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.
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.
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.