Henry II (1154-89) gave his court jester Roland the Farter 30 acres at Hemingstone in Suffolk in return for an annual Christmas Day jump, whistle and fart routine. The Book of Fees refers to: ‘The following (lands), which formerly were held of Roland the Farter (Rollandi le Pettour) in Hemingston in the county of Suffolk, for which he was obliged to perform every year on the birthday of our Lord before his master the king, one jump, one whistle, and one fart (unum saltum et sifflettum et unum bumbulum)’. Roland's unusual rent was atypical; a more normal peppercorn rent for retired jesters was a pound of pepper or a pair of spurs. Hemingstone, meanwhile, lapsed into obscurity for some 400 years until, in 1597, the entire parish was mysteriously cited before a Church Court for ‘laxity’.
Farting jesters go back to at least the 5th century. St Augustine was amazed by performers who could ‘produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.’
In 2001, the court jester to the King of Tonga stole 50 million Tongan dollars.
Celtic Irish fools (riogdruth) and Norman fools (joculatoris) were both expected to be warrior-comedians. Jesters have often been dwarves. A dwarf named Turold appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, holding some horses. Turold is one of only four named minor characters in the Tapestry, so was probably a famous figure in his day - but he wasn’t the only warrior dwarf at Hastings. At a crucial moment, his diminutive colleague Taillefer rode out in front of the discouraged Norman army and, ‘tossing his sword high, he sported with it’. The juggling act had its intended effect: one of the English emerged from behind the shield-wall to confront the jester, who unexpectedly killed and decapitated him. This encouraged the flagging Normans, with consequences that every schoolboy knows.
Other jesters had less demanding job descriptions: Edward II gave Morris Ken, who worked in the kitchens, a pound after a stag hunt during which Ken ‘often fell from his horse, at which the king laughed exceedingly.’
In July 1787 the Prince of Wales' favourite jester was thrown into prison for saying 'roast beef'.
Twisty Pole, the Imperial court jester, is famous for dissuading the Emperor Qin Shi Huang from his mad scheme of painting the entire Great Wall of China with lacquer, thus saving thousands of lives. Twisty Pole is a literal translation of Yu Sze. Clowns and jesters played an important role in Chinese court life. Other notable Chinese clowns include Moving Bucket and Immortal Revelation Ding .
Qin Shi Huang was born in 247 bc into the state of Qin, which is pronounced 'chin' and is where we get the word ‘China’. By the age of 26 he had conquered all the other states and created, for the first time, a single Chinese empire. His name means First Emperor of the state of Qin. He abolished feudalism, created a central government, standardised the systems of writing, weights and measures and currency and built a network of roads and canals and put up a northern defensive Great Wall by joining a sequence of four older walls together. Many perished in their construction, hence the nervousness about the idea of painting or lacquering it. Twisty Pole's skill was getting the Emperor to laugh at himself and abandon the project as folly.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
The idea of rulers employing licensed fools goes back to ancient times: it is perhaps as old as kingship itself. Jesters were people of no rank, and as they were ‘nothings’, could provide informal, relaxed companionship and at the same time tell their boss when he was making a fool of himself, theoretically without fear of consequences.
Other than the jester, the king was surrounded entirely by people who had status at court, and who therefore - for the sake of their careers - had to be yes-men.
In Ancient Rome there was a special fool market, akin to the slave market, where you could buy jesters and fools.
St. Bartholomew's Hospital was founded by Rayer, the jester of Henry I.
The Queen mothers family, the Bowes-Lyons, were the last Scottish family to maintain a full time jester, Samuel Johnson (1691-1773).