Flögel, Karl Friedrich, Geschichte der Hofnarren (Leipzig: David Siegert, 1789)

TAGS: Europe, jesters, fools, folk fools, holy fools, stories, anecdotes, Rome, Greece, scurrae, morio, dwarfs, England, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Italy, Spain, antiquity, lustigmacher, costume, theatre, actors, medieval

TYPE: research, primary source, book, German

Published in 1789, Flögel’s hefty 500+ page history of court jesters is breathtaking in its scope and scholarship; arguably the first serious study of them in any Western language. It is the well-spring from which many subsequent leading works draw, including the first equivalent study in English, Enid Welsford’s The Fool.

It includes two frontispiece wood-cuts, one of the folk fool Till Eulenspiegel and one of the historical jester Kunz von der Rosen. That said, this is by no means limited to German speaking jesters. Flögel takes in Greek comic actors and parasites and Roman scurrae. He touches on questions of costume, including the coxcomb, marotte and other visual symbols of the European court jester. He includes holy fools, folk fools, the vice of English medieval comedy, fools of Attila and Tamerlane, and those in the Turkish court.

He is quite comprehensive in chronicling the jesters of the German and Austrian courts, bringing to light many who might have faded into obscurity otherwise; as well as others in Europe, including Spain, Italy, France, England, Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Sweden and Denmark, also taking in the courts of bishops, cardinals and popes. Lastly is a chapter dedicated to dwarfs.

This is an essential work, written in a surprisingly undated style although rendered visually almost impenetrable due to the 200+ year old print technology. Only the most doughty researchers will wade in, armed with mastery of German or at least (in my case) a big fat German dictionary.

And a box of tissues to weep when you find a key word or phrase blot-illegible.  But worth the persistence, like climbing a mountain to get to the source of a river.

Given its age, don’t expect the academic apparatus of neatly footnoted references. But the material is rich and rigorous, so just dive in.


GAP MAP: Given its status in the field of fool studies, it is disappointing that it is still only available in facsimile editions of the original gothic German script, often reproduced with tear-inducing blotchiness making some words and lines illegible even to fluent German readers. I have asked several purveyors of the 1977 reprint whether it is in modern type, and will report back. If not, that would be the first service a kind patron could provide: to reprint the text in clear modern type.

And a great gift to the non-German speaking world would be to sponsor a translation into English.

Note: The original edition can be downloaded from several sources online; there is also a reprint: Karl Friedrich Flögel, Geschichte der Hofnarren (New York: Olms, 1977) and a number of options for print on demand versions.

Book cover and title page - Flögel - Geschichte der Hofnarren


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