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Twelfth Night

"Jesters do oft prove prophets." ~ King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1603-1606

Happy Twelfth Night, the last traditional day of Christmas feasting and festivities! In England, the Lord of Misrule – known in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason and in France as the Prince des Sots – was appointed by lot to preside over Christmas revelries. The more permanent position of the Court Jester, common in the medieval and Renaissance eras, was a member of the household of a nobleman or a monarch, employed to entertain. Jesters often amused with songs, music, and storytelling, but also could be skilled in acrobatics, juggling, telling jokes, magic tricks, or by clever puns, impressions, contemporary jokes, make sly commentary on society and politics! Jesters in the Middle Ages are often thought to have worn brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats in a "motley" (different and varied colours, sometimes interpreted as the harlequin diamond motif) pattern, from which we get the expression "motley fool". Since the fool was outside the sumptuary dress laws (laws which restricted the sumptuousness of dress in order to curb extravagance, protect fortunes, and make clear the distinctions between levels of society), the fool was able to speak more freely, though sometimes with grave consequences should his jests and jibes hit a little too close to the mark!🃏👑

Happy Twelfth Night!  It is the last traditional day of Christmas feasting and festivities!  In England, the Lord of Misrule – known in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason and in France as the Prince des Sots – was an officer appointed by lot during Christmastide to preside over the Feast of Fools. The Lord of Misrule was generally a peasant or sub-deacon appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries. 

A popular festival during the Middle Ages, The Feast of Fools celebrated in France and Britain entailed the election of a mock bishop or pope, parodying ecclesiastical ritual, and general drunkeness and debauchery.  By the 13th century these feasts had become a burlesque of Christian morality and worship and despite disapproval and public pronouncements from town officials and and the clergy, did not die entirely until the 16th century.

The concept of a riotous merrymaker leading the revelries had a counterpart in an official court position, the Jester, whose appointment was perpetual.

Although a jester could be an itinerant performer who entertained common folk at fairs and market, the court jester or fool, was a special position, common in the medieval and Renaissance eras, who was a member of the household of a nobleman or a monarch, and employed to entertain him and his guests. 

In medieval times, jesters are believed to have worn brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats in a motley pattern. They were often multi-talented, entertaining with song, music, and storytelling, but also could be skilled in acrobaticsjuggling, telling jokes, or entertain with puns, impressions, contemporary jokes, and magic tricks. 

King James VI of Scotland employed a jester called Archibald Armstrong. During his lifetime Armstrong was given great honours at court. He was eventually thrown out of the King's employment when he over-reached and insulted too many influential people. Even after his disgrace, books telling of his jests were sold in London streets. He held some influence at court still in the reign of Charles I and estates of land in IrelandAnne of Denmark had a Scottish jester called Tom Durie.


One Court Jester lives on in the word "tomfoolery."  Thomas Skelton was a court jester, of sorts, to Moncuster Castle in Britain in the 16th century. Known as Tom Fool, he was also a steward to the estate and a trusted servant to his master. He was also known to Shakespeare and thought to be model for the fool in King Lear.

For more on historical jesters, click the Twelfth Night merrymakers!

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