Beginning in medieval times and stretching to the Elizabethan era, a court jester could be found in the court of European monarchs. A jester's duty was to entertain the king, queen, members of the royal court and assorted nobility. The tradition of the court jester dates to the comedic actors of the ancient world.
In a style similar to modern show business, a jester -- also called a fool -- typically paid his dues by amusing ordinary people before being recruited to the royal court. A jester could come from a variety of backgrounds, with such people as eccentric nonconformists, actors, poets, acrobats, musicians and jongleurs ( travelling storytellers) recruited to become jesters. A jester could even be a regular person who was simply good at making people laugh. Recruiting jesters was a meritocratic process, allowing someone of ignoble birth an opportunity to associate with nobles and royalty. In fact, jesters in certain courts, such as Russia, were expected to sit at the table next to his master to keep him amused during meals.
Jesters came in all shapes, sexes and sizes, although it wasn't uncommon for dwarfs and the mentally handicapped to serve as jesters. Those with physical infirmities, such as hunchbacks, could also be jesters. Regardless of physical appearance, the jester's role was multifaceted. A jester would be called upon to provide counsel, act as confidante, serve as scapegoat and amuse his master as the situation would dictate.
A jester's skills were eclectic. Depending on the jester, the job could entail acrobatic acts, reciting poetry from memory, telling stories, juggling, playing an instrument, singing, dancing and other forms of entertainment. The most important ability a jester needed, however, was a sense of humour. Whatever the form of entertainment, the jester would typically use both physical and oral humour in the performance. A jester's success was measured in laughter.
An International Phenomenon
Although jesters are usually associated with medieval and Renaissance Europe, the role of jester was a universal one. Historical records of jesters can be found in a variety of other countries, including Russia, India, Japan, the U.S. and China. China, in fact, has the longest and best-documented history of court jesters, with records of such legendary jesters as "Twisty Pole" and "Baldy Chunyu." The rise of Chinese theatre in the Yuan Dynasty signalled the decline of the Chinese court jester.