I always have a selection of books on hand for night-time reading, so one of the books I’m currently working my way through is “The History of Court Fools” by Dr. Doran (no first name given). It was published in 1966, but the Victorian writing style makes me suspect it’s a reprint. Naturally, I am always looking out for tarot symbolism. On page 91, the author cites an old saying that “if a man would rise in the world, it were better for him to let go a descending wheel, and to hang to one going up-hill.” This is good advice when The Wheel of Fortune appears in your readings, but it requires discernment, because you need to be attentive to what is going on in your world in order to identify all of the ascending and descending wheels, and to be frank with yourself as to which wheel you are riding. It is proactive advice, reminding us that we don’t need to be bound to one particular wheel.
The author brings up the court fool’s ability to speak frankly—it’s really true, the traditional jesters were given that privilege. They also had free access to the king or lord at any time of day—a privilege accorded to none of the other ministers. There are many cases where the Fool used his [or her] privilege to dissuade a ruler of some disastrous course of action, sometimes speaking out against social injustices. (This kind of brings to mind the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the old Quaker injunction, “Speak truth to Power.”) Different writers have commented on how The Fool in the tarot, as an unnumbered card, has the ability to barge into the card sequence or reading anywhere he likes. So, when the Fool appears in your reading, you might think about how he may be interrupting the flow of the reading with a warning. Also, in the interest of bold speech, are you being frank with yourself or others? Is this a situation where there is the proverbial 500-pound gorilla in the room that no one is willing to talk about?
Something that surprised me in reading this book is that the practice of keeping a jester was very extensive, almost universal, rather than some quaint, obscure custom practiced only by a few. The custom extends back into ancient times, and not just monarchs, but the lesser nobility and even church officials kept fools. This custom was also practiced in the Orient, and in the New World, where, for example, the Aztec ruler Montezuma also had jesters. In order to generate a constant stream of witticisms, many fools were very learned, being fluent in different and ancient languages, and educated in the classics as well as other fields of learning. They also had to be good psychologists, attentive and intuitive enough to read their audiences. Jesters were generally very well paid, and many were rewarded with lands and titles.
Another thing that surprised me is that women could serve as fools, and some of them were quite the celebrities. There are some tarot decks which feature female fools, though I can’t, offhand, recall which. Although I think it’s a good thing to tweak tarot symbolism in order to tease out new insights, I had found female Fool cards to be a little discordant with what I previously knew of historical tradition. However, now that I have read about lady jesters, I have revised my opinion. One of the earlier-known female fools officiated in the household of the Roman philosopher Seneca. Other notables were Artaude du Puy (in the service of Charles I and Jeanne of France, circa 1373), Madame d’Or (called a moult gracieuse folle by St. Remy in 1429), a woman called La Jardiniere as well as a certain Jacquette both served Catherine de Medicis, the dwarf Mathurine entertained the court of the French king Henry IV, and a Spanish folle named Capiton traveled with the Hapsburg Don Juan of Austria. The last female fool on record was Kathrin Lise, who served the Duchess of Sachsen-Weissenfels-Dahme as late as 1720. For anyone aspiring to write a historical fiction novella [or nonfiction, too], a story based on a lady jester would offer the reading public some novelty.