The Fool and his Feast

A foray into ‘The Festival of Fools’ and the Fool in the Tarot

Laughing Jester: unknown early Dutch artist, circa 1500

The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas

In this post I take the opportunity to continue with my exploration of the Tarot cards, by setting the Fool in the context of the Twelve Days of Christmas (see my previous post). These Twelve Days are also known as The Feast or Festival of Fools, and have been celebrated as such for hundreds of years. Although the Tarot image and the Feast are not identical, their meaning and imagery interweave. Both emerge from a long tradition of honouring ‘the Wise Fool’ and the customs and merriment which surround him. Even though we have lost much of the original tradition of the Feast of Fools, we still enjoy pantomimes, charades and jokes at this season. And there is still time to plan for a festive Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Fool himself!

So as well as the religious and domestic celebrations of the Christmas period, primarily associated with the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of the Three Kings, this is also the domain of the Lord of Misrule. In customs found all over Europe, during the period when the sun ‘stands still’ and seems to halt in its cycle, at the period of greatest darkness, the usual hierarchy could be turned upside down. This was ‘time out’ – time out of the calendar, time out of work, and time out of the normal rules and regulations. Society could throw off its shackles and reverse the general order. Thus a servant could play master or mistress for a night; a Knave could become a King at the Twelfth Night Feast. Games normally forbidden, such as ball games in Tudor England, could now be played. Priests played practical jokes, and got tipsy, while mock sermons were preached by ‘boy bishops’ or perhaps anyone not too drunk to stand up and spout a few words.

The Boy Bishop: a custom still carried out today in some Cathedrals, as here at Hereford, though slightly earlier on the Feast of St Nichloas on December 6th. He still has to preach a sermon on his installation.

One religious justification for this overturning of the usual order lies in the parable from St Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus suggests that it’s best to take a lowly seat at a feast: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Though the Festival of Fools has other affiliations than Christianity, and is also strongly influenced by the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which too took place at midwinter: ‘Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
So, whereas there might be a pious Christian reason for reversing the normal rules, the custom as practised did in fact give licence for throwing off the shackles and having fun. In other words, it could keep everyone happy. Let the world be turned topsy turvy!

For Fools a mirror shall it be/ Where each his counterfeit may see./ The Glass of fools the truth may show.’ (Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brant, 1494).

‘The Ship of Fools’ by Sebastian Brant

And to play the fool was not merely to be ‘foolish’, for maybe insight or wisdom can be gained from cultivating the absurd. It was a time to be outspoken, without fear of reprisal. Poorer folk could give voice to their complaints, because they couldn’t be punished for doing so at this time. And, year round, official Fools who were employed to entertain their masters at a higher level of society, could express what no one else dared to say. At court, the fool or jester often played an important part in taking the edge off a monarch’s temper or impetuousness, and sometimes, under the guise of folly, would reveal the real meaning of a situation. Fools were therefore more than mere entertainers, and in the medieval and Renaissance periods, were sometimes important figures in diplomatic negotiations. They could warm up the temperature in frigid encounters, keep the two parties talking by throwing in a few jokes, and even stage mock fights to represent the opposing causes championed by their masters. (For more on their diplomatic role see Fools are Everywhere, Beatrice K. Otto, p63)

Various kinds of ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ were a part of the Fool’s tradition at this period of winter. The image below comes from the 14th century manuscript, The Romance of Alexander (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

The cult of the Fool was prominent at the time Tarot cards emerged, and perhaps has a connection with ‘sotties’ or fools’ plays which were very popular in France in the late 15th century. ‘The sotties developed from the celebrations of the societies joyeuses that sprang up in Paris and in many of the larger provincial towns, associations of citizens or wealthy farmers that would elect a prince of fools to preside over them while members would dress up as fools either for carnivalesque processions or dramatic performances.’ (Otto p212-3)

A Festival of Fools

The Tarot Fool emerges in his particular form from this widespread and ancient cult of folly. The first known Tarot cards date from the mid 15th century. He is also related to the modern Joker in the playing card pack, and akin to the Court Jester and perhaps to the wandering players known of an earlier period, known as Jongleurs.

One of the earliest Tarot images of the Fool, from the richly-illustrated Italian mid-15th c. Visconti-Sforza sets of cards, looks a little more like a wild man, but is still identifiable as the more common Fool image in later popular packs, as seen below in the French Marseille Tarot.

The history of the Fool follows a complex trail, branching out in many directions and countries, but still recognisably with this core of ‘wise folly’. The Fool could get away with almost anything; he was respected by the mighty, and was not bound by normal laws. (Below: late medieval carvings of jesters or fools from Beverley Minster, Yorkshire © Cherry Gilchrist)

This is an excerpt of medieval music as was played and sung for ‘La Fete de l’Ane’, the the French equivalent of the Feast of Fools. You can read about the music and the feast here.

I invite you now to read the section on the Fool from my book Tarot Triumphs:

THE FOOL
In the Tarot image, the Fool is both jester, and beggar. His cap and bells are those of the court fool, but his ragged breeches, travelling staff and tiny bundle of worldly goods are more in keeping with those of a hand-to-mouth wanderer. The little dog is probably his companion, although some Tarot interpreters see it as a dog chasing him out of the neighbourhood that he passes through on his rambles. But they are more likely to be a pair; the Fool and his dog are often found together in medieval pictures. Historically, the Fool or jester was a very important character. His job was to deflate pomposity, to speak the truth when no one else dared, and lighten up tension with cheeky humour. At the time of the earliest known Tarot cards, in 15th century Italy, the employment of a Fool or jester was at its peak of popularity, so this image would have been well-known to early users of the Tarot.

From the French ‘Convers’ Tarot pack

The Fool has always remained without a number in the Marseilles Tarot pack, as far as I am aware, and has only been shown as zero in modern versions of Tarot such as the Waite pack. He therefore stands outside the 21 numbered cards, and can be seen both as beginning and end of the pack, or even as standing at the centre while the others process around him in a circle. In a way, the Fool is the key to the whole Tarot pack, and can butt in anywhere he pleases. He represents the human quest, and the eternal optimism of the seeker. He can be foolish but, like a child, he offers a fresh view of the truth, undermining that which is false. The Fool is the blind spot of our nature -we can see ahead, and behind, but can never quite make out where we are. He is the ‘human error’ factor that is never entirely ruled out, despite best efforts with technology. In relation to the other twenty-one cards, he is not one of them, but contains their potentialities within him.

The Fool is always travelling. He can be perfectly innocent, or perfectly ignorant, depending upon how you look at him, but he is there within all of us. As a ‘wild card’ he is best placed to represent the significator in a reading, and if he turns up in this position, it’s a sign that the querent is genuinely open to hearing what the Tarot has to say.

And of course, the Fool is allied to ‘The Fool’s Mirror’ in the context of this school of Tarot. Who is more innocent than the Fool, in holding up a mirror to the universe? But also, who is more ready to laugh with innocent merriment at the follies that appear there.

Preparing for Twelfth Night

So, are you ready for some folly on Twelfth Night? Play a game, a charade, hide a bean or a lucky charm in what you eat (be careful about people’s teeth!) so that someone can become Lord or Lady of Misrule for the evening. I do plan to make the Twelfth Night ‘King’s Bread’, for which I gave the recipe in my earlier blog on the Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve even got the candied fruits in ready for it. Who knows how it will turn out? That, though, is the essence of the Feast of Fools!

Sources on the history of the Fool, Twelfth Night, and the Festival of Fools:
Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World, Beatrice K. Otto, (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
The English Year, Steve Roud, Penguin 2006

You may also be interested in:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

May Day in Padstow

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

2 thoughts on “The Fool and his Feast

  1. Jill Tomkiss

    How interesting.Our 20 years of being in Spain has made us very familiar with the roscon de rey, a bread cake with coloured red and green candied peel and a secret trinket ,So in the catholic countries these traditions still continue.In Nerja the 12th brings parades.

    Like

    1. cherrygilchrist

      This is the kind of ‘cake’ that I’m planning to make (as per the recipe in The Twelve Days of Christmas. Very nice to hear that they still make it in Spain!

      Like

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