Building the world's most sumptuous bibliography of fools and jesters

Over time, at a comfortable clip for both reader and writer, we will build a beautiful bibliography of materials covering the full spectrum of fools and jesters.  

Aims and approaches

Primary sources will be featured where possible in original language editions and translation. Secondary materials are selected for quality and the value of their contribution rather than to list anything and everything fool-related.

Works deemed in one way or another outstanding or indispensable will be celebrated as canon-fodder, on a companion page.  

In either case, we also aim to bring to the fore regions or angles which have been somewhat neglected in the literature, including an endeavour to overcome a strong Eurocentric bias, at least in Western languages. Fools Are Everywhere sought to redress this imbalance, bringing Chinese fools onto the global stage in some numbers, and at least hinting of other non-European traditions, but there is still much to do and treasures to uncover.  

First up … something English, something Turkish, something Mayan

Buhrer, Eliza - 'But what is to be said of a fool?'

Buhrer, Eliza, ‘”But what is to be said of a fool?” Intellectual disability in medieval thought and culture’, in Mental and Physical Health in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture, Albrecht Classen (ed.) (Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), pp. 314-43.

TAGS: fools, disability, mental illness, madness, England, law, medieval, ‘naturals’, societal attitudes, legal theory, legal history, 13th century, 14th century

TYPE: research, secondary source, book chapter

A clear account of attitudes and beliefs in medieval England regarding mental disability and illness. Buhrer’s paper highlights distinctions between temporary and congenital madness or mental impairment, as it was considered in society and by the courts.  The latter had a strong bearing on whether someone was considered mentally fit to run their own affairs, or whether their property and its running would be better taken over by relatives or by the Crown.   

Buhrer moots convincingly the possibility that attitudes to mental disability were directly shaped by evolving legal theory and practice – rather than the other way around:

‘I would like to suggest that the modern concept of intellectual disability did not arise from physicians’ inquiries into the workings of the brain, or philosophers’ questions about the nature of rationality.  Instead, its origins can be found in a meeting of legal theory and practice during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.’ (p. 334)

‘People first began to see intellectual impairment as a permanent, congenital disorder primarily because new laws compelled them to.’ (p. 343)

Additional quotations will appear in posts in the coming weeks.

GAP MAP: it would be interesting to see if there are parallels in other legal systems of the time, such as France.

Ezgi Dikici, Ayşe - 'Imperfect Bodies, Perfect Companions'

Ezgi Dikici, Ayşe, ‘Imperfect Bodies, Perfect Companions: Dwarfs and mutes at the Ottoman court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, M.A. dissertation, Sabanci University, 2006.

TAGS: disability, physical disability, mutes, dwarfs, Ottoman, Turkey, fools & jesters, art, miniatures, 16th century, 17th century

TYPE: research, secondary source, thesis

A welcome insight into the Ottoman court during the 16th and 17th centuries, examining the complex roles of mutes and dwarfs, including some differences between them, and some overlaps and differences between them and the archetypal court jester; as an example, one occasional function of mutes was to carry out extrajudicial killings on behalf of the sultan, through strangulation. The further distinction of eunuchs is also touched on, given the access this would give them to the women of the court. 

Ezgi Dikici also brings to light Turkish primary sources, including iconographic evidence, of their presence in the court, and looks at a few precise examples.  The range of miniatures reproduced was particularly welcome.  Where relevant, contemporary accounts by visiting Westerners – diplomats and travellers.

The dissertation also begins with a general overview of the jester-king relationship, before zooming in on the Ottoman context.

Ezgi Dikici goes some way to redressing the Eurocentric weighting in fool and jester studies, and there is clearly a great deal more than can be gleaned from the Ottoman courts (and Turkish history more generally). This is rich in new materials, ideas, examples and terms, some of which we will be highlighting through the ‘pipeline’ of posts in the coming months. 

GAP MAP: there is clearly a great deal more work to be done to bring Turkish fools and jesters to the fore at least for a Western audience

Taube & Taube - 'The Beautiful, the Bad, and the Ugly'

Taube, Rhonda & Karl Taube, ‘The Beautiful, the Bad, and the Ugly: Aesthetics and morality in Maya figurines’, in Mesoamerican Figurines: Small-scale indices of large-scale social phenomena, Christina Halperin, Katherine Faust, Rhonda Taube & Aurore Giguet (eds) (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2009), pp. 236-58.

TAGS: Maya, art, sculpture, figurines, popular culture, clowns, ritual clowns, dwarfs, hunchbacks, disability, physical disability, fools and jesters, court life

TYPE: research, secondary source, book chapter

Taubes’ paper brings to light fresh examples of Mayan figurines, including sketches that are easier to interpret than some of the original examples.  It looks at the relatively cheap and popular medium of figurines, and some of the parallels between their subjects and Western art (e.g. the ‘folly’ of grotesque old men and nubile young lovers). The authors also look at the positioning of dwarfs in some way close to the king or the throne, along with the more intimate side of court life revealed by many of the figurines:

‘Late Classic Maya figurines provide a wonderful corpus  of genres concerning ritual clowning.  In contrast to the stone and stucco sculpture of elite public architecture, both figurines and vases depict far more intimate and anecdotal scenes of courtly life.’ (p. 250)

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