Thoughts on a possible origin of the Jester – a remnant of the shaman/holy man??? – a personal speculation

Here’s a thought I often have:

I have always had this ‘weird’ idea about the origin of the Jester.  It’s primarily a personal perspective, reflecting personal experience.  How true it is I cannot say.  Basically, I often feel that one of the origins of the Jester is that they came from holy men, or men intimately associated with the ‘sacred’.  I speak, more especially, of men like shamans, who have had a ‘closer’ association with the ‘sacred’ primarily by having specific experiences and who practiced ‘shamanistic journeying’.  This tends to create a specific type of outlook and personality which, I feel, slowly turned into Jesters when they lost their ‘religious base’ of existing, so to speak, because of historical circumstance (namely, the Christian conversion).  In other words, they turned into Jesters after having been displaced.  As time went on, their religious ritual slowly became a form of entertainment.  Because of this, they became integrated with entertainers over the years.

Court Jester 3

(A jester in front of a King and Courtiers in a manuscript from the 1400’s.  He has the donkey eared hood, common in central Europe, with a pointed hood that is common in the western end of Central Europe and that is unusual in that it has a bird’s head on it.  His scepter has the head that resembles himself called a Marotte.)


To be frank, the idea that the Jester came from a shaman/holy man came about more as a result of my own experience with shamanistic experience more than anything that pointed this out as there seems to be no obvious direct evidence.  To understand the significance of what this means one must understand what shamanism is.  Here are some qualities of shamans:

  • Shamans, often called “medicine men”, are healers in many primitive tribes.  In addition to healing, they also do things such as help the souls of the dead down to the ‘land of the dead’, bless things, determine where to hunt, and so on.
  • Shamans tend to require an initiatory conflict that sets them on this road.  In other words, its seldom chosen.  This reflects that it is deep phenomena within a persons psyche.  In other words, its not just ‘something you learn’ . . . it reflects a specific character of person.
  • Shamans tend to have what can be described as deep inner experiences with the sacred.  In other words, they actively associate with ‘spirits’, gods, and such.  This is usually done by ‘shamanistic journeying’ which is sort of like a waking dream that takes place in a trance.  Its often described as a ‘journeying’ into another world.
  • Shamans do a lot of ritual as part of their activities.  These often turn into ‘performances’ and acts – in other words, a show – particularly as the shamanistic lifestyle begins to fade.

What we’re looking at are guys that, really, border on a madness of sorts, having deep personal experiences that often set them apart from everyone else (I’ve written a number of articles on my own experience with the weird phenomena of shamanism in this blog if you’re interested.  Here’s one you may find interesting:  “Thoughts on defining shamanism: an ‘active belief system’“).  Shamanism often creates some specific qualities in the shaman:

  • They tend to be alone, and removed from others, as shamanism is seldom an ‘organized’ belief system.   Many shamans learn it alone, or with the help of another shaman.  Shamanistic belief is often removed, and separate, from the beliefs of the rest of the people who often know nothing about it.
  • They tend to do ‘weird acts’ and ‘behavior’.  Even in their own primitive society people may see their behavior in this way.
  • They think differently and perceive things differently than others.
  • They tend to look at things in a ‘deeper’ way.

These qualities are often seen in the Jester and many traits of Jester humor (see below) seem to originate from them.

One of the interesting things it seemed to create in me was this weird tendency to act much like a clown, which I still do today.  In fact, I often said that I had a unique and ‘weird’ sense of humor that seemed different from everyone else’s.  After reflection I felt that what I did that wasn’t different from other people is that I acted the part of the clown, a bumbling fool, often degrading myself.  This is different than most people’s humor which typically consists of telling stories or statements or in comical attitudes which is done to primarily get a laugh.  I, on the other hand, would deliberately degrade myself oftentimes, making fun of myself, and purposely acting dumb and stupid.  People, I found, were often mystified by this and thought it ‘weird’.  Frankly, so did I at times.  But, for some reason, I continued in this self-degradation type of humor – it seemed to have a truth in it.  In fact, this deliberate self-degradation became a hallmark trait of the ‘clowning’ that I did.  This same trait is often seen in many Jesters humor I found.  I was often struck by this similarity and felt that there had to be more to it . . . maybe there was a connection?


It seems, to me, that Jesters have a unique form of humor that made them separate from other entertainers.  They have qualities such as:

  • They tended to do self-degradation and the ridiculing of themselves.
  • They tended to act on situation and be spontaneous.
  • Did not practice or rehearse their performance.
  • They did oddball behaviour and unusual behavior.
  • They worked alone as a solitary person.
  • They did not necessarily dance, sing, juggle, or do performances.
  • They often did imitations of people.
  • They often did things requiring a forgetting of self.
  • They did not necessarily travel about but tended to find a patron and stay with him.
  • They often did a dark humour, often condemning or criticizing people in their jokes.
  • The Jester humour also tended to be viewed as inherent in the Jester himself, as if it was ‘just the way he is’ and not something he learned, such as in other entertainers.  This may be why, later, they began to use Jesters who were simpletons or midgets, reflecting this sense of an innate quality.  As a result, the Jester seemed more than just an ‘occupation’ but a reflection of the way a person is.  To put it another way, they were ‘innately different’.

This made the Jester more than just a comic, a person who made jokes.  To me, it seems that the Jester had a more deeper and personal quality.


In my inquiry of the “jester image”, which primarily ‘appears’ as a distinct form from the 1100’s to the 1500’s, I felt that there were probably three sources that helped create it.  What I mean by this is that the “jester image” had three elements that contributed to make it was it is.  They all sort of ‘converge’ on this period of time and helped create the “jester image” as we now know it.  In other words, it does not originate from just one source but has many sources.  Because of this, it is sort of a conglomeration created by historical circumstance.  As a result of this of the multiple influences, there are many ‘stories’ and versions about the origin of the “jester image”.

The three sources of the “jester image” seem to be:

  1. A shaman/holy man.  This is what I am going to speak of here and is primarily speculative.
  2. An entertainer.  These are people whose primary act is to entertain in some way, be it by jokes, performances, stories, or what have you.  They may be solitary individuals or part of a group.  They may even be individual people that travel around and entertain at various courts.
  3. A “simpleton”.  These are people that are retarded, stupid, or dumb.  Not many people know that many Kings and leaders kept a simpleton in their service.  Often, they became like Jesters or comedians.  In some cases, they kept midget’s who served a similar function as they were ‘innately different’.

Generally, the typical stories of the origin of the jester tend to emphasize the influence of the entertainer with some references to the simpleton.  These explanations, though, never seemed to completely satisfy me (though they may, in fact, be true . . . its difficult to say).  I’ve speculated that the actual original ‘force’ of the “jester image” was the shaman/holy man and it was their influence and power, in the original pagan society, that made them a presence in society, particularly as associated with leaders and the men in charge.  Because of this, they ‘set the stage’, so to speak, for the Jester image.  As time went on the other two sources ‘latched on’ to it, so to speak, transforming him into something else altogether.  In the end, the Jester just became another entertainer.  If this is true then it shows that the shaman/holy man/Jester went through quite a transformation through the centuries.  It would suggest a transformation much like:

  1. The pagan period (pre 800 or so).  This is the pagan era.  Here he was a shaman/holy man.
  2. The Christian Conversion period (about 800-1100).  Here the shaman/holy man was displaced.  Since his presence in society was established he began to turn into other things, one of which may be the Jester.
  3. The “Jester image” period (about 1100-1500).  Here the shaman/holy man was displaced and the Jester was formulated and developed into a defined image still containing traits of the shaman/holy man.
  4. The Jester-as-entertainer (about 1500-1700).  Here the Jester just became another form of entertainer and primarily lost his origins.
  5. The end of the Jester (post 1700).  Here the “Jester image” basically disappeared though there are remnants seen in clowns, harlequins, and such.

It appears that the Jester is primarily Germanic, meaning from central Europe.  I am unaware of any Jester in Scandinavia (who are really part of the Germanic people).  One of the reasons for this, I always thought, is because the people in central Europe tended to remain scattered groups of people with a definite tribal quality.   In Scandinavia they began to develop more formal and organized social structures with Kings and definite boundaries. As a result, the Scandinavians actually developed a more ‘advanced’ society, so to speak, than did the people in central Europe.  Because of this, they began to move away from the tribal sense (moving toward a ‘monarchial sense’).  One of the qualities that often make up the tribal society was the presence of a shaman/holy man.  Since Scandinavia had ‘progressed’ this office tended to disappear or be replaced by something else (such as the King as “high priest” – see my article on Kings called “Thoughts on the stages of kingship“).  In tribal central Europe this did not happen creating a condition where the shaman/holy man was still a great presence in society.  In fact, he was still a presence in the society when Christianity came and undermined their whole belief system.  This created a condition where the traditions and presence of the shaman/holy man was still active but in which the belief system to sustain him was not there.  Because of this the shaman/holy man, and the office they performed, changed.  One of the ways it may have changed was that it turned him into a Jester.  The fact that the Jester began to appear right after the Christian conversion may even suggest this showing that it was something the Christian conversion created.

The Jester was also seen in England.  They do not seem to appear with the Anglo-Saxons and seem to of been brought over by the Normans after the Norman Invasion of 1066.  The Normans are actually Scandinavian in origin (namely, Norwegian . . . Norman means “north men”).  As with the rest of Scandinavia they did not seem to of had a Jester as part of their court naturally.  It appears that, once they set up control of Normandy in France, they basically imitated the other courts of central Europe and adopted one as part of their court.  Since they did it as an act of imitation it appears that the Normans did not understand the significance of what the Jester was and what they did.  As a result, they tended to use “simpletons” (people who were retarded, dumb, stupid, etc.) as their Jester’s primarily.  In other words, they just saw them as a “fool” and that’s it . . . they saw no other use in them.  This same tendency was carried over into England where the Jester’s were primarily “simpletons”.  Because of this, in England the Jester did not become associated that much with entertainers and did little or no entertaining.

This shows that the Jester appeared differently in different areas of Europe:

  • Central Europe – This is the area where the Jester seemed to of originated, developed, and flowered.
  • Southern Europe – They did not seem to have Jester’s but had entertainers that were similar and which often imitated them.
  • Western Europe (England) – The Jester was primarily a “simpleton” brought over by the Normans.
  • Northern Europe (Scandinavia) – There appears that there were no Jester’s here.
  • Eastern Europe (the Slavic countries) – I’m unsure about this area.  At this time, it doesn’t seem they had Jester’s.


The “Jester image” is more than an entertainer, a comedian.  A significant part of the “Jester image” are themes that goes into the deeper aspects of life.  Some of these things show similarities of Jesters with shamanism as well as paganism:

The Jester costume – dressing like an animals

The Jester is one of the few entertainers that deliberately dressed as some form of animal, an ass and a cock being common ones.  Apparently, they often dressed this way most of the time, not just for a performance.

Their association with wisdom and insight

Jesters, or stories of Jesters, often describe a wisdom or insight that they entail, often through their humour.  In many cases, they were the ones who would always tell the truth about a situation and were often consulted for this reason.  Even the trickster Eulenspiegel’s name (from the collection of stories about him called “Til Eulenspiegel”) may be a reference to wisdom and insight.  It means “owl glass” or “owl mirror” which may be a reference to something like a ‘wise mirror’ or even a ‘wise reflection’ but thats not certain.

References to the deeper aspects of life

It’s not uncommon that Jesters are associated with deeper aspects of life, such as death.  It may be no mistake that the two people who dig up a former Jester’s skull in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were clowns (a derivative of a Jester).  This may be a good example of how the ‘religious’ aspect of the “Jester image”, possibly coming from the shaman/holy man, was still in the people’s mind at the time (though unconscious).

Statements were viewed as ‘weird but accepted’

When Jester’s said things they were often not looked at as ‘normal statements’ but out-of-context giving their statements an unusual quality which was often comedic. This may be a result of the fact that, after the Christian conversion, they continued to state pagan ideas and principles or that people associated them with the pagan world.  Since people were being Christianized this was viewed as ‘odd’ and out-of-context to them.  At the same time, they may also have been surprised at the insight often given in these statements.  As a result, they may have began to be viewed in a ‘weird but trusting’ way.  This would make the Jester as something more than ‘just someone who says stupid or comical things’.

Over time their ‘weird but accepted’ statements began to develop many qualities, particularly as they became associated with entertainers.  It appears that may of their statements seemed to be looked at in a number of different ways:

  • As an insight.
  • As something stupid or foolish or innocent.
  • As a form of entertainment.

This gave the statements of a Jester a unique quality, ranging from insightful to nonsensical.

Being despised and set apart from everyone else

Jesters were often despised by people.  An early term for them, nebulo, is a reference to the fact that they were ‘vague’ people, much like a cloud or mist.  They seemed to be people that weren’t quite defined by society and seemed to have no apparent place.

But there are two interesting aspects to this:

  • Shamans were people who were often set apart from general society and were often treated as a different class of people.  In some places, no one wanted to marry a shaman even.
  • If the Jesters were pagan in origin it would account for the despising they received from the Christian world as they were associated with the pagan world.  To Christianity that would be something to be despised.  As a result, it may of began an association between a Jester and being despised.

This tendency to be despised may also account for why many Jesters, particularly in the middle ages, were looked at as being like vagabonds, tricksters, wayfarers, hucksters’, etc.  Being viewed as ‘set apart from the Christian world’ they are removed from everyone else, and being that way, viewed as a threat or as wretched people.  In some places the Jester’s had to eat at a separate table form everyone else and be treated differently.

The initiation of ‘Simplicissiumus’  

The 1669 book called “Simplicissimus”, by Johann Grimmelshausen, describes the story of Simplicissimus who, at one point, is turned into a Fool or Jester.  In fact, the whole book is about a man who does not understand the world.  He is even called “Simplex”.  In many ways, the whole book is about a simpleton, a fool, as he tries to make his way and understand the world – another reference to the association between the image of the fool and the deeper aspects of life.  Some interpretations even call the book “The adventures of a simpleton”.  And so the whole book is really based on the Jester/fool theme.

In order to become a Fool or Jester he goes through an initiation which is “sure to make him lose his senses”.  During the night, people stage a performance where it appears that he dies and passes through hell and then up to heaven.  Several ladies treat him as if he were a baby.  He then wakes up dressed as a calf.   Simplicissimus then makes everyone believe that he believes he’s been turned into a calf.  He then goes on to make absurd and ridiculous statements as well as wise statements, sometimes stating truths no one will say which Jesters often do.

How accurate can we consider the account in “Simplicissiumus”?

Overall, the accounts in the book seem to describe fairly accurate material, with occasional fantastical elements, such as near the end (where he travels to the center of the earth).  This makes me think that there is some truth to the account of the Fool or Jester though I cannot be sure completely.  Nowhere else, that I’m aware of, is there any account of an ‘initiation of a Jester’.  Is it based on actual initiations with Jesters?  Its difficult to say.  If there was an initiation I  certainly doubt that all Jesters were ‘initiated’ in quite this way and it may of only been in certain areas and times as well.  Perhaps to be a Jester in a Court required an initiation of sorts, as if to ‘bond’ him to the Court?  Not only that, even if it was not practiced why did he portray it in his book?  These are questions that will probably never be answered for sure.  But, if initiations did in fact happen, it would show that Jesters were more than just an ‘entertainer’.  It would suggest that there was a deeper meaning and significance to the Jester.

But what’s significant about this is that this initiation describes a process that is very similar to the ‘initiation’ of many Shamans and in some of the phenomena associated with shamans.  We see these similar qualities:

  • He ‘dies’.
  • He goes through heaven and hell.
  • He is reborn, even having several ladies treat him like a baby.
  • He “loses his senses” making him a fool similar to how a shaman soul separates from  himself.
  • He is turned into an animal.

These facts struck me quite plainly.  This can’t be a coincidence.  Why would something so complicated be written about a simple Fool or Jester?  Even if these were not really performed it suggests that the idea was within the common image of the Jester.  Could it be a remnant of the original shaman?

The close association with a Lord or man in power

In the more religious tribal societies the old leaders and Kings often had to have religious men around him as guides, helpmates, and protectors.  They were often used to ‘invoke’ the spirits and gods as was needed.  This close association with a Lord or man in charge may show that a Jester may have been a specific type of shaman/holy man . . . one that was protecting and helping the Lord or man in power.  In other words, the shaman/holy man, who became the Jester, was not a general shaman/holy man but a specific person with a specific function attached to the man in charge.

The ‘belief show’ – shamanism as a show

Much of shamanism entails a show, a performance.  Some shamans, themselves, have even mentioned this.  One Eskimo shaman specifically stated that shamanism was a show.  I, myself, spoke of this quality before.  I called this tendency the ‘belief show’ in an article called “A time when shamanistic ‘journeying’ scared me . . . I thought I was going mad: questioning shamanism – the ‘belief show’“.  The ‘belief show’ is an active demonstration of ones belief.  In other words, its displaying ones belief in a show or performance.  When belief is there it is a ritual or ‘shamanistic journeying’ or something similar . . . that is to say, its “real”.  When there is no belief this realness is lacking.  It is no different, really, than a play, a make-believe presentation.  In other words, when the belief in a shamanistic society fades its rituals and customs often take on a show or performance quality.  Many of their rituals become performances, something like a play.  Because of an absence of belief, the shamans, themselves, often appear as charlatans and frauds or actors.  As a result, when belief fails shamanism, as a whole, tends to appear as a show or even a hoax.

Because of this, in many societies, the shaman often turns into an entertainer and/or clown once belief fades.  In Hungary, there are customs that have similarity with Halloween.  There are a group of people who go to each house and do a song and dance.  After each song and dance the people of the household give the people a ‘gift’ (this is similar to our ‘trick or treat’ at Halloween).  One of the characters that is part of this group is someone much like a Jester.  In fact, I’ve seen them dressed similarly.  They are dressed in colorful outfits and go around the other people of the group who sing and dance and who stand in one place.  This man wears an apron or dress with a wooden penis underneath which he occasionally shows to everyone (and gets a laugh).  He represents the male and female unified.  As he goes around he acts the fool and does things to make people laugh.  This custom probably originates from pagan times.  They probably represent the ‘blessing’ of the crop by a shaman/holy man/priest, represented by the man dressed as a Jester.  The ‘gift’ they receive may of originally been something like a sacrifice or, perhaps, a ‘gift to the gods’ for the blessing.  Now, of course, it’s just a ‘show’ now, a tradition, much like Halloween is in the west . . . which it has similar origins, and no longer has any religious meaning.  But here we can see a number of qualities:

  • Of how a pagan religious function turned one character – probably a shaman/holy man/priest – into a comical fool.
  • We also see how a religious ceremony was turned into a show.
  • We also see how, even though they are still basically performing the basic traits of a pagan “religious ceremony” it has no meaning and its meaning has been lost . . . but they still continue to do it.

Many shamans in Korea have been turned into entertainers who do nothing but performances, much like an actor.  This is because, over the years, their shamanistic beliefs have deteriorated.  In fact, much of their performances are rituals that have been done for centuries.  In this case, the shamans have been turned into ‘actors’ whereas in the West they may of been turned into Jester’s.

All this suggest that shamans often turn into entertainers in some form showing a definite possible shaman origin to Jesters.

Similarity with traditional fairy tales – the ‘continually pagan institution within Christianity’

I tend to believe that traditional fairy tales tend to be pagan stories that have been degraded by Christianity.  In other words, they are a ‘continually pagan institution within Christianity’.  When this happens the pagan institution continues on but changes because of Christianity’s dominance.  Typically, the pagan institutions continue because its part of the culture and way of life.  As a result, Christianity cannot get rid of it completely, no matter hard they try.  But because of the new condition created by Christianity it tends to change form.  With fairy tales the pagan stories were “pushed” down to the level of children who are generally viewed as ‘not mature enough to know Christian doctrine’.  As a result, they became ‘children’s stories’ that any sensible Christian would know weren’t true.  Once the children became adults, and become mature, they’d know this.  This made it so that children were actually often brought up in a form of a pagan world in Christian Europe.

If Jester’s do have an origin with the pagan shaman/holy man then the Jester would also be a ‘continually pagan institution within Christianity’ and would have being treated similarly.  This may of been the case.  Instead of being “pushed” down to the level of children, though, the pagan origin and qualities of the Jester made it so that they were “pushed” down to the level of a simpleton or fool or even a madman initially.  Later entertainers would be included who were just doing ‘petty performances’ . . . nothing important (performers and actors were often not looked at highly in the past).

It’s interesting that, with the fairy tales, paganism was “pushed” down to the level of children who ‘had no sense or maturity’.  With the Jesters it was “pushed” down to the level of someone who was ‘mentally impaired’ (fool, simpleton, etc.) or someone who was doing nothing important (a performer or actor).  This shows the importance of the idea that a person has to have the mind to ‘make sense’ of the ‘truth’ in Christianity.  If they did not have this mind then their ‘paganism’ was ‘accepted’.  More or less it says that Christianity ‘accepted’ a paganism with people who couldn’t ‘make sense’ out of things (such as children and fools or entertainers doing performances meant only to entertain people).  Perhaps this is why the pagan shaman/holy man was so easily turned into a comedic Jester, a fool who couldn’t make any sense out of anything (at least from a Christian perspective)?


Many people in power had Jesters attached to their court almost like an office or position.  My inquiry has shown very little information about these Court Jesters or their story or, exactly, what they did.  The references I have found only amount to the fact that there “were” Jesters and the “did” jesting about the court.  In effect, all it seems to say is that they were “there”.  There are so many questions:

  • Did they have other roles or functions other than a Jester?
  • Were they always playing the part of the Jester all day long or was it only at certain times?
  • How did one become a Jester?
  • What were the requirements to become a Jester?
  • What was their status?
  • How long did one typically remain a Jester?
  • Was the Jester something like a trade that was passed from father to son?
  • What were they paid?

These are all questions that we cannot answer for sure, if at all.  As far as I know there is no accounts telling us any of this.  In general, they are shrouded in a mystery, only hinted at and referred to in historical accounts.

I often feel that they were like ‘offices’ or positions.  That is to say, they were on the payroll of the man in power to do a specific function (sort of like a butler or cook).  As a result, they were paid to perform a duty, one that was apparently viewed as necessary one.

I have always been mystified by how much they did jesting.  I would think that a Jester can only perform so much ‘jesting’ at a court . . . he can’t just keep doing it and doing it year after year.   How could he do it continuously?  Even at a court function he may only be jesting for a small amount of the time.  What was he doing the rest of the time?

I’ve also wondered why a court would keep someone that had such minimal use?

The Jester also seemed a ‘contrary’ to the King or man in power.  This, perhaps, may be why he had a scepter, in imitation of the Kings scepter.  As I said above, perhaps this is because he originated from a shaman/holy man who helped the King or man in power?  Who can say?


About 800-1100, in central Germanic Europe, there seems to be two forms of Jesters that appeared:

  1. The Jester-as-displaced-shaman/holy man.  They were no longer shaman/holy men but had the traits.
  2. The ‘Jester imitator’.  That is to say, he is nothing but an entertainer who imitates the behaviour and image of the Jester.

The difference between the two can be quite difficult to tell at times.

Court Jester 4

(A Jester with a king from a manuscript from the 1400’s.  It shows the donkey ears, common in Central Europe, with a pointed hood that seems common in the western part of Central Europe.  The different colored outfit shows influence from Italy.  The scepter is of a type which is called a ‘bauble’ and appears to have a bladder on the end of it.   His holding up three fingers may represent the trinity.  This would make sense as the head of God, surrounded by clouds, is shown above them.)


As society progressed, the jester became more of an entertainer and slowly became another entertainer in society.  In other words, the ‘Jester imitator’ began to overpower the original Jester.  This seemed to begin in the 1100’s.

I’m under the impression that a lot of this was greatly influenced by the Italian entertainers that came up north during the middle ages and, having a similarity with the comedic Jester, caused a change in the Jester image, behavior, and costume.  In effect, it seems that there was a borrowing.  This borrowing actually flowed in both directions.  What then happened is that, during the middle ages, the Jester became integrated with and similar to entertainers in general.  In addition, some of the entertainers began to take on qualities of the Jesters.

As the association with the Italian entertainers developed many of the Jesters borrowed from the Italian entertainers, borrowing some aspects of costume (colors, bells, frills, etc.), some aspects of performance (dance, song, etc.), and so on.

The foreign entertainers also appeared to of taken qualities from the Jesters.  They primarily seemed to of taken qualities of their appearance more than their performance or behaviour.

As a result of these, something like a blending took place.  This often creates great confusion as to what a Jester is in comparison to other entertainers (such as jugglers, dancers, etc.) by the 1500’s.  Often, a group of entertainers would be dressed as Jesters, such as was common in France, and would do a performance.  Because of this, by the 1500’s, you’d see people dressed or acting like Jesters in many other areas of entertainment than at court such as:

  • Carnivals and celebrations.
  • Entertainments and civic performances.

The many people who would imitate Jesters (and are often equated with them) include:

  • Hired entertainers.  These include singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, musicians, etc.
  • Simpletons or mentally retarded people.  It was common for Royalty to keep mentally retarded people as a ‘Jester’ or ‘fool’.
  • Midget’s.
  • Comics or comedians.
  • Clowns.  This is really a blending of the Jester with entertainers.


In Germany a common theme associated with the Jester was showing the “arse” and crapping.  Apparently, this was a subject that got much laughter in Germany during the Middle Ages.  It’s a common theme, for example, in “Til Eulenspiegal” and is even mentioned in “Simplicissimus”.

The Jester was also shown wearing donkey ears in central Europe.  A donkey is an “ass”.  The association between donkey ears, the “ass”, and crapping has always mystified me.  I’ve often felt that these were represented because they were the ‘basest’ of things, so base that they had a contempt associated with it.  In “Til Eulenspiegal” there are many stories of him crapping and showing his “arse” to people.  It even got to the point that at one point, in competition with another fool, he actually ate his own excrement making him a great ‘trickster’.


During the middle ages a particular type of book began to appear called jest books (schwankbucher in German).  These are books that describe various jests or jokes by people.  One such book is “Til Eulenspiegel”.  They generally were not actual jests or jokes by Jesters or fools (at least, I’m not aware of it) but seem to be just comedic books written by normal people.  In that sense, they are really just a form of comedic literature.  Being comedic they often portrayed fools and Jesters.  How accurate they are who can tell?

Later, in the 1500-1600’s, there appeared a type of jest book that actually stated jokes and statements by Court Jesters.  The ones that I have read so far are not that funny by today’s standards but apparently they were funny then.


By the 1500’s the individual Jester, who was not part of a group, was primarily an entertainer.  Some of the things they did as their performances include:

  • Humourous statements.
  • Comical antics.
  • Making faces.
  • Imitating people.
  • Playing an instrument.

Things they didn’t seem to do include:

  • Singing.
  • Dancing.
  • Organized performances with other people.

Even with the waning of the Jester, and their association with entertainers, the individual Jester still seems to do similar things that have been doing for centuries.


But, with the waning of the power of Royalty, the individual Jester seems to fade away.  They were no longer employed by any courts by around 1700 (at least, as far as I know).  The era of the Jester is over.

But, because of the ‘Jester imitators’ from the preceding centuries, the image of the Jester was commonly used by entertainers in general.  Through time they would use this image creating the clown, harlequin, the comedic fool, and so on.  Though the individual Jester is gone their image is occasionally used when needed by entertainers down to today.


If all this is true it shows a historical progression:

  • The shaman/holy man as an office or position in Germanic culture, probably associated with men in power.
  • Christianity comes and removes the office or position, being that it’s based in pagan belief, but the traditions remain and continue.
  • Slowly the remaining tradition creates a new character in society, based in the shaman/holy man but no longer performing that function . . . the Jester is slowly created.
  • The Jester (without any religious function) is slowly established as someone in the culture.
  • They are very successful in their new function and soon various ‘Jester imitators’ begin to appear.
  • As time moves on the Jester becomes just another entertainer.
  • After a while the Jester, associated with the court or men in power, becomes a memory.
  • The image of the Jester, though, is continued by entertainers in the clown and such.

Court Jester 2

(A German woodcut from 1568 by Hans Hanberg of a Jester or Fool showing the donkey ears and hood common in Central Europe.  The costly necklace probably shows he is associated with a court and is a Court Jester or Fool.  Could his hand on a book show he is educated?  Perhaps he represents a powerful educated man as a Fool?)


The jester had a unique form of costume that set him apart from everyone else.


Central Europe  –  Donkey ears were often sewn onto their hood.  The hood, by itself, was commonly worn during the middle ages.  The donkey ears are often as if sewn on a typical hood.

Sometimes, the hood is pointed on the top, which may have been common in the western end of central Europe, such as in the Low Countries.

Sometimes the hood is made in a more decorative way, such as having a decorative border or different colors or frills.

Sometimes they have bells on the ends of the ears and point.

France  – Their head-gear is typically called a cockscomb.  The cockscomb is the top part of the head of a rooster.  As to whether this is supposed to be what its actually supposed to represent or if it is called that just because of its resemblance I cannot say.  If it is supposed to represent a cockscomb I cannot, at this time, say why the Jesters would wear it.  Because of this, there seems to be two forms of cockscomb (both are shown in the photo of the Fool Card in the Old English tarot below):

  1. Hoods with a number of extensions coming out of it which had bells on the end (see the next photo below). I’ve often suspected that they actually originated from a headdress worn by entertainers in the middle ages.  My feeling is that these were done probably to make the bells jingle more as they danced about.  The French Jester’s may have borrowed them (as entertainment troops were common in France) and so became a common sight with them.
  2. Actually resembling a cockscomb of a rooster.  This may be a deliberate imitation of a cockscomb but it may also be a remnant of a decorate fringe that some jesters wore on the ridge of their hood (see photo above Hans Hanberg) . . . its difficult to say.

The cockscomb has become the head-gear most associated with the Jester though it does not necessarily seem to of been all that prevalent in the middle ages (at least, as near as I can tell).  I often feel that it became an easy hat to portray the Jester in later on in the 1800-1900’s.  Since English Jesters often wore no specific costume (see below), the English artists of the 1800’s probably used the image of the Jester in nearby France to portray the Jester in their paintings, pictures, and engravings (such as on playing cards too).  The costume designer of plays also used the cockscomb for the same reason.  As a result, the French coxcomb became an easily associated representation of a Jester for the general public.  When movies appeared many moviemakers found it an easy image that the viewers would associate with a Jester.  To portray them in donkey ears would make people go “huh, who’s that?” even today.

England –  I’m unaware of any head-gear that they wore.  There may of been some imitation, from time to time, with the Jester’s in central Europe.

Colorful Costume and Everyday Clothes

Colorful costumes seemed to of originated from entertainers from Italy in the middle ages.  In the early years, it appears that they often had one side colored differently than the other side.  In the 1500’s they got more elaborate, sometimes with intricate design work.  By the 1600’s they often had many different colors in their clothing.

English Jester’s, on the other hand, seemed to of been in everyday clothes predominantly.  Occasionally they would wear colorful clothing, apparently, in imitation of continental Europe.  This fact may reveal that the Jester originally had no special clothing at first.  As I said above, the Normans seem to of brought the “simpleton” Jester over to England with the Norman Invasion of 1066.  Being that they brought them over in about 1100, and were wearing everyday clothing at the time, may show that this is what they originally wore.  Being that England was an island and ‘out of the way’ it did not experience the changes that took place in central Europe.  As the middle ages appeared the Jester’s in central Europe began to change and adopt colorful costumes due to the changing conditions that England was not experiencing.  As a result, the English Jester may of remained ‘stuck in the past’, so to speak, and remained similar to what they were when they first appeared in England.  This made it so that the English Jester did not change or alter their ways that much.  In many ways, in the 1600’s, they were still the same “simpleton” Jester in everyday clothes as when they were brought over by the Normans.  The use of everyday clothes seems to of become particularly common after the Protestant Reformation no doubt as a result of the Protestant belief in not being “showy”.


These appear to have been borrowed from entertainers.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the bells originated from southern Europe.

The Jesters scepter

I’ve always been inclined to think that the Jesters scepter originated from imitating the scepter of Kings and shows their close association with them.  This would make sense as they seemed to originate when the Court Jester appeared, probably in the 1100 to 1300’s.  Just as the Kings scepter represents his authority, the Jesters scepter represented his “authority”.

I’ve also heard it said that they originate from sticks or clubs they carried around as they travelled about and were used to keep dogs away from them.  I’m not inclined to think this because Jesters generally didn’t travel about but stayed at court.  The people who would have used things like that would have been travelling entertainers, pilgrims, and such.

There are many forms of sceptres:

  • Bauble Sometimes these are nothing but small sceptres or batons.  Some have something like a weight or bladder hanging from the end of it.
  • Marotte – with a head on the top.   Often, the head on the scepter resembled the Jester himself.  These seem common beginning in the 1400’s, though they seem to originate earlier (perhaps in the 1200’s).
  • Club-like.
  • Some sceptres are long like a staff.  These are somewhat rare.

Similarity with entertainers costume

The jester costume, over time, became integrated into entertainers in general.  This caused something of an integration of costume which created a blending.

Court Jester 6

Some people think that the people pictured above (originating in a manuscript from the 1200’s) are jesters.  There is a similarity in head costume but I often wonder if they are just entertainers.  There’s a number of reasons why I think this:

  • Their head-gear does not resemble an animal normally seen with jesters.   They were probably designed for show and to create more of a ‘jingle’ from the bells as they danced about.
  • There are many of them dancing together.  Jesters were usually alone.
  • They appear to be dancing together and doing a performance, something Jesters seldom, if ever, did.

These are qualities I do not see in Jesters.  They appear to be dancers who only appear to be like Jesters because of their head-gear (as I said above, this head-gear may of actually been borrowed by the French Jester’s and so did not originate with them).  It appears that this style of head-gear was common in the 1200-1300’s.  Many illuminated manuscripts show this head-gear.


Over the years the image of the Jester took on contradictory forms.  In many ways, this contradictory pattern is one reason for the great ‘mystery’ that surrounds the Jester.  It tends to revolve around two opposing viewpoints:

  • The Fool or Jester as truly a “fool”, a simpleton.  In some cases they are associated with madman or people completely out of their senses.
  • The Fool or Jester as wise and containing a ‘secret knowledge’.  Jesters have often been associated with a wisdom.  It’s not uncommon that their comic stories and behaviour state a ‘truth’.  There are even accounts of men in power asking Jesters for their advice.  Often, Jesters told the situation as it was, stating the fact no one else would admit.  In many ways, the Jester was the only one in this position to do this, to speak the truth, particularly to a man in power.  Being a ‘fool’, they could say whatever they wanted and get away with it.  This was one of the great powers and influence of the Jester.

Which image you took depended on the stance you took.  As a result of this, the image of the Jester or Fool could be one of contempt or of praise, of an imbecile or a genius.

The Jester and Christianity

During the Middle Ages, the image of the Jester or Fool was often looked at as one to be despised, as he represented someone who was ‘unChrisitian’ and had no concern for his soul.  In that way, a Fool was someone who did not follow Christian beliefs (a non-believer or pagan).  In fact, it seems to me that the Christian idea of a “fool”, which would become associated with the Jester, is of someone who does not accept Christian doctrine.  As a result, he is viewed as having no ‘mind’.  This makes it so that he is closely associated with a ‘madman’.  This type of image would become very engrossed in the image of the Jester.  Perhaps this is because it may have had pagan origins?

The fool and Scholasticism

During the middle ages, when the Jester became prevalent, there was a great rise in scholasticism.  That is to say, there was great interest in learning and making life make ‘logical sense’.  The fool, of course, contradicted this image of a ‘logical sense’.  As a result, the image of the fool was often used to ‘counter’ the image of learning.  The fool became opposed to the learned man and each, in a way, ‘competed’ for the truth in life.  This made it so that the image of the fool was used a lot in philosophy and philosophizing about things.  This became somewhat of an established theme by the late middle ages.  This is not necessarily because the fool or Jester was involved with these philosophical debates but because the philosopher or scholar found the fool or Jester a ready representation to reflect their viewpoints.

The Fool and the Tarot

The Fool in the Tarot is often associated with the Jester.  It often has similar contradictions that is seen with the Jester.  Again, it depends on how you want to interpret the meaning.


(The Fool card in the Rider-Waite version of the Tarot.  Depending on how you look at it he may be foolishly walking over the cliff or it may be a sign of faith.)

Fool Old English tarot

(This is The Fool card from an Old English Tarot.  He is dressed like a Jester and we see that he carries the bauble sceptre with what appears to be a bladder on the end of it, commonly seen in the middle ages.  In this case, he wears the two styles of cockscomb (see entry on head-gear above).  The dog biting and tearing his clothing refers to the fact that he is a reject of society . . . could it be a reference to a pagan-derived Jester being an outcast of Christian society?  He is also about to walk off a cliff . . . could it be a reference to the Christian belief that pagan belief was untrue and like walking blind in the world?)


The Jester is not the only ‘remnant’ of the shaman/holy man.  The Jester was the one that became associated with entertainment in central Europe and, because of it uniqueness, it is most remembered.  As I said above, the turning of the shaman/holy man into an entertainer appears to primarily be a Germanic phenomena and that’s only one version.  In Scandinavia the remnants of the shaman/holy man may have taken other directions.  One I mentioned was the King.  But it appears that there are also remnants in the Skald, poet, or scholar.


The biggest problem with this point of view is proof.  Everything only ‘suggests’ it but nothing says it definitely.  There is, as far as I know, almost nothing directly stating a possible association between a shaman/holy men and Jesters.  No account of a life of a Jester has ever been made.  No direct reference to their history and development.  Most of what we know of Jesters consists of something like a bystander or a second-hand account.  This makes it very difficult to determine who and what they are.  In addition, there are other questions:

  • Where are the shaman/holy men in Germanic society?
  • What was their office in society and in the court?
  • Where are the accounts of them?
  • Where are the accounts or historical references of the transformation from shaman to Jester?

Basically, the problem is that there is a big gap between the shaman/holy men and the appearance of the Jester (from 800-1100 or s0).  This gap makes it impossible to determine exactly what happened, if anything happened at all.  It’s interesting to point out, though, that the gap where the Jester appeared corresponds to the dark ages, where there was very little written or recorded.  Not only that, this was a period of great Christianizing, which means that the religious men were generally ignored, discounted, trivialized, distorted, or condemned in some way.  It’s really not surprising that we cannot find any information.  In general, we know very little about the pagan religious customs, and the people involved, during the time preceding Christianizing.  Because of this, it is all speculation and that’s about all it can be.

But, I should also point out that what I may actually be seeing is nothing but a similarity.  Above, I have taken the point of view that the shaman/holy man turned into the Jester over the years.  What I may actually be noticing is that they have similar qualities that make them seem like they are associated, but they really aren’t.  This may very well be the case.  The problem, though, is that even this point of view is speculation.  The fact is that the early years of the Jester’s are shrouded in mystery and will never be known.  As a result, their origins will probably never be known and, as a result, it will only be a matter of speculation.

Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Christianity, Christian conversion, Post-Christianity, and Christian influence, Contemplation, monastacism, shamanism, spirituality, prayer, and such, Historical stuff, Religion and religious stuff, Stuff involving me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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