The fool, the clown, the trickster, the jester: all are versions of a comic type found in cultures across the world and throughout history. In sixteenth-century England, the fool took on a readily recognizable form—indeed the one we associate with jesters and jokers today.
Note the details on this figure, telltale markers of this stock character, who appeared in performances, prints, paintings and decorative arts throughout the Middle Ages:
the hood with donkey’s ears,
the jagged-edged tunic decorated with bells,
the elbows of his shirt cinched with tassels.
He also often carried a baton, called a bauble, with a face that mirrored his own as we see here.
This sculpture was once part of a provocative parade of characters that decorated the façade of an unusually showy home in downtown Exeter, England, built in the first half of the sixteenth century by a wealthy merchant named Henry Hamlyn.
The other figures on the ground floor—a club-wielding peasant. . .
and a quarreling couple—were, like the fool, comic types, drawn from popular prints and bawdy tales, each with its own associations and meanings to medieval passersby.
The fool was the quintessential medieval entertainer, whether on the street or at court. His slippery character allowed him to move between worlds, defying the strict social order of sixteenth-century English society.
His hold on the imagination derived in part from his paradoxical nature. Both an insider and outsider, he occupied a peculiar place at court as the one person able to ridicule the very person he served.
While writers such as Shakespeare cast him as a purveyor of wise witticisms, many visual artists portrayed the fool as an uncouth lecher who makes a mockery of love.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, ca. 1494–1533). A Fool and a Woman, 1520. Etching and engraving, 4 x 2 7/8 in. (10.3 x 7.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1922 (22.67.52)
His clumsiness often masked agility. His nonsense imparted wisdom.
The paint on this sculpture is long gone, but generally the fool’s costume was deliberately gaudy, a form of ostentation that stood apart from the drab woolens of the poor, the sober velvets of merchants, and bright satins and silks of the aristocracy. His multicolored costume, totted up with the tassels and bells of ceremonial wear, pokes fun at them all.
The fool’s bauble was an essential prop. In slapstick routines, it was a mock weapon used for tricks and beatings. It could also play the fool’s conversational partner or alter ego.
In the manner of a ventriloquist’s doll, the bauble head could say things that the jester might not want to say himself. A counterpart to the king’s scepter, the bauble cast the fool as a faux ruler.
Hans Schäufelein (German, ca. 1480–ca. 1540). A Fool in the Service of the Devil and a Virtuous Man, from Hymmelwagen auff dem, wer wol lebt... (detail), 1517. Woodcut, 4 1/2 x 4 in. (11.3 x 10.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Anne and Carl Stern Gift, 1959 (59.507.157(4))
A kind of mirror, it was also a reminder of the vice of vanity. The fool could as easily succumb to narcissism as anyone else.
The donkey’s ears on the fool’s hood signaled that he was an ass of sorts: he irritated his patrons and his audience; he toyed with stupidity; he sometimes babbled in a language that bordered on inhuman.
Peeking out from beneath this fool’s tunic is one of the era’s most intriguing fashion accessories: the codpiece.
In his many royal portraits, King Henry VIII famously advertised his masculinity through ostentatious codpieces. This more discreet example serves as a reminder of the fool’s highly sexualized character.
Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497/98–1543). King Henry VIII; King Henry VII (detail), circa 1536-1537. Ink and watercolor, 101 1/2 in. x 54 in (2578 mm x 1372 mm). National Portrait Gallery, London, Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1957 (NPG 4027) © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sixteenth-century artists often portrayed him cavorting with courtesans, leering at ladies, and flaunting his privates.
Sebald Beham (German, 1500–1550). Buffoon and the Two Bathing Women, 1541. Engraving, 1 7/8 x 2 7/8 in. (4.6 x 7.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Grace M. Pugh, 1985 (1986.1180.30)
Because the fool crossed class lines, he was considered both a danger and temptation to aristocratic women.
Here, within a courtly context, he lurks behind a (phallic) column, ogling a young woman, whose response to his advances is difficult to read.
This is not to say that women couldn’t be jesters, too. Henry VIII’s daughter Mary had a jestress named Jane.
The fool’s talents were both verbal and physical. He joked, he punned, he posed clever riddles. He might also juggle, dance, or perform acrobatics.
This fool’s criss-crossed legs, expertly rendered, give the suggestion of nimble-footedness and even musicality. No bells on the tips of pointed toes, but those are bells on his boots!
The strange animal on which he stands is part of the repertory of sculpted creatures that lurked in the corners and crevices of medieval buildings, as gutters, corbels, or column capitals. They show up in the margins of medieval manuscripts, as well.
Jean Pucelle (French, 1319–34). The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, Queen of France, folio 22r (detail), ca. 1324–28. Grisaille, tempera, and ink on vellum, single folio: 3 5/8 x 2 1/2 in. (9.2 x 6.2 cm); Overall (with binding): 3 7/8 x 2 7/8 x 1 1/2 in. (9.9 x 7.2 x 3.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.2)
This floppy-eared beast with its sinuous tail provides an amusingly uneven surface on which the fool must balance.
This sculpture of the fool along with the other figures depicting popular comic types turned Hamlyn’s home into a permanent stage of urban festivity. At the same time, these caricatures of the urban poor marked social and economic divisions within the town of Exeter.
The house sat just feet away from the central crossroads of Exeter and across the street from the Cathedral Yard.
It was a conspicuous location for a conspicuous house. The sculpture co-inhabited the civic space with Exeter’s inhabitants.
Situated at eye-level, substantially projecting into the street, the sculptures were designed to command attention, inviting passersby from all walks of life to admire their details and enjoy their humor—or at the very least, take note of the wealth and showmanship of the man who had the house built.
Hamlyn himself was one of the wealthiest men in town, while the vast majority of Exeter’s citizens lived in poverty. Images of the poor often served as cues for laughter, but one wonders if all of Exeter’s inhabitants were equally amused.
The jester partnered with a club-wielding peasant in guarding the front door of the house.
In sixteenth-century art and literature, the jester and peasant, medieval versions of the clown and tramp, were often cast as comedic counterparts. Details of clothing, headgear, footwear, and even facial features made for an entertaining game of contrasts.
This pair of candlesticks depicting a peasant and jester presents one man with shoes, the other without. One is bare-chested, the other in a tunic. One face is craggy with the other smooth.
Jehan Aert van Tricht (Netherlandish, active 1492–1501). Candlestick and Candlestick, ca. 1500. Brass, 11 7/8 x 5 7/8 x 5 3/4 in. (30 x 14.7 x 14.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 (64.101.1534, .1535)
Though the building the two sculptures adorned was originally built for Hamlyn, by the nineteenth century, when this print appeared in a local magazine, it had long served as an establishment for eating and drinking, known as the King John Tavern.
What was once a monument to one businessman’s success became a watering hole for any paying customer, with the sculptures an invitation to indulge in merriment. When the building was destroyed in the nineteenth century, Henry Hamlyn had been long forgotten.
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 1
The fool was not invented in sixteenth-century England, but many of the characteristics we associate with the type were crystallized at that moment.
Artists, writers, kings and noblemen found good use for the fool, holding him up as both an oddity and an oracle.
Today we might understand fools as a cross between circus clowns and late-night comedians—they make us laugh, mainly by making us see how foolish we are.
See the jester and other sculptures from Henry Hamlyn’s home at The Met Cloisters.
Architectural Support with a Jester, 1524–1549. French, Made in Exeter, England, by French woodworkers. Oak, 83 x 9 1/2 x 9 1/4 in., 101 lb. (211 x 24.1 x 23.5 cm, 45.8 kg). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1974 (1974.295.1)
Watercolor by Edward Ashworth (English, 1814–1896). King John Tavern (formerly the home of Henry Hamlyn), 1830–40. The Devon and Exeter Institution
Hans Schäufelein (German, ca. 1480–ca. 1540). Musicians and Onlookers. Woodcut, 10 3/4 x 16 in. (27.3 x 40.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Harry G. Friedman, 1949 (49.120)
Etching by Georg Braun (German, 1541–1622) and Frans Hogenberg (Flemish and German, 1535–1590). Map of Exeter from Cities of the World, 1617. Alamy Stock Photo