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Fool on a pub door in Brüggen

As a fool or a gate (derived thereof foolish as a property) was in the Middle Ages called the person who as a joker for entertainment should ensure and amusement and was there dressed most striking. People who behave very immature, stupid, clumsy, prejudiced, prejudiced and ignorant and who puff themselves up as scholars on the basis of their ignorance without recognizing their ignorance, because they think their ignorance is great knowledge, are also referred to as fools or fools .

The general meaning of a “fool” who does “foolish,” twisted, simple-minded things, half willfully, half insane, has fallen out of use . The term was used disparagingly; at most, the term “fool”, for a child or a young person, expressed mixed sympathy.


The origin of the only German word narr ( mhd. Narre , ahd. Narro ) is not clear. The Romanist Friedrich Christian Diez has a derivation from the late Lat. Word nārio in the meaning of nasal trunk , mocker recommended. For example, in the Rolli-Dolli fool's guild of the Grenzach-Wyhlen community there is the figure of the nose rump.

Word formations are folly in the sense of a farce , the fool's mate in chess. A more serious element becomes visible when one - as European ethnology does - includes the links to tricksters and rascals .

Medieval fool figures

The jester from Jost Amman's book of estates (1568)

Psalter illustrations date from the 12th century , which in Psalm 53 (after the earlier Greek and Latin counting: Psalm 52) mostly show a figure facing a king. This figure is often naked, swinging a club or eating bread. In the further course of the Middle Ages this figure changed. She wore a mostly colored dress , often a Mi-Parti , which was hung with bells . The club had evolved into a quirk or a mirror, a sign that the fool was in love with himself and did not recognize God. The figure is often depicted with a cowl , a pointed cap or cap, which is also hung with bells.

Fool's mirror at the town hall of Nördlingen

This figure is supposed to represent a fool, an unwise (Latin insipiens ), who mocks the wise King David , who stands for faith and is considered to be the forerunner of Christ. The beginning of the Psalm reads: “ Dixit insipiens in corde suo: Non est Deus ” (“The fool speaks in his heart: There is no God”). So the fool was by no means a figure who was just joking, but a negative figure. In many pictures the fool is often depicted beyond the status quo or at the very last point next to the robbers, the blind and other dubious figures. With those figures who are considered socially and geographically homeless and wander around the world without receiving recognition from anyone; nor be accepted into any communal group. But since God - according to Gen. 1:27 - is said to have created man in his own image, such imperfect, useless, perverted beings could in no way be likenesses of him. Thereby one said that the fool was related to the devil , who stood for the origin of all folly.

Due to his distance from God and his closeness to the devil, the fool later (14th, 15th and 16th centuries) stood for vanitas (Latin for transience), i.e. for death. Through these allegories, the fool found his way into the medieval carnival , in which he still plays a major role today. Here, too, as a negative figure in the negative time (the carnival before the Easter, positive Lent ), he should play his role as a denial of God, devil and death.

The fools not only included the mentally retarded and physically ill-educated, but also a group of people who were viewed with suspicion for other reasons. Because even the Jews had no place within the social community. By refusing to join Christianity, they placed themselves in the group of outsiders. During Mardi Gras, Jews were not used as models for costuming, but were turned into objects of mockery. The “Moors”, as typical members of paganism, also belong to this group of people. The farmer also has a certain closeness to the fool, who isolates himself from higher society due to the lack of manners and education and is therefore portrayed as imperfect.

In Goethe'sFaust II ” the devil appears as a court jester.

The relatively late illustrations in Psalter manuscripts cannot, however, indicate that the figure of the fool or court jester did not exist much earlier. As early as 789, Charlemagne forbade the clergy in his empire to keep "jokers" in addition to hunting dogs, falcons and eagles. Jokers from antiquity are also known, although in this case it is in doubt to what extent they actually acted as fools or court jesters.

Court jesters in the Middle Ages and early modern times

Ship of Fools , painting by Hieronymus Bosch

Fools were to be found both in the knightly servants and at royal courts . In the French chess game, the fool ("Fou") even has the role of the bishop in German chess. For the court jesters working there, the fool's freedom was valid, which enabled them to criticize the existing conditions with impunity. The parody of nobles was the court jester allowed.

Court jesters were clearly established in terms of the history of ideas and were almost always an integral part of the court. The court jesters as "officiants" (in a permanent courtly office) were originally not supposed to amuse their master, but instead, as a serious figure, constantly remind him that he too could succumb to sin, and in religious terms his master as a reminder of the transience of his human being Serve existence. So you were a social institution of acceptable criticism . Their separate position or the lack of commitment to social norms gave the fool a particularly large freedom of action - since everything he said was not taken seriously due to his "folly". This is the basis of the term "fool's freedom", which is still widely used today.

The classic court jester began to differ from the general "fool figure" by the 14th century at the latest. While the former had a position at court that of entertainer, jester and pastime, the general fool had a religious, philosophical function, according to which he (since the 12th century at the latest) stood for distant, sinful life and transience. The origins of this function can already be found in the Roman Empire , when when the Roman emperor entered Rome after a successful war campaign, a - usually particularly ugly - slave was carried directly behind him to remind him of the transience of his fame ( sic transit gloria mundi ).

The fool emerged as a figure who has no fixed place in the corporate order and thus in society, who does not feel obliged to any norms and who falls out of the system in its human condition.

In the Middle Ages there were two types of fools, natural and artificial . The mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, and the deformed were considered natural fools . The artificial fools were people who acted stupid or foolish, made deliberate jokes. These people had to have a certain degree of intelligence in order to be able to credibly slip into the role of fools. Their conversation was enjoyed and a certain sympathy and admiration developed for them. On the other hand, people preferred to keep their distance from the “natural fools”; depending on the extent of their deformity, these people were threatened with isolation from society.

The court jester Sebastián de Morra , oil painting by Velázquez , 1636

In the early High Middle Ages , it was mainly the physically handicapped or small , court dwarfs who were kept in cages like rarities, which (as the saying goes) made a fool of . The rulers vied to see who had the most spectacular fool in his collection.

In the late Middle Ages and early modern times it was increasingly people who just acted stupid or who had special artistic or humorous talent who were hired as entertainers . Sometimes there were fool trainers at farms who looked for conspicuous children from the area and trained them to be court jesters.

In the early modern times , it was not uncommon for intelligent and scheming strippers to take advantage of their position as court jesters to make a good life at court, for example the French fool Marthurine , who earned additional money by having court gossip printed and sold by hand to the common people on the Pont Neuf in Paris .

Some cities had so-called city ​​fools who were allowed to play jokes for general amusement. Their reward mostly consisted of begged gifts.

Court jester in the 15th century

In the 14th century, however, it became more and more fashionable to keep to the "natural fools" as well as jesters. An example of this is the favorite court jester of Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519), Kunz von der Rosen , an intelligent man who often knew how to stimulate thought through his jokes and comments. He was once asked by the emperor's council what he thought of an offer of peace. Von der Rosen responded by asking how old he was estimated. After a few attempts, he said that he was over 200 years old because he had seen at least two peace offers come into effect, both of which were concluded over 100 years each.

Nonetheless, the princes continued to make natural fools . A fool named Claus Narren von Ranstedt can be named as an example , a bull-necked, confused man who was more or less “passed around” at various farms in what is now Saxony.

People engaged as fools could occasionally have careers. An example of this is the dwarf Perkeo , who started out as a small jester at Heidelberg Castle and became the elector's steward due to his intelligence, knowledge and enthusiasm.

A famous court jester was employed at the court of Augustus the Strong, and he was appropriately named Joseph Fröhlich .

Fools partly had the political function at royal courts of being the only ones in times of absolutist rule who still conveyed the truth to the prince, linking him to the events in his sphere of rule. Be it that they were keen observers of current affairs as jokers or artists or that they were instrumentalized by advisers and courtiers to convey information or opinions or conveyed truths and things to think about to the prince. Things that a “normal person” would not have dared to say in front of an audience or witnesses because of the risk of anger, which is why one could just send the fool out. If the opinions and communications were unfavorable, then it was dismissed as “foolishness”.

Fools outside Europe

Vidushaka in the south Indian Sanskrittheater Kutiyattam

In many styles of theater in India , a fool or a comic character creates contact between the actors and the audience. While the main actors act within a strictly regulated formal language, the comedy of the fool consists in deliberately disregarding all the norms of the theater stage and society. Presumably, the figure of the fool ( Sanskrit Vidushaka ) in the ancient Indian classical Sanskrittheater in the 1st millennium BC. Taken from an already existing popular theater. This theater still lives on in Kutiyattam in southern India . In Natyashastra , the fundamental work on dance, theater and music that was written around the turn of the ages, the Vidushaka is described as a dwarfish creature. Perhaps around this time, as in ancient Egypt, people of short stature were shown for entertainment. Fools are an indispensable part of the plot in India today, from the folk entertainment theater Nautanki to the religious dance theater Ras lila to the ritual of possession Mutiyettu .

Fool's fascination

The fascination emanating from the fool is mainly based on the fact that he embodies or lives an attribute to which every person could fall victim to a triviality . The embodiment of stupidity , reprehensible moral or ethical actions, social misconduct or simply conspicuousness are characteristics that cling to every person somewhere, characteristics that one can fall into in a moment of inattention and thus join the group of outsiders.

Despite his isolation and special treatment, there is a relatively high level of identification with the figure of the fool. Because the fact that everyone has foolish traits and no matter what class category they belong to, could sink into this social group, makes the fool attractive and in the same way a symbol of the human fears of instinctual misconduct. The fool as a phenomenon that can overtake anyone at any moment, that makes one laugh and fear; a figure that brings too many puzzles with it to not be viewed in any way, with a certain distance, but nevertheless with interest.

Fool today

Today the word fool is rarely used as a derogatory term for people who act unreasonably. However, the popular saying “foolish hands smear the table and walls ” has been preserved. In some dialects, e.g. B. in Austrian and Bavarian, connotations of fooling are still used in everyday language (e.g. “foolish” for going crazy, or “fool's house” for madhouse or psychiatric institution, or “looking into the fool's box” for absent-mindedly into the void stare). Proverbial idioms are also sometimes in use, such as: "A fool and his gold will soon be separated". The phrase "to be infatuated" for "to be totally in love" has also remained, whereby mistakes and weaknesses of the loved one or the beloved object are ignored by the loved one; here, too, the negative meaning weighs heavily.

Especially in the time before Ash Wednesday , i.e. Mardi Gras or Carnival , the figure of the fool still appears frequently today. Carnival participants are also called fools today.

The city of Conwy in Wales has had an official city fool again since 2015 (after more than 700 years) with Russel Erwood.

Fool attributes

Fools have received various attributes over the centuries. Although the fools were not recognizable as such at first glance, they could ultimately be identified by their attributes. The idea of ​​what a fool can usually be recognized by developed in the European Middle Ages between the 12th and 15th centuries - up to around 1500 the fool had a whole variety of attributes.


Fool literature

Fool's literature is a popular, satirical literature called, which has a description of human weaknesses through caricatures and exaggeration and intends to teach the reader, as well as a criticism of the zeitgeist. Often the figure of the fool was used to caricature society as such. Especially in the late Middle Ages, the fool's literature was booming, which was reflected in the famous work Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools (1494) also in the Praise of Folly (1509) by Erasmus of Rotterdam , as well as the Schildbürgern and Till Eulenspiegel (1515). Also from the life of a ne'er-do of Joseph von Eichendorff and Simplicius Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen can be regarded as fools novels. There is also the story " Hopp-Frosch " by Edgar Allan Poe with the court jester of the same nickname as the title character.

Fool figures in the visual and performing arts

Fools, especially court jesters, were repeatedly depicted with their attributes figuratively or figuratively, for example in pictures by Diego Velasquez and in the busts or figurines of Joseph Fröhlich , the court jester Augustus the Strong. The Polish painter Jan Matejko (1838-1893) portrayed the court jester Stańczyk († around 1560) in several paintings , as he looks pessimistically into the future despite the brilliant successes of the Polish state during his lifetime, in which - during Matejko's lifetime - Poland as State did not exist .

Despite its low reputation in society, the figure of the fool found its way into classical music time and again, even as a protagonist. Famous examples of this are Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi and Der Bajazzo by Ruggero Leoncavallo .

A representation of the court jester that is still widespread today can be found in the joker from the card games Canasta , Rummy and others, with the typical attributes: a laughing man in brightly colored clothes with a jester's cap hanging on bells, often doubled by a fad with his likeness, occasionally also with a musical instrument.

Chess variant Jester's Game

In this variant (German: game of the fool) the fool operates as a pawn with the possibility of moving rook, bishop and jumper, but without being able to hit. At the same time, he can only be captured if he is threatened by two parties at the same time, and the piece that captures him leaves the board with him. The relationship between game and real court jester arises as follows: Whoever hit a court jester assaulted a defenseless person and thereby beat himself.

Fool in Christ

Based on a tragic interpretation of the life of Jesus Christ , a broad fool's literature inspired by this has developed, especially in Russia (see Jurodiwy ). The fool in Christ is documented in the east by Symeon von Emesa in the 6th century . Later he was embodied, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church, by the type of saint, the fool of God , who was highly regarded by the people . In addition to many Russian legends, the figure of the fool in Christ can be found in Nikolai Leskow's story The Juggler Pamphalon (1887). In the Western Church z. B. Francis of Assisi is one of the models of this figure in literature and film. In Germany, Gerhart Hauptmann included it in his novel Der Narr in Christo Emanuel Quint .

The tradition of the fool in Christ goes back to a few lines of the apostle Paul : On the one hand, Paul himself rhetorically mimes the fool ( 2 Cor 11.1.16  EU and 2 Cor 12.10f  EU ), on the other hand he presents Christian wisdom as foolishness to the world ( 1 Cor 3:18  EU ).

See also


Primary literature

  • Friedrich Nick : The court and folk fools with their foolish merrymaking. J. Scheible, Stuttgart 1861;
    • Volume 1: The court jesters, jesters, buffoons and folk jesters of older and more recent times. Your jokes, comical ideas, funny pranks and dares.
    • Volume 2: The comic and the grotesque comedy in presentations of different times and nations, fools and donkey festivals, foolish merrymaking and funny antics, dudes and fools medals. Other funny, secular and ecclesiastical amusements, curiosities, etc.
  • Erasmus of Rotterdam : Moriae Encomium Declamatio . Schürer, Strasbourg 1511 (as: The praise of foolishness. From the Latin of Erasmus. By Wilhelm Gottlieb Becker . With coppers by Chodowiecky . By Georg Jacob Decker , Berlin / Leipzig 1781; as: The praise of foolishness. With many coppers after the Illustrations by Hans Holbein and an afterword by Stefan Zweig ( Diogenes, Zurich 1987, ISBN 3-257-21495-2 ).
  • Sebastian Brant : The Narrenschyff. (PDF; 75.6 MB). Johann Bergmann , Basel 1494.
  • Sebastian Brant: The Ship of Fools. After the first edition (Basel 1494) with the additions of the editions of 1495 and 1499 as well as the woodcuts of the German original editions (= reprints of German literary works. NF Volume 5). Edited with an introduction by Manfred Lemmer. 3rd, expanded edition. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1986, ISBN 3-484-17005-0 .

Secondary literature

  • Clemens Amelunxen: On the legal history of court jesters. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1991, ISBN 3-11-013217-6 . ( excerpts from Google Books )
  • Edgar Barwig, Ralf Schmitz: fools. The mentally ill and courtiers. In: Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller (Ed.): Marginal groups of late medieval society. Revised edition. Fahlbusch, Warendorf 2001, ISBN 3-925522-20-4 , pp. 220-252.
  • Peter Burke: Heroes, Villains and Fools. European folk culture in the early modern period. Edited and provided with a foreword by Rudolf Schenda . Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1981, ISBN 3-12-930630-7 .
  • Karl Friedrich Flögel : History of the court jester. Liegnitz / Leipzig 1789. (Reprint: Olms, Hildesheim / New York 1977)
  • Peter Fuchs: court jester and organizational consultant. On the function of foolishness, court jesters and organizational advice. In: Marie-Christin Fuchs (Ed.): Contours of Modernity. Systems theory essays II. Transcript, Bielefeld 2005, ISBN 3-8394-0335-9 , pp. 17–35. ( online at: )
  • Hadumoth Hanckel: depictions of fools in the late Middle Ages. Freiburg (Breisgau) 1952. (Typewritten; Freiburg (Breisgau), PhD thesis of May 29, 1952)
  • Barbara Könneker: The nature and change of the fool's idea in the age of humanism. Brant, Murner , Erasmus. F. Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden 1966. (At the same time: University, Frankfurt am Main, habilitation thesis )
  • Maurice Lever : scepter and bell cap. On the story of the court jester. (= Fischer. 10502). Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-596-10502-1 . (French original edition: Le Scepter et la Marotte. Historie des Fous de Cour, Paris 1983)
  • Lutz S. Malke (Ed.): "La Folie". Madness and folly in late medieval text and images. Heidelberg 1990.
  • Lutz S. Malke: Fools. Portraits, festivals, symbols, book books and playing cards from the 15th – 17th centuries Century. Berlin 2001.
  • Hadumoth Meier: The figure of the fool in Christian iconography of the Middle Ages. In: The Minster. Vol. 8, Issue 2, 1955, ISSN  0027-299X , pp. 1-11.
  • Katharina Meiser, Sikander Singh (ed.): Fools, clowns, jesters. Studies on a social figure between the Middle Ages and the present . Wehrhahn, Hannover 2020, ISBN 9783865257543 .
  • Dietz-Rüdiger Moser : Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras, Carnival. The festival of the "upside-down world". Edition Kaleidoskop, Graz u. a. 1986, ISBN 3-222-11595-8 .
  • Heiner Meininghaus: Fool's Scepter or Quirks. In: Weltkunst. 72nd vol, No. 13, November 2002, ISSN  0043-261X , pp. 2031-2033.
  • Werner Mezger , Irene Götz : fools, bells and quirks. Eleven contributions to the fool's idea. (= Research on cultural history. Volume 3). 2nd, improved edition. Kierdorf, Remscheid 1984, ISBN 3-922055-98-2 .
  • Werner Mezger: Court jesters in the Middle Ages. From the deeper meaning of a strange office. Universitätsverlag, Konstanz 1981, ISBN 3-87940-186-1 .
  • Werner Mezger: fool's idea and carnival custom. Studies on the survival of the Middle Ages in European festival culture. (= Konstanz library. Volume 15). Universitätsverlag, Konstanz 1991, ISBN 3-87940-374-0 . (Also: Freiburg (Breisgau), university, habilitation thesis, 1990)
  • Friedrich Nick: The court and people fools, together with the foolish merrymaking of the various classes of all peoples and times. 2 volumes. Stuttgart 1861.
  • Walter Nigg : The Christian Fool . Artemis, Zurich 1956.
  • Beatrice K. Otto: Fools are everywhere. The Court Jester Around the World . University of Chicago Press, 2001, ISBN 0-226-64091-4 .
  • Wolfgang Promies : The citizen and the fool or the risk of the imagination. Hanser, Munich 1966.
  • Heinz-Günter Schmitz: The court jester system of the early modern times. Claus Narr von Torgau and his stories. Münster Westf. 2004, ISBN 3-8258-4644-X .
  • John Southworth: Fools and Jesters at the English Court. Sutton, Stroud 1998, ISBN 0-7509-3477-8 .
  • Erica Tietze-Conrat : Dwarfs and Jesters in Art. London 1957.

Web links

Wiktionary: Fool  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Fool  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wikiquote: Fool  Quotes

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Friedrich Kluge : Etymological dictionary of the German language. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1975, Lemma Narr.
  2. Duden: The dictionary of origin. Etymology of the German language. Mannheim 2007, Lemma Naar.
  3. ^ Friedrich Kluge: Etymological dictionary of the German language. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1975, Lemma Narretei.
  4. Sreenath Nair: The Natyasastra and the Body in Performance: Essays on the Ancient Text. McFarland, Jefferson 2014.
  5. Manohar Laxman Varadpande: History of Indian Theater. Band: Classical Theater. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi 2005, ISBN 81-7017-430-9 , p. 34.
  6. ^ Benjamin Schulz: Court jester in Wales: The joke figure of Conwy. In: Spiegel online. August 24, 2015.
  7. Jasmine Rudolph: The fool in the opera. A cultural studies approach . Dissertation . University of Bayreuth 2015. (full text)