Court jesters have been popularized in both literature and film, many times with the reputation of being a joker or - more accurately - an entertaining, as it was once their job to 'jest' the audience. In regard to many who question whether or not these dancing jesters actually existed throughout the course of history, they did. However, their lives were not always as fulfilled and jaunty as they might appear in similar pop culture references.

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The life of a court jester is one that dates back to the Middle Ages and Tudor era. It's during this time that the need for a jester, who was often referred to as a servent, was required by the court. Their duties also doubled, as they were often messengers for said courts and estates, following their masters wherever they went and delivering messages - no matter how dangerous the journey - wherever they needed to go. Some court jesters made a great profit from what they did while others found out quickly that to be a jester isn't always fun and games, especially when the term 'don't shoot the messenger' becomes a stark reality.

The Life Of A Tudor Jester

To determine what actually constituted someone as being a jester, we must first acknowledge the fact that the term 'jester' applied to many entertainers. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the term 'minstrel,' which meant 'little servent,' commonly referred to musicians, singers, jugglers, magicians, and tumblers, according to HistoryExtra. This meant that the court jester could potentially take on any number of roles depending on what his or her talent was. These men and women were also referred to as a joculator or a joculatrix. Towards the end of the 12th century, the term 'fool' began floating about and eventually was used to refer to jesters who had earned their freedom and, with it, payment in the form of land. However, with this agreement and reward came certain terms, such as a fool needing to return to the court on a certain date every year to perform or another, similar condition.

While performing was a major attribute on their list of qualities, jesters were also expected to carry out the other terms of their service, which was to answer to the noblemen and kings who owned the land on which a jester dwelled. On any given day, they could be expected to complete the household shopping, take care of the family animals, keep an inventory of the food and livestock, and, of course, deliver messages and mail. There is evidence that points to a jester needing to have multiple talents as well, whereas only one talent would only earn half the shillings or less of what a multi-talented jester would earn. Because of this, it was not an easy life - while it sounds similar to that of a comedian or modern-day performer, jesters were, indeed, subject to the mercy of the court, and were expected to put on a good show, not just a show.

The Danger Of Being A Court Jester

However, talents mean nothing when one is at the mercy of the job of being a messenger. Being a personal jester to a nobleman or king may have had its perks but it also came with a significant level of danger. To enemies of a jester's master, a jester was nothing more than a disposable servant, which often landed jesters in the awkward and life-endangering position of being at the mercy of another man's will. It was not uncommon for a jester to march onto the battlefield with their master and be told to deliver a message and, if that message happened to be something the opposing party wasn't satisfied with, such as the need to give up land or make a payment, it was often the jester who took the brunt of it.

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If the message was at all viewed as offensive, the term 'kill the messenger' was often carried out. Nowadays, it's just a saying said in earnest but back then, the jesters were the ones that the previously-mentioned saying references. This wouldn't be done in just any way, either - if the offense was severe, a messenger would be catapulted or tossed with a trebuchet back at his camp. In even worse cases, it was only the jester's head that would make it back to camp via catapult.

For jesters who survived the message delivery and made it back to camp, it was often their job to elevate the morale of the army. This was done just as entertaining was done: with a song and a dance. However, this much-needed morale-boosting was often carried on into battle and when both armies would line up, it was the job of the jesters to continue their entertainment. Often, this would involve cracking jokes about the opposing side and, occasionally, someone would take offense and prematurely charge the jester rather than the army they were meant to be fighting.

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