Bruegel – Festival of Fools

The Festival of Fools is a (lost) drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–69), here reproduced from an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden (c. 1530–after March 1572).  Bruegel’s image is astonishingly rich in allusions, and the overview which follows draws heavily on two papers which have tackled its layered meanings from different angles, namely:

Both papers are included in the FoolsAreEverywhere annotated bibliography of foolological studies.

The Festival of Fools (after 1570), engraving by Pieter van der Heyden (c. 1530–after March 1572); after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–69); Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1969

​At first glance the Festival of Fools looks like a riot, perhaps unsurprising in a fool-fest, but Moxey and Richardson help us make some sense of what rather appears to be a carefully composed image.

First up, the many fools capering and cavorting, dressed in the fool-uniform of cap and bells, with at least two of them wielding a jester’s marotte or stick, itself topped with a fool’s head.  The fool-uniform, under Sebastian Brant’s influence, came to suggest moral failing in 16th century German and Dutch art (Moxey, p. 642).

First impressions may also take in a series of bowling balls, with some fools holding them up or out from their bodies, as if preparing to throw them towards the bowling pin on the bottom-right of the picture.  The bowling game itself is echoed in other works of the period, such as Hans Sachs’ The Beautiful Woman’s Bowling Green (1556) which uses the bowling green as an allegory for the power of women, describing a group of fashionable young women playing ninepins with men dressed in fool’s costume as their target.  The men are attracted through lust and once knocked over, are reduced to sickness and poverty.  The fool who stays standing longest wins a fool’s cap (Moxey, p. 643).

In Bruegel’s work, the aim of the bowling game is to hit the pin, which is to say to achieve self-knowledge and awareness of your own folly.  As Richardson puts it:

Self-knowledge was a prerequisite for the acquisition of wisdom, and the revelation that made self-knowledge possible was that humankind is foolish.  Whereas, today, calling anyone in any circumstances a ‘fool’ is always perceived as an insult, in the early Modern period the term is much more complex.  A major component of the semantic field of folly is truth and another is wisdom.  For example, while the court fool was seen as someone without intellect, unable to think for himself, it was this very characteristic that made him the perfect receptacle, or mediator, of divine wisdom; having no intelligence himself, he could be depended upon to transmit in undistorted form what he received from above.  It is only through embracing one’s foolish state that the acquisition of wisdom becomes a possibility.  (Richardson, p. 167)

A recurring word in the text is sottebollen, a portmanteau of sot (‘fool’ in Flemish, as indeed in English and French), and bol which means both ‘ball’ and ‘head’.  The round balls are therefore a visual echo of the rounded heads of the fools, and a verbal pun encompassing the two meanings of bol, to give us ‘fool-ball’ and ‘foolish-head’.

The text comprises four quatrains, positioned at the bottom of the image from left to right, a kind of processional layout reinforced by four fools in the foreground, respectively squatting, stepping, sidling or sitting above a quatrain:

You sottebollen (numbskulls) who are plagued with foolishness

Come to the green if you want to go bowling

Although one has lost his honour and another his money

The world values the greatest sottebollen.


Sottebollen are found in all nations

Even though they do not wear a fool’s caps on their heads

They have such grace in dancing

That their foolish heads spin like tops.


The filthiest sottebollen shit everything away

Then there are those who take others by the nose

Some sell trumpets, and the others spectacles

With which they deceive many nitwits.


Yet there are sottebollen who behave themselves wisely

And taste the true sense of sottebollen (numbskulling)

Because they (who) enjoy folly in themselves

Shall best hit the pin with their sottebollen.


Ghy Sottebollen, die met ydelheyt, ghequelt=syt, / Compt al ter banen, die lust hebt om rollen, / Al wordet déen syn eere en dander t’gelt=quyt, / De weerelt die pryst, de grootste Sottebollen. // Men vint Sottebols, onder elcke nacie, / Al en draghen sy geen sotscappen, ophaeren cop.  / Die int dansen heeben, al sulken gracie, / Dat hunnen Sottebol, drayet, ghelyck eenen top.  // De vuylste Sottebols, lappent all duer de billen, / Dan synder, die d’een dander, mettennuefe vatten / De sulck, vercoopt trompen, en dander brillen, / Daer sy veel, Sottebollen mede verschatten.  //  Al synder Sottebols, die haer wysselyck draghen, / En van tSottenbollen, den rechten sin-smaken, / Om dat sy in hun selfs sotheyt hebben behagen / Sal hueren Sottebol alder best de pinraken.  (Richardson, p. 156)

The four fools are loosely lining up to strike the pin in the bowling game, that is, to become aware of their own folly, albeit with varying chances of success.  One by one from left to right:

  • First fool – he is bending down and appears to be bowling between his legs and away from the pin, perhaps suggesting he is either deliberately avoiding self-knowledge or is simply blind to the game of self-awareness; his face is hidden from view, perhaps signifying that he could be anyone (you? me?)
  • Second fool – at least he is heading in the right direction, facing the bowling pin and being in a stance which could have him bowl his ball; however, he is also thumbing his nose suggesting an attitude of derision. Is this a fool who sees what the game is about (self-knowledge), but makes a mockery of it?
  • Third fool – this one has his back to us, perhaps watching the festival (like us?).  He is doing a ‘fig’ gesture; an obscene representation of the sex act. His violin could just be part of the general entertainment, but the Flemish vedelen (to fiddle) might also mean ‘to make love’ (Moxey p. 643).  He is holding up an owl – originally a symbol of wisdom, later of evil, and even lust.  The owl also came to be associated with mirrors, familiar to us in the folk-fool trickster Till Eulenspiegel, translated in English versions as ‘Owl-glass’.  In this sense the owl could remind us of a mirror, a common device in fool imagery as the fool holds up a mirror to the folly of humankind.  Recalling that mirrors at the time were circular and convex, the balls being held up by various fools could echo this holding up of mirrors.  On this owl-mirror theme:

The owl was first the bird of Minerva and associated with wisdom, but in the 15th and 16th centuries it began to be associated more with foolishness and darkness (blindness).  To fools, Tiel added a revealing mirror in the tradition of Socrates’ motto ‘Know Thyself’.  An ulenspiegel, or owl’s mirror, is the fool who unmasks the folly of the world; as such it belongs to the tradition of the jester who is allowed to speak the truth under the protective mask of conventional madness.[1]

  • Fourth fool – he is close to and pointing at the pin of the game, which could suggest he is helping us to play better, and is himself closer to ‘getting it’. On the other hand he plays the flute which can be a symbol of deceit: Moxey (p. 641) tells us that the Flemish fluten can mean ‘betray’.  An engraving often attributed to Bruegel, The Dishonest Merchant, has a man selling trumpets and flutes among other things, while another man tells him to deceive people with them.

Behind these four foreground fools there is another procession coming in from the top left-hand corner, a riot of fools holding up their mirror-like fool-balls, reflecting their foolish heads.  Leading them in a carriage supported by others is a bald-headed ‘head fool’, again holding up a ball in this spherical sottebollen pun.  Baldness, incidentally, was occasionally attributed to fools.

There is some disagreement between Moxey and Richardson as to whether this work is simply an allegory of folly, or perhaps also (or instead) a depiction of a real fool-fest.  Leaning towards the fool-fest, Richardson tells us that a play entitled De Sottebollen was performed at the 1561 drama festival (Landjuweel) in Antwerp by the Diest chamber of rhetoric.  This factie is set in a bowling green and makes the same sottebollen pun on ‘head’ and ‘ball’.  The drama festival included a prize for the best jester and of the 16 facties presented, four were on fools and folly.  Considering the factie in general, and this play in particular, Richardson suggests that contemporary viewers of Bruegel’s Festival of Fools might have had such real events in mind. A further link to the ‘head’ part of sottebollen is the factie De Christusooghen van Diest with 16 characters representing various vices and follies, called hoofden, with the main one being Thooft van alle Vreemde Hoofden (Head of All the Strange Heads), surrounded by fools named as Head Full of … (this or that vice or failing)  (Richardson, pp. 157-59).

The processional format of the composition would also have been familiar to contemporary viewers, given allegorical processions such as Maarten van Heemskerck’s (1498-1574) print series, Cycle of the Vicissitudes of Human Affairs (Richardson, p. 184).  In addition, they would have been used to seeing mobile performances, such as the so-called ‘wagon plays’.

For Moxey, the print is an allegory of folly such as Frans Hogenberg’s Dance of Fools engraving (1550-1560), or Hans Sebald Beham’s woodcut, The Nose Dance at Gümpelsbrunn (1534) (Moxey, p. 644).  The difference between these and Bruegel’s Festival of Fools is that individual fools represent specific human vices, whereas the fools in Bruegel’s are undifferentiated.  And what a motley crew they are, moving away from our two processions to the mêlée of massed folly, we meet:

  • Two fools representing the world upside down, one doing a somersault, the other has his pants down, representing excrement and uncouthness (Richardson, p. 160).  The World Upside Down was a concept in art and also key to the ecclesiastical and secular Feasts of Fools which turned normal hierarchies on their head in Saturnalian inversion.
  • Spectacles seller – in a visual reference to the text, ‘…others sell spectacles, with which they deceive many nitwits’. Spectacles were a symbol of blindness and deception, and selling them, of fraud (Moxey p. 640).  Richardson points out that the spectacles themselves are upside down, further hinting at deception (Richardson, p. 161), or perhaps another allusion to the world upside down.
  • Two fools pulling each other by the nose – alluding to a Flemish proverb ‘to lead someone by the nose’ meaning to lead astray or deceive (as in English); so here the two fools are trying to deceive each other in a further visual reference to the text, ‘There are some who take others by the nose’ (Moxey p. 640).
  • Trumpet seller – this is another reference to the text, ‘Some of them sell trumpets’. Another link to deceit; the Flemish word for trumpet came from French, as in tromper, ‘to trick’.  Moxey suggests the man with a flute is a visual echo of the trumpet text, as we’ve seen in an engraving mentioned earlier, The Dishonest Merchant (Moxey p. 640).

There is further symbolism in the buildings in the background, which Richardson carefully dissects, suggesting that their curious perspectives and hodge-podge of styles could echo the quirky alterity of fools.  It seems Bruegel may have subtly echoed and played with expectations based on the depiction of classical buildings in other contexts.

Lastly, let us return to Moxey’s argument that Bruegel’s Festival of Fools is purely allegorical, in which he mentions that:

  • the ‘park-like setting with its trellised pergolas’ is a far cry from the urban settings where Feast of Fools performances would have occurred
  • the fools wear the standard issue fool-uniform of cap and bells, with or without ears, whereas the ecclesiastical Feast of Fools had clerics dress up in a wide variety of outrageous costumes
  • by contrast he acknowledges that the secular Feast of Fools – which took off after the church condemnation and later proscription of the ecclesiastical version – would have featured the standard fool-uniform. Set against this, which it could be argued suggests the image could also reflect a real event or events, Moxey proposes that the grotesque appearance and attitudes of the fools in Bruegel’s image are so exaggerated that they can only be representations of a type (Moxey, p. 642).

My working conclusion, reading both Moxey and Richardson, is that the image is perhaps an allegory of general human folly and of our reluctance to face up to same (and inviting us to do so), while recollecting real events such as the Sottebollen play put on in Antwerp in 1561, along with other secular Feast of Fool type gatherings and plays.

Credits: The Festival of Fools (after 1570), engraving by Pieter van der Heyden (c. 1530–after March 1572); after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–69); Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1969; see also an oil painting version by Laurence Smith, featured below, although I can find no further information about this colourful rendition.


[1] Paul Verhuyck, ‘Ulenspiegels spiegel in de zestiende eeuw’, in Oog in oog met de Spiegel, Nico Brederoo et al. (eds) (Amsterdam: Aramith Uitgevers, 1988), pp. 198-99; quoted in and translated by Richardson, p. 175


Beham, Hans Sebald (1500-50), The Nose Dance at Gümpelsbrunn (1534), woodcut broadsheet with a text by Hans Sachs; Schlossmuseum, Gotha; as I have so far not managed to trace a digital version of this, I have used the following image: Boerenfeest: Der Nasentanz zu Gümpelsbrunn (c. 1534), anonymous printmaker, after Hans Sebald Beham (1500-50); Rijksmuseum, public domain.

Heemskerck, Maarten van (1498-1574) Cycle of the Vicissitudes of Human Affairs, print series

Hogenberg, Frans (1535-90), Stultorum Chorea, etching; copyright, Trustees of the British Museum.  See another example: The dance of foolish men (der sotten dans) (c. 1565)), etching; Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels.

Moxey, Keith, ‘Pieter Bruegel and the Feast of Fools’, The Art Bulletin, 64 (1982), pp. 640-46.

Richardson, Todd M., ‘To See Yourself Within It: Bruegel’s Festival of Fools’, in Pieter Bruegel the Elder: art discourse in the sixteenth-century Netherlands (University of Leiden, 2007), pp. 155-187.

Sachs, Hans (1494-1576), The Beautiful Woman’s Bowling Green (1556)

Verhuyck, Paul, ‘Ulenspiegels spiegel in de zestiende eeuw’, in Oog in oog met de Spiegel, Nico Brederoo et al. (eds) (Amsterdam: Aramith Uitgevers, 1988), pp. 198-99; quoted in and translated by T. M. Richardson, p. 175.

Laurence Smith - coloured rendition of Bruegel's Festival of Fools

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