chapter  2
Pages 16

An example will show the value of these considerations. From the earliest records of history until the late Renaissance in Europe the domestic fool-or court jester, as (s)he is also known-was a standard figure. It is recorded that the Fifth Dynasty Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi kept a court fool, and that ancient Chinese emperors kept them, as did Haroun-al-Rashid and Tamburlaine; in Imperial Rome there was a fool market, akin to the slave market (Towson, 1976:21ff.). They were well known throughout medieval Europe, and continued in existence until later than is often realised: Pepys noted in his diary (1919:353) that Charles II instated a court fool in 1668 and the last recorded domestic fool in Britain was at Hilton Castle in County Durham in 1746 (Doran, 1858:218). Edward IV had a court fool called Scogan, whose exploits are well known from a written record of them-although how accurate the record is has been called in doubt, since the same jests are also attributed to other fools. On one occasion Scogan so annoyed Edward with one of his pranks that he was banished and forbidden upon pain of death ever to set foot on English soil again. He duly set out for France, but was soon back in England and at court. When charged with disobeying the king’s express prohibition he took off his shoes-they were full of French soil! He was pardoned and reinstated, presumably amidst great mirth. One of the French kings kept a fool called Marot; one day when they were walking together, the king told Marot to walk on his left, as he could not abide having a fool on his right; ‘Is that so?’ replied Marot, moving across to the king’s left. ‘I can bear it very well’ (Towson, 1976:21ff.). These stories-and many like them-are apocryphal, of course, since records of such things are notoriously unreliable, and are especially to be mistrusted when the only source for them dates from a time when traditional humorous institutions such as the fool were under attack: for such stories

romanticise the role of the fool. However, unless all the stories are untrue it seems very likely that court fools enjoyed a degree of licence in their public discourse with their masters and other social superiors which was significantly different from the servility with which the latter were commonly surrounded, and certainly far in excess of what would have been allowed any but the king’s closest familiars in private. In other words, such actions are an example precisely of an occasion defined as suitable for comedy on the basis of the identity of one of the participants: because the witty riposte comes from the fool, it is defined as funny and not as offensive.1 No doubt this appears an extreme example, in this sense: if the identity of the fool did not define the incident as funny, there can be no doubt that it would be something very different, in the circumstances in question-for anybody else to publicly behave towards an absolute monarch in this way could have been lèse-majesté, a crime punishable with great severity. By contrast, a joke told by a comedian on television today would still be recognised as a joke if told by somebody else in a bar, or any of the many other occasions which are recognised, in our culture, as appropriate. However, it is only in relation to the norms of our culture that it seems an extreme example, for we shall see that the range of behaviour permitted to comic performers in other societies is considerably greater than that which they are allowed in our own, and the occasions on which they are allowed to do it include many which we would find utterly unsuitable (it should be stressed that this statement implies no value judgment for or against either culture: assuming reports are accurate, the divergence is a fact).