By John Southworth



224pp/January 1998

Fools and Jesters at the English Court
Cover by Alex Janson

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

John Southworth's Fools and Jesters at the English Court is an exploration of the role of court jesters throughout history, not limiting itself to just the English court. He begins his survey with a look at the earliest men to fulfill the role as far back as ancient Egypt and he tracks the role through the Roman period until he eventually begins to explore the English court fools of the book's title.

The early chapters of the book are disjointed as Southworth is working from limited source materials. He makes assumptions that are not necessarily warranted, such as assuming the Turold depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry was a jester simply because he is shown as being a dwarf. Southworth has already established that some dwarfs served as jesters, however, he seems to have extrapolated that point to mean that all dwarfs served as jesters, even when his description of their activities does not seem to support that conclusion. Similarly, some of the jesters Southworth points to are not clearly jesters, but may just have been retainers or knights who had some trait that Southworth has chosen to associate with jesters, jugglers, or fools.

Southworth also tends to jump around from example to example, focusing on William Worthy, who served as "Keeper of the King's Fools" to King Henry VII's use of fools to the fools of Henry, Duke of York (later, Henry VIII) within the span of a page. Although Southworth is trying to build up a coherent view of the treatment of fools during the period, he doesn't spend enough time on any stage of the argument to fully explore what it means or how the pieces link together to form a more coherent whole. Southworth offers up a wide variety of individuals to form a picture of the duties associated with the role, as well as the distinctions between types of fools and the sort of person for whom the job would appeal.

In addition to exploring the individuals who fulfilled the role throughout history, the book also explores the purpose of having a fool, jester, or juggler at the court. Southworth appears to be on more solid ground in this area, basing his discussion on descriptions of the activities of fools and the known results of actions they may have taken. He also looks at the way the profession changed as it became a more defined role, looking at Elizabeth I's fool Richard Tarlton, who spent most of his time outside the court, occasionally coming to Elizabeth's court to perform. Even here, however, Southworth may be misinterpreting Tarlton's role as the court. He also looks at perhaps the most famous fool of the period, Will Somer, who performed for Henry VIII. Southworth quotes a letter in which Somer is brought to attention as a possible replacement for Henry VIII's aging fool, Sexton, indicating that the role was seen as one that required some continuity.

The book works to dispel some of the myths around fools. Southworth takes the time to point out that depictions of Somer wearing fool's motley come from the period of King James, nearly fifty years after Somer died. He notes that the popular depiction of Somer was at odds with what can be known of Somer from contemporary sources. This reinforces the idea that the modern conception of the court jester has little in common with the reality of the practice as it existed over the centuries. Even the "golden age" of court jesters during the Tudor dynasty was not what was accurate as depicted as soon after as the Stuart dynasty.

While the book succeeds in deconstructing the popular notion of the fool, the depiction it leaves the reader questioning if the version Southworth builds up is any more accurate. The author has a tendency to jump from topic to topic and make similar leaps in analyzing the information available. At times, Southworth presents his information in a manner which almost feels like he has copied his notes and not attempted to connect them into a more coherent narrative or provide the appropriate analysis.

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