The Court Jester
(16th century England)
Jesters have appeared in nearly all of the powerful kingdoms in history, from ancient Egypt to West Africa to Chinese dynasties to the Aztec empire.
The jester entertained the court, acted as a companion and confidante to the royals, and spoke truth to the ruler.
In the U.S., we’re most familiar with the medieval European version of the jester. You know, the guy in the silly hat making fart jokes at the Renaissance Faire.
Ah, the Ren Faire. I auditioned for an acting job there once and blanked on my Shakespeare monologue and tried to improvise my way out of it but ended up babbling nonsense syllables.
I didn’t get the job, even though I would have been a kick-ass jestress. But I digress.
Did you know there were women jesters?!
Heck yes there were!
I have several female jesters in store for you, but let’s start with Jane Foole, sometimes known as Jane Beden.
Jane was one of several jesters in the court of King Henry VIII. (Who knew that a guy who loved beheading his wives also loved to LaUgH?!)
Jane served three queens in her lifetime: Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr and Mary Tudor.
We know very little about Jane’s childhood or her day-to-day life, but we can glean some information from the palace financial accounts.
The royal family paid to have Jane’s head shaved several times a year. The shaved-head look was common for all English fools, male or female. Bald jesters were a holdover from Greek and Roman antiquity.
What Jane lacked in hair, she made up for in shoes! According to the household accounts, the royals bought Jane piles of shoes—sometimes 12 pairs at a time.
They also bought her tons of clothes, purportedly more clothes than anyone at court except the queen herself. A single outfit could run 300 bucks a pop in today’s currency, which is no small change. I don’t think I own a single outfit worth $300?!??!
Some historians believe it’s likely Jane was an “innocent” or a “natural fool,” which was a term used at the time to describe a jester who had an unspecified learning or developmental disability.
This was different from an “artificial fool,” a jester who was trained in specific skills like magic, juggling and wordplay.
Historian Suzannah Lipscomb writes:
“While the 16th-century’s treatment of disabled people is hardly exemplary, there existed a paradoxical and ambiguous attitude towards natural fools that elevated them as much as it belittled them.”
Here’s a portrait that depicts Henry VIII’s ideal family. That’s Jane, on the far left side!
Her counterpart, a male jester named Will Somers, is on the far right. Historians have wondered whether the two were married or simply worked together. They sometimes wore matching outfits.
That’s all I have about Jane.