In fool regalia

Fools frequently pop up in various guises in medieval illuminations, sometimes with a scriptural connection, illustrating the line from Psalm 53 in which the fool is one who denies God: ‘The fool says in his heart “There is no God.”‘ (‘Dixit insipiens in corde suo non est deus’).

This example, from the psalter of the French king Charles VIII (r. 1483-98), has the fool in full regalia, capering merrily.  He has a cap and bells, including ass ears, a particoloured outfit, and a fool stick or marotte which is a mirror image of his own head and hat.  He also appears at first glance to be sticking out his tongue, though this may be an optical illusion.

In comparison, the pious king, in bland beige, could be seen to be playing second fiddle.  Visually, the vibrancy of the fool image may slyly undermine the supposed message of the Psalm, and one wonders if the illuminator had much more fun devising his fool than the rest of the page.

See an earlier illumination of this line from Psalm 53, by the Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, from the turn of the 13th century. 

Credit: Psalterium Caroli VIII regis (detail) (French, 15th century); Bibliothèque nationale de France

Also a rare (and possibly unique) example of an illumination illustrating this foolish heresy, using a historical jester as the fool.  This gives us a double portrait of Henry VIII and his real-life fool Will Somers, featured in the king’s own Psalter.

Credit: Psalterium Caroli VIII regis (Psalter of Charles VIII) (French, 15th century); Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 774, fol. 63v.

Image - detail - fool in Psalterium Caroli VIII regis

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