Fools for April

I’m not clever enough to come up with a real April Fool’s post, so instead I’m going to revert to custom and offer up some historical fools for All Fool’s Day. Of course, the first images of fools in western culture come from the Bible, specifically Psalm 52, in which the fool denies God (“The Fool said in his heart ‘there is no God'”).  So we see various fools appearing in illustrated psalters and books of hours from the 13th century onward, often with King David or his contemporary equivalent, often pointing up to an apparently Godless heaven, sometimes in league with the Devil, and increasingly looking foolish, as anyone who denied God would have to be.  

British Library Harley MS 1892, 14th Century

The Fool Enthroned, National Library of the Netherlands

From the Renaissance onward, the fool retains some of his religious connotations, but also becomes an entertainer, of both a harmless and critical nature:  by being foolish, he can put the spotlight on folly.  He is often in a court setting, as is the case from this illustration from the Chronicles of  Jean Froissart and the more unusual image of Henry VIII and his court fool Will Sommers playing out Psalm 52 in the king’s personal psalter, also from the collection of the British Library.

British Library Royal MS 14, 15th Century

Another Renaissance image of the fool comes from Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, an allegory of clueless, frivolous fools adrift on a vessel, going nowhere in this world or the next.  The 1494 printed edition of the Ship of Fools included illustrations by Albrecht Durer (below is the “tempting fool” ) that I think were particularly inspirational in fixing the image of the fool, and the book also inspired the great work of the same name by Hieronymus Bosch (as well as a 1965  film by Stanley Kramer).  
The Elizabethan stage featured two famous actor-fools, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite Richard Tarleton and William Shakespeare’s favorite Robert Armin, who defined what it was to be a fool, in all the role’s  incarnations, both onstage and off in his Foole upon Fooles (1600).  At just about this very same time, the famous (and anonymous) “World Map drawn in a Fool’s head” was published.

Richard Tarleton in costume, c. 1588

Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

 Over the modern era, fools lost a lot of their luster and became simply fools, or else they were lumped together with the less nuanced clowns and jesters.  The periodical press in general, and editorial cartoonists and caricaturists in particular, could make their points very easily merely by using the fool.   Consequently more than anyone else, politicians became fools.  James Gillray, London’s leading popular printmaker during the “golden age” of caricature from about 1780 to 1820, certainly succeeded in making all politicians of his day, including King George III and the Prince of Wales, Prime Minister William Pitt, and Napoleon, look very, very foolish.  At the other end of the nineteenth century over here in America, turning politicians into fools was also a common practice (and still is).  Below is a striking image of two-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan portrayed as a fool (for his anti-imperialist stance, which was seen as foolish a century ago) on a 1900 cover of  Judge magazine.  And finally there is the simple fool of a early twentieth century cigarette card, made so by an April Fool’s day prank.

James Gillray, "The Prince of Wales", 1802, Princeton University Library

James Gillray, "The April Fool Consigned to Infamy and Ridicule", 1801, Victoria and Albert Museum



4 responses to “Fools for April

  • thedailydish

    Happy April Fools! My husband has always felt a kinship to jesters – likely b/c in Shakespeare at least, they’re often the wisest of the characters!

  • Lindsey

    Great April Fools post. Much better than a joke. I always liked jesters and fools throughout history. They could often get away with saying what everyone was thinking, but afraid to say to the royal families!

  • Cristine

    Hmm it appears like your blog ate my first comment (it
    was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

    I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole
    thing. Do you have any helpful hints for newbie blog writers?

    I’d definitely appreciate it.

  • Lukas

    Es obviamente más lento y caro que el divorcio de mútuo acuerdo divorcio express.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: