You had to give Petter Letzkopf one thing: he was creative when he came up with new perfidious pranks at the court of the Swabian Count von Zimmer. Once he put lice in his master's riding cap, another time he heated doorknobs so that the unsuspecting burned their fingers - and in all of this he usually went around without pants or shoes.
But then Letzkopf took it too far: Because the court servants had "grabbed" (taunted) him, he stuffed nothing but small pieces of wood into the keyholes in revenge. Now all the doors were barricaded, the Count had to force them open. He was so angry that he had Letzkopf banned.
Petter had been able to afford such pranks on a regular basis - because he was a court jester, for whom the proverbial freedom of fools applied. But even that had its limits, because even a court jester was subject to the tyranny of the rulers. It depended on the whim and humor of the master how far the fool could go.
In the end, however, there was a conciliatory ending: when Lezkopf returned in remorse and asked for mercy, the count was touched, the fool was taken back to court and was allowed to continue his jokes.
Reports about court jesters such as the anecdotes from the family chronicle of the Counts of Zimmer, begun in 1538 by Froben Christoph von Zimmer (1519-1566), read astonishing at first glance. Because it is surprising that precisely at the courts of kings and princes, "where the strictly ordered world of the Middle Ages developed its most solemn and perfect forms of life, a figure always appeared who ... embodied the crass opposite of the ideal image of man of that time: the fool". . This is how the folklorist Werner Mezger put it very aptly, because being stigmatized in this way meant hell on earth in the Middle Ages – except at court.
The term "fool" was used for all people who showed abnormal forms of behavior, mental and physical defects and thus did not correspond to the prevailing system of norms. The expression came into use at the beginning of the 13th century, and its etymological root is the word "scar": the fool was thus characterized as wayward and deformed.
Mentally or physically handicapped people were disenfranchised, rigorously excluded and treated inhumanely: The Sachsenspiegel stipulated that those who were born weak-minded (“altvile”), short stature (“getwerge”) and “cripples” (“kropele”) were generally not able to live in tenure and were inherited were excluded. Mentally weak (“right thoren unde senseless man”) were also completely exempted from the court, any fines had to be paid by their guardians.
If they could not even be used for simple work, they were segregated in "madhouses". In severe cases, they were even locked like animals in "torenkiste" - small wooden boxes with windows, which were usually set up outside the city wall. Or they could end up in dungeons and "fool's towers" with brutal wardens unless just chased away into the wild.
But it was precisely in the environment of rulers that court jesters enjoyed the freedom of fools and could afford a lot. That had to do with being in the castles of the high nobility. Here one was safe and mostly well looked after – but it was also terribly boring, monotony or even melancholy determined everyday life.
Entertainment was needed. "Minstrels", i.e. traveling jugglers and musicians, were therefore often welcome guests in the entrenched dominions. Music, dance, poetry and comedic interludes became increasingly indispensable parts of courtly culture, so that many princes began to employ talented minstrels on a permanent basis. Fools in the court became very fashionable. The topic was also booming in literary terms in the late Middle Ages: the book "Das Narrenschiff" from 1494 became the most successful German-language book before the Reformation, and translated into Latin, the moral satire spread throughout Europe. Many of the reports about real fools may also have been embellished in literary terms.
Court jesters were not usually born at court, but were recruited from outside by nobles from generation to generation. Most of them may have been employed ad hoc off the street by their later masters or their staff. Anyone who looked odd or bizarre was eligible, people with mental defects as well as those with physical deformities. It was not uncommon for them to be given nicknames: Zimmer's court jester mentioned at the beginning was actually called Wolf Scherer, but he was given the name Letzkopf because he was a "wonderfully wrong person" and "Letz" means "twisted, clumsy" in Swabian.
Big courtyard festivals, organized on the occasion of church holidays, political gatherings or family events were highlights of cultural life. On such occasions, splendor was on display. You wanted to show what you've got as a statement of status, and they paid for it. The material living conditions of the court jesters were accordingly mostly very good. They often had an attendant, sometimes had one or more servants, and also owned a horse. This emerges from account books, some of which contain precise entries about their maintenance.
A distinction was made between the real, "natural fool" and the "artificial fool" or "Schalksnarr", who only played a role, who only cleverly feigned "obsession" and was in fact normal and intelligent. Court amenities may have been one of the main reasons intelligent people voluntarily acted as fools.
Another motive was certainly that, protected by the freedom of fools, they could allow themselves jokes, criticism and also rudeness towards the powerful, which might have cost other members of the court their heads and necks. Cleverly acting court jesters were able to gain a certain influence at court: the Counts of Zimmer, for example, also write about the rogue jester Gabriel Magenbuech, who was repeatedly allowed to act as a witty assessor at the court court proceedings of the counts. He also liked to mess with the local clergy with impunity.
In addition to the aspect of entertainment, the court jester had a deeper meaning: the court jesters played the role of typological opposites of their respective masters. The fool represented an anarchic type that stands outside the divine order, and only the just and wise king, as a positive antitype, could overcome him.
The symbolism was also clarified with the appropriate accoutrements: Gradually, in the 14th and 15th centuries, a jester's robe emerged with symbolic characteristics that contrasted with those of the ruler. The jester's cap (Gugel), a hood that fitted tightly around the neck, decorated with donkey's ears and sometimes a cockscomb, was the counterpart to the royal crown. The donkey's ears characterized the fool as stupid and silly, and the crest symbolized sexual desire and impulsiveness.
In addition to the aspects of amusement and symbolism, there were also charitable motives for court jesters. By taking in socially excluded people at court, a visible sign of Christian charity was set: Zimmer’s chronicles often say that fools were fed by the gentlemen “for God’s sake”.
Nevertheless, the existence of the court jester remained a tightrope walk; There wasn't always a happy ending like Zimmer's fool Letzkopf: That's how the court jester Gonnella used to joke at the court in Ferrara (northern Italy) in the 15th century. He was sentenced to death by his prince - but the whole thing was only supposed to be a foolish mock trial, a joking role-playing game. This crucial information had not got through to Gonnella, he considered the whole thing deadly serious. Gonnella had to put his head on a block – and just as the executioner was about to throw a bucket of water over his head instead of a deadly blow, the court jester, overcome with panic, suffered a heart attack. Ironically, the jester had died of fear of death.
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