sanni demons play a
role in the dahaata pelapaliya comic demon
play of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), each one
representing the major symptoms of an afflicted
patient. "Deliriums," "cannot eat," "obscenity,
confused behavior, timidity," and "performs
pranks and utters nonsense" are just a few of
the major symptoms represented. Each scene
in the drama consists of a comic portrayal of a
set of symptoms, after which the demon tells
the patient "it is done" and leaves the perfor-
mance space, an indication that the disease he
represents has left the patient.
These performances, along with other sha- A clown in the Dance of the Moors and Christians, a ritual
manistic curing practices, often have been clas- drama performed in Papantla, Mexico, on the Catholic holy
sified as worthless "witch doctor" remedies. In day of Corpus Christi. Courtesy of Frank Bock.
recent years, however, more objective anthro-
pological and medical investigations have come to recognize the value of this kind of cure, at least in
dealing with the psychosomatic dimension of disease. The clown's humor is also considered to be of
therapeutic value when it deals explicitly with sexual and scatological matters. Phallic clowning, which
Aristotle believed was essential to the development of early Greek comedy, has been especially popu-
lar among the Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest. Many of the comic skits performed by their
clowns involve the wearing of false genitals and the simulation of intercourse. Although many early
anthropologists were repulsed by this obscene clowning, it has proved surprisingly popular among
cultures with puritanical standards of morality, for they recognize it as a necessary safety valve. By
laughing at taboo subjects, the community confronts the inhibition in an open yet vicarious manner. (9)
Although the function of clown societies can vary considerably, they all share one common trait
their value as entertainment, as "delight makers." The clown's image may at times approach that of a
fearsome, supernatural figure, but he is also a laughable buffoon, a fool whose message is delivered in
an enjoyable form. The clowns' descent from the rooftops in the Hopi kachina dance, although seem-
ingly symbolic, is explained by the clowns as simply the most effective way of catching the audience's
attention and getting them to laugh immediately. If the spectators fail to laugh, say the clowns, then the
educational value of their presentation will be lost.
Those clown societies that have survived the impact of Western civilizations have done so only
with considerable difficulty. Much of the opposition to them has come from crusading missionaries,
their prime target the ceremonies at which native deities were worshipped especially if the ceremonies

included elements considered lewd and distasteful by the outsiders. No doubt few of the missionaries
who objected so strenuously to clown societies operating within the culture's religious framework were
aware that for hundreds of years the Catholic Church had sanctioned similar clown festivities the
medieval Feast of Fools.


In 1445, the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris addressed a letter to all French cathedral
chapters condemning certain popular church festivities: "Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks
and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choirs dressed as women, panders, or
minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat
black puddings at the horn of the altar while
the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice
there. They cense with stinking smoke from the
soles of old shoes. They run and leap through
the church, without a blush at their own shame,
Finally they drive about the town and its the-
atres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the
laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in
infamous performances with indecent gestures
and verses scurrilous and unchaste." (10)
The subject of the harsh criticism was the
Feast of Fools, a New Year's celebration during
which the minor clergy were allowed to usurp
the functions of their superiors and engage in a
wide range of blasphemous yet officially ap-
proved clowning. The prevailing theme was the
inversion of status, usually reflected in the elec-
The Bishop of Fools, bauble in hand.
tion of a humble subdeacon as bishop and the
staging of a mock Mass. Many of the revelers
wore masks, laity and clergy exchanged costumes, and men even dressed up as women. The most
common item of apparel, however, was a peaked hood with two donkey ears.
Although in many ways similar to the kalends and Saturnalia of ancient Rome, as well as to certain
folk festivals, the Feast of Fools was first seen in twelfth-century France. It appeared in various forms
throughout Europe, among them the popular Feast of the Ass (asinaria festa). In Beauvais, France, this
featured a burlesque reenactment of the flight into Egypt, with a caparisoned donkey leading a mock
procession through the town. Upon arriving at the Church of St. Etienne, the ass and its followers were
welcomed inside and a Mass was said. Instead of chanting the traditional Latin responses to the Mass,
however, the congregation brayed back, "Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw."
Despite its enduring popularity, there were many intermittent attempts by some of the higher clergy,
including several popes, to suppress the Feast of Fools. Nevertheless, the celebration persisted until the
time of the Protestant Reformation and was still seen occasionally in the 1600s. "Never did pagans
solemnize with such extravagance their superstitious festivals as do they," complained one writer in
1645, in reference to sacrilegious clowning at an Antibes monastery. "The lay brothers, the cabbage-
cutters, those who work in the kitchen, occupy the places of the clergy in the church. They don the
sacerdotal garments, reverse side out. They hold in their hands books turned upside down, and pretend
to read through spectacles in which for glass have been substituted bits of orange peel." (11)
The Feast of Fools survived for so long because of its widespread popularity, not only among the
clergy, but also with the inhabitants of the cathedral towns of Europe. In some cases they valued these
festivities highly enough to enforce them long after the clergy itself had lost interest. In Tournai (now
a part of Belgium), for example, the townspeople required the local clergy to offer one of their number
as mock bishop on Holy Innocents' Day. In 1489, the churchmen obtained a royal decree from Charles
VIII restraining the town from forcing them to go through with the ceremony. In 1498, however, the
laymen's carnival spirit and respect for tradition prompted them to kidnap eight clergymen and hold
them hostage until one would agree to perform the role of the Bishop of Fools. The church, of course,
protested to local authorities, but to no avail, for the mayor himself had led the raid. The next day,
townspeople succeeded in anointing a clergyman "bishop." The celebrants baptized their new spiritual
leader with several buckets of water, paraded him around town for three days dressed in a surplice, and
performed coarse farces for their fellow citizens. These and other daring acts led to a long-drawn-out
legal battle between the church and the town, resulting in the formal abolition of the Tournai Feast of
Fools in 1500.

When the spirit of folly was no longer welcome within the doors of the church, it moved outside and
was manifested in a secular form. In France, this resulted in the creation of amateur fool societies, the
sociétés joyeuses ("joyful societies"), whose members devoted themselves to providing the same brand
of irreverent fun. A large number of these groups existed throughout France in the fifteenth and six-
teenth centuries, many of them professional guilds that counted revelry among their social activities.
Among the most prominent were the clercs de la basoche, a fraternal organization of law clerks, and
the enfants sans souci ("carefree lads"), a group of university students in Paris.

These sociétés joyeuses followed in the tradition of the Feast of Fools, electing a King of Fools to
celebrate Twelfth Night and other festive holidays and staging their own burlesque ceremonials, as
well as mock processions characterized by loud, cacophonous music. The spirit of parody and role
reversal so evident in the ecclesiastical celebrations reappeared in the sermon joyeux, a travesty of the
church sermon, which mimicked its pedantic structure, frequent Latin citations, and majestic conclu-
sions. These discourses like the vaudeville and minstrel show "stump speech" of a later era dealt with
such eternal themes as the evils of alcohol, the
battle between the sexes, and the triumph of
These amateur fool societies also per-
formed satirical clown plays called sotties,
which portrayed everyone, from the lowly peas-
ant to the king himself, as a sot (fool). All the
world was seen as wearing the fool's cap and
bells and the characters were dressed accord-
ingly. Physical comedy was combined with
clever repartee, usually delivered in rhymed
The money of the Pope of Fools. Medieval fool societies couplets, to form topical skits that satirized a
set up their own by-laws, elected officials, and even wide range of social and ecclesiastical abuses.
issued their own mock currency. Motto on token at right
reads: numerus stultorum
The dialogue, which was sometimes partly
improvised, combined French with local dialect. A few sottie performers already may have had experi-
ence as itinerant minstrels (chapter 2), while many others went on to become professional entertainers.
The performers, however, were mostly amateurs. But they were young, agile, and quick-witted, and
their texts represent, with the exception of a few fragments of Greek and Roman mimes, the earliest
extant scripts of pure clown performances.
The sottie later evolved into a more subtle, if less direct, dramatic form, foreshadowing early French
farce. It developed its own famous actor-authors, such as Pierre Gringoire (1475-c.1539), chief fool of
the enfants sans souci, as well as its own form of theater clown the badin. A comic servant rather than
a sot, the badin was especially known for his sharp wit; it is from this trait that we derive the word
badinage, meaning banter. (12)
The social function of the “sociétés joyeuses” in many ways paralleled that of the clown societies of
the North American Indians. The history of the amateur fool society of Dijon, France, officially known
as “L'Infanterie Dijonnaise” but nicknamed “Mère Folle,” gives us some idea of how strong an influ-
ence these companies could have on their communities. (13) When church authorities suppressed the
Dijon Feast of Fools in the mid-fifteenth century, Philip the Good, the independent, fun-loving Duke of
Burgundy, granted a charter (written in rhymed couplets!) for its continuation outside the church. By
the second half of the sixteenth century, this secular tradition had evolved into the powerful Mre-Folle
company of fools, consisting of some 500 active members, including princes, lawyers, government
officials, and merchants. Their motto was numerus stultorum infinitum est ("the number of fools is
infinite"), while their nickname was taken from the title of their elected leader, the Mère-Folle or "head
fool." (Although mère means "mother," the role was rarely if ever filled by a woman.)
As was the case with many other sociétés joyeuses , the Mère-Folle became a strong force for justice
and reform in Dijon. Misers, corrupt officials, and brutal husbands were common objects of scorn.
"This company took it upon itself," wrote a Dijon historian of the period, "to correct improper social
conduct, and if someone transgressed, they were immediately apprehended and subjected to a pitiless
public censure." The culprit could easily become the subject of a satirical skit exposing his reprehen-
sible behavior, or the chastisement might consist of parading him or an effigy through the streets. This
chevauche, or charivari, as it was called, was seen in Dijon as late as 1700, when a respectable citizen
who had a nasty habit of beating his wife was placed backwards on a jackass and exhibited all over
At the height of the Mère-Folle's popularity in the late 1500s, the power of the society to discipline
indirectly by means of ridicule was devastating, and often was extended effectively to important gov-
ernment officials. Of course, the Mère-Folle created enemies for itself in Dijon, among them certain
entrenched powers who found such satire threatening. In 1630, the town was rocked by an uprising in
protest of a tax peremptorily levied by King Louis XIII, and pictures of the monarch were burned in
public. The revolt was eventually crushed and, although the role of the fool society in it was unclear,
the result was a royal edict banning the Mère-Folle . All such festivities were thereafter strictly cen-
sored. Subsequent celebrations had to be offered in praise of the state and were licensed and promoted
by the municipal police. The demands of folly in Dijon and elsewhere came to be served by carnivals,
which provided a festive atmosphere and the trappings of masquerade without the satiric substance of
the Feast of Fools and the sociétés joyeuses .


The fool, whether natural or artificial, traditionally has been valued as an entertainer and was often
retained as a more or less permanent member of royal households, the fool "by right of office." Many
fools even dressed like ordinary courtiers, while others wore a more distinctive multicolored costume,
which included a cap with bells and either horns or donkey ears. A bauble with a carved replica of the
fool's head was a popular prop, and an inflated animal bladder tied to the end of a stick was a common
weapon for the fool's slapstick clowning.
Some fools were true simpletons, subjects for condescending laughter, while others were intelligent
and talented acrobats and musicians who were held in high esteem by their masters. All were viewed as
important status symbols; popes and kings had their fools, as did their imitators aristocrats, city gov-
ernments, and even tavern owners and brothel keepers. (14)
Although most prevalent in medieval and Renaissance Europe, the court fool has been a popular
institution throughout history. When Cortes conquered the Aztecs in the 1520s, for example, he discov-
ered fools, dwarfs, and hunchbacked buffoons at the court of Montezuma II, some of whom he brought
back as presents for Pope Clement VII. Russia's Peter the Great had more than a hundred fools. Court
fools were also known in both the Near and Far East long be-
fore they became common in Europe; ancient Chinese emper-
ors had court fools, as did many African potentates. Legends
have been spun from the adventures of the fool, Bulhul the
Madman, at the ninth-century Islamic court of Haroun-ar-
Rashid. Nasr-ed-Din, fool to Tamburlaine, the powerful four-
teenth-century Mongol ruler, was believed to be a medium for
spirit voices; after his death, his life took on the proportions of
a myth, and tales about him are still told today.
There have also been many female fools throughout the
ages. The wife of Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, re-
tained a woman fool. Seneca did not approve, however, de-
claring that if he wanted to waste his time looking at a fool, all
he had to do was stare into the mirror. The most famous female
fool was no doubt the flamboyant Mathurine, who presided at
the French court from the reign of Henry Ill to that of Louis
XIII. She walked the streets dressed like an Amazon warrior
and was noted for the fervor with which she attempted to con-
vert Huguenots to Catholicism. The name of this pugnacious
and outspoken jester was adopted as a pseudonym by contem-
porary satirists, and a specific style of burlesque writing was
given the name mathurinade.
The first known court fool was a pygmy who presided at
the court of Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi of ancient Egypt's Fifth
Dynasty. Although he was a physical curiosity from an exotic A selection of jesters’ baubles. Note
foreign land, this fool was apparently an able entertainer and bladder attached to end of stick (#2),
by no means an idiot. In the public mind, however, the idea of as well as phalluses, ass’s ears, and
replicas of fool’s head on other
the fool as madman often overlaps with that of the fool as physi- baubles. Reproduced from Willeford,
cal freak. The Fool and his Scepter, by permis-
sion of Northwestern University
Just as many cultures interpret madness as evidence of
clairvoyance or spirit possession, physical deformity is
often seen as proof of supernatural forces at work. While
in some cases the physical freak is viewed merely as an
interesting oddity, at other times he has been regarded as a
seer and even as a kind of good-luck charm. The fool's
value as entertainer thus might be derived in part from his
grotesque appearance (the freak), his lunacy (the natural
fool), or his ability to counterfeit simple-mindedness for
comic effect (the artificial fool) or from a combination of
these qualities.
Most court fools, however, were clever artificial fools,
who developed a reliable repertoire of humor guaranteed
to delight aristocratic audiences because of its insight and
pungent wit, or as was more often the case because the
fool himself was the butt of the joke. Many of these jests
had been well known in the Orient long before they be-
came standard in Europe. They tell, for example, of the
fool who stood before the mirror with his eyes closed so
that he could see how he looked when he was asleep; or of
the fool who clung to the anchor when the ship was sink-
ing; or of the one who carried around a brick from his house
in order to show everyone exactly what the building looked
Perñia, buffoon at court of Philip IV. Painting like; or, finally, of the simpleton who was convinced he
by Velazquez, finished by Carreno (c.1637). could teach his horse to live without food, and who later
Courtesy of The Prado.
concluded that he would have succeeded had the animal
not died before the experiment could be completed.
The court fool's popularity and prestige led to the preservation of many of his quips and pranks in
the form of jest books, which first became popular in Germany in the sixteenth century. (15) Collec-
tions of anecdotes, witticisms, practical jokes, and comic sermons, each book supposedly contained the
humor of a single court fool. The material was not always original, but the books nevertheless represent
the first appearance in print of traditional verbal humor, which, not so coincidentally, later reappeared
in the clown-ringmaster exchanges of the nineteenth-century circus. Riddles and burlesque sermons
were also an important part of the fool's verbal arsenal, as was his knack for capping his speeches with
rhymed couplets. Forging provocative letters that were guaranteed to create a series of comical misun-
derstandings was one of their favorite forms of practical joking. Many fools were also excellent tum-
blers and jugglers. England's King Edward II especially enjoyed those court fools who clowned on
horseback, like the later circus clown, by pretending not to know how to ride. And an eighteenth-
century tarot card of the Fool depicts a dog pulling down the fool's pants to reveal his bare buttocks
once again, a standard piece of business in the circus (although the circus clown's rear end is rarely
The fool as daring political jester who took advantage of his free license as a buffoon to engage in
satirical comments on the affairs of state is also historical fact, but may not have been as common as
certain novelists and playwrights would have us believe. The jester was no doubt an artificial fool, for
the delicate care that this dangerous meddling required would have been far beyond the pure lunacy of
the natural fool. "His jokes did not proceed from folly or poverty of mind," wrote an admirer of the

Italian jester Gonella, "but sprang from his vivacity, his acuteness and his sublime genius; he did
everything thoughtfully, and, when he was planning to play some fine trick, he would consider both the
nature of him whom he intended to ridicule, and the pleasure that the Marquis could derive from it and
of all the tricks he has played at diverse times, I have never heard of one that had been directed against
the Marquis." (16) A similar appreciation of the jester's keen sense of psychology is given by Viola in
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night:

This fellow's wise enough to play the fool,

And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, check at ev'ry feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practice
As full of labour as a wise man's art;
For folly that he wisely shows is fit,
But wise men, folly fallen, quite taint their wit.

The jester is traditionally known for outrageous pranks that would normally result in severe punish-
ment. As a licensed buffoon, however, a certain amount of insolence was to be expected of him. Ed-
ward IV's jester, Scogan, was known especially for his practical jokes. Having failed to pay back a
considerable sum of money, which he had borrowed from the king, the jester chose death as the only
reasonable solution. But Scogan's sudden death, of course, was as phony as the elaborate funeral he had
contrived. When Edward paid his respects to the mortal remains of his favorite jester, he had many kind
words to offer in Scogan's praise, even going so far as to forgive him his large debt. Upon hearing these
words, Scogan leaped from the coffin, humbly thanked King Edward for his act of generosity, and then
prudently had all those present bear witness to this royal dispensation. "It is so revivifying," explained
Scogan, "that it has
called me to life
On one occasion,
Scogan carried his im-
pudence too far and
was forbidden upon
pain of death ever to set
foot again on English
soil. After a brief so-
journ in France, how-
ever, he returned to his
native land, his shoes
full of French soil and
once again the jester

Festivities at the wedding

of Henry IV and Marie de
Medici in 1600.
escaped punishment. The same story, however, has also
been told of many other fools and, whether true or not,
certainly reflects the uncertain social position of many of
these jesters.
Another similar tale has as its subject the Italian dwarf-
jester, Bertholde. When asked by the king what he sought
at court, Bertholde dared give an honest answer and one
that was obviously unappreciated: "What I have not been
able to find," he replied, "for I had imagined a king to be
as much above other men as a steeple is above common
houses, but I have found that I have honored them more
than they deserve. . . . You cannot give me what you do
not possess. I am in eager search of happiness, of which
you have not a grain." When the king promptly exiled him,
Bertholde remarked that jesters were like flies: the more
you drove them away, the more insistent they were about
returning. The king accordingly granted Bertholde safe
return if he arrived in the company of flies. The jester did
precisely that, riding back to court on an old jackass whose
infected hide had attracted swarms of them. (17)
Other reports of foolish disrespect abound. When Marot,
Fifteenth-century French or Flemish painting a sixteenth-century plaisant (jester), saw his nation's am-
of jester. Courtesy of the Gemäldegalerie, bassador to Rome kiss the Pope's foot, he cried out, "Mer-
ciful heavens! If the representative of the King of France
kisses his Holiness'foot, what may a poor fellow like me
be called upon to salute?" A German "merry councillor" by the name of Nelle attended a high-level
government meeting at Ratisbon in 1613. Later he presented the emperor with a beautifully bound
volume, which he claimed contained a full account of all that had been accomplished. When the Ger-
man ruler opened the book, he found nothing but blank pages.
Anecdotes such as these have contributed to the court fool's romanticized image as a daring politi-
cal jester whose sharp wit served to deflate the king's arrogance. Much of the jester's comedy was
indeed based on parody and the inversion of status: there are many stories, for example, of the jester
who is so foolish as to make himself comfortable on the royal throne; and an equal number of jests that
show the king to be the greatest fool of them all because as Shakespeare intimated he is the last to
acknowledge his own folly. When Marot walked alongside the king, the sovereign told him he could
not bear having a fool on his right-hand side. "Is that so?" replied Marot, as he moved to the left of the
king, "I can bear it very well."
Courageous court jesters succeeded in bringing a spirit of free speech and healthy criticism to the
royal court at a time when there were few viable checks on the monarch's power. Unfortunately, the
jester was not always a force for social enlightenment. While ideally he might serve the same function
as a North American Indian clown society, the jester did not receive the same degree of support from
the community, for all the power lay in the hands of a king who was apt to be arbitrary and unpredict-
able in his reactions to social satire.
Too close an association with the king could result in the jester being reduced to a sycophant.
Often he became merely a tool in the hands of politicians, parroting the official line and showing
more concern with the preservation of royalty than with human rights. "You do well not to love the
Reformers," a seventeenth-century French writer warned the court fools, "for they intend to reform
you out of existence." Indeed, most jesters lived in luxury only so long as they pleased their patrons,
and consequently were quite willing to limit their barbs to officially approved targets. "Those who
live to please," wrote Samuel Johnson, "must please to live."

©1976, John Towsen

Chapter 1 Notes
Click on any highlighted book title to go to its information page on
Click on “Return to text” to go back to the line where that footnote appeared in the text.
1. This ceremony was described most recently by Frank Bock in his excellent Ph.D. dissertation, "A Descriptive Study of
the Dramatic Function and Significance of the Clown during Hopi Indian Public Ceremony"; a similar ritual was witnessed
by Alexander Stephen in 1893 and recorded in his Hopi Journal (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936). Return to
2. "On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure" by Paul Jung, in Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in American Indian
Mythology, p. 200. Jung also discusses the trickster in relation to the medieval Feast of Fools. Radin's analytical study
includes oral texts of several North American Indian trickster myths. In tarot cards, the fool is both the first and last card.
Alfred Douglas writes in The Tarot (London: Penguin Books, 1973): "When he [the fool] appears at the beginning, he can
be interpreted psychologically as representing the newly born child. . . . He is shown setting out on his journey into life,
entranced by the bright butterfly of sensory experience.... The negative aspect of the Fool reveals the Joker, who chases in
pursuit of extravagant amusements, heedless of the chaos and anarchy he leaves In his wake. The heady joy of the moment
is his only concern. . . . When he appears at the end of the sequence, the Fool has completed his journey, and he passes gaily
through the world, the appearance of which has been transformed by his own inner transformation. Where once was dis-
cord, all now is harmony; where despair held sway, fulfillment now reigns." The joker in a modern deck of playing cards is
derived from the tarot fool. Return to text.
3. Throughout history the demand for freaks has been greater than the natural supply, and consequently there has always
been a thriving business in creating artificial freaks through grotesque medical practices. The history of freaks, real and
man-made, is covered in C. J. S. Thompson, The Mystery and Lore of Monsters (New York: Citadel Press, 1970), which
contains a long bibliography; Daniel Mannix, We Who Are Not as Others (New York: Pocket Books, 1976); and Gould and
Pyle, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine (1897). Return to text.
4. The classic defense of folly was put forth by the philosopher Desiderius Erasmus in his The Praise of Folly. William
Willeford's The Fool and His Scepter is a theoretical study of the fool's appeal, drawn from English- and German-language
sources and enriched by the author's experience as a practicing psychotherapist. It is also interesting to note that most
cultures stereotype some real or imaginary outside group as being composed totally of fools and numskulls, and standard
jokes about stupidity are brought forth to describe their behavior much like modern-day "Polish jokes." See Katherine
Luomala, "Numskull Clans and Tales" in The Anthropologist Looks at Myth, compiled by Melville Jacobs (Austin: Univer-
sity of Texas Press, 1966). Return to text.
5. Lucille H. Charles, "The Clown's Function," Journal of American Folklore 58, no. 227 (1945). The earliest full-length
work on North American Indian clowns was Adolf Bandelier's The Delight Makers, but the first true scholarly study was
Julian Steward's Ph.D. dissertation, "The Clown in Native North America." Important articles on the subject include Steward's
summary of his findings, "The Ceremonial Buffoon of the American Indian," Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science,
Arts, and Letters 14 (1931): 187-207; and Elsie Parsons and Ralph Beals, "The Sacred Clowns of the Pueblo and Mayo-
Yaqui Indians," American Anthropologist n. s. 36, no. 4 (October-December 1934): 491-514. A thorough bibliography is
given in Bock's dissertation. Return to text.
6. Valentine Litvinoff, "The Yaqui Easter," The Drama Review 17, no. 3 (September 1973): 52-63. Return to text.
7. Verne F. Ray, "The Contrary Behavior Pattern in American Indian Ceremonialism," Southwestern Journal of Anthropol-
ogy, Spring 1945, pp. 75-113. Return to text.
8. E. T. Kirby, in "The Shamanistic Origins of Popular Entertainments," The Drama Review 18, no. I (March 1974): 5-15,
theorizes that this healing function is the source for all clowning, but his evidence hardly seems conclusive. The Ceylonese

demon plays are discussed by Gananath Obeyesekere in "The Ritual Drama of the Sanni Demons: Collective Representa-
tions of Disease in Ceylon," Comparative Studies in Society and History 11, no. 2 (April 1969). Return to text.
9. See, for example: Jacob Levine, "Regression in Primitive Clowning," Psychoanalytical Quarterly 30 (1961). In 1893,
Alexander Stephen observed a forty-minute Hopi skit burlesquing a wedding, in which the young couple wore false, exag-
gerated genitals and simulated copulation, with the groom eventually collapsing in exhaustion. Other skits involved urine
and fecal matter. In Ceylon, reenactments of religious myths are sometimes transformed in performance into overtly sexual
clowning that deals directly with castration anxieties and fears of impotence. See: Ranjani and Gananath Obeyesekere,
"Comic Ritual Dranias in Sri Lanka," The Drama Review 20, no. 1 (March 1976): 5-19. Return to text.
10. Quoted in E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (1903; reprinted. London: Oxford University Press, 1948), 1:294.
Other sources on the Feast of Fools include: Du Tilliot, Mémoires Pour Servir l'Histoire de la Fête des Fous (Paris 1741);
Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History, an important work that traces the social history of the fool and
relates it to the fool figure in literature. Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools is a theological study of the meaning of Christian-
ity in the Middle Ages and in modern times. The same spirit of masquerade and role reversal evidenced in the Feast of Fools
exists in most cultures, from the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece to the modern New Orleans Mardi Gras. For a somewhat
polemical discussion of the social function of these festivals, see Michael Bristol's essay, "Acting Out Utopia: The Politics
of Carnival," Performance 1, no. 6 (May-June 1973): 13-28. Return to text.
11. Quoted in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. "Feast of Fools." Return to text.
12. Many sotties have been preserved in print, although they have not been translated into English. See: U. Picot, Pierre
Gringoire et les Comédiens Italiens (Paris, 1878); Picot, Recueil Général des Sotties, 3 VoIs. (Sociétés des Anciens Textes
Français); Pierre Gringoire, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris, 1858); L. Petit de Julleville, Repertoire du Théâtre Comique en
France au Moyen Age (Paris, 1886); Grace Frank, Medieval French Drama (London: Oxford University Press, 1954); and
Welsford, The Fool. Return to text.
13. L. Petit de Julleville devotes a chapter to the Dijon Mère-Folle in his excellent history, Les Comédiens en France au
Moyen Age (Paris, 1885); there are also chapters on les basochiens and les enfants sans souci. Return to text.
14. The standard work on court fools is Welsford's The Fool; other worthwhile studies are listed in the bibliography, and
Welsford's own bibliography is quite good. Return to text.
15. Many of the English jest books are still available in the following two anthologies: William Hazlitt, Old English Jest
Books ("Shakespeare's Jest Books"), 3 vols. (London, 1864); and John Wardroper, Jest Upon Jest (London: Routledge
Kegan Paul, 1970). Return to text.
16. Welsford, The Fool, pp. 128-129. Return to text.
17. Maurice Sand's History of the Harlequinade includes the popular legend of Bertholde in his chapter on Pierrot.. Return
to text.
©1976, John Towsen


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