The Jester, History of Word, Name, and Occupation

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Veritas Ingenio

"Truth with Wit." Although the motto of the Gordon clans, it fits the occupation of Jester.

The Fool at Court

What image does the Jester invoke for you? The Joker on the Bicycle playing cards? At Mardi Gras? The Clown in the parade or circus? A court jester of small stature preforming for a king and his guests?

The Natural Fool is “touched by God”, possibly a person of low intelligence, possibly a person with physical limitations. They were usually treated with honor and privilege within their cultures. Natural Fools were revered because they were believed to be protection against the “Evil Eye”.

The Licensed Fool was a professional, employed by a royal or noble household or was a member of an acting-minstrel guild. The Court Jester was also given the task of delivering bad news or even political disputes to the king, as a licensed Jester, he couldn't be killed for bringing the king bad news, as seen in William Shakespeare's King Lear whose Fool is one of only three people in the play who consistently speak wisely to the king, and the other two, Cordelia, who is banished from her father, and the Earl of Kent.

A skilled Jester employed various performing arts, such as playing lutes, dancing, acrobatics, yodeling, juggling, singing, pantomime, magic tricks, and story telling. Those who couldn't get a Royal Appointment or other Noble Household turned their skills into traveling bards, troubadours, and minstrels, who would not only entertain their hosts, but also pass on news and gossip from neighboring lands and even delivered messages. The traveling bards and troubadours were respected and treated as honored guests and rarely molested by highwaymen or soldiers, usually entertaining them also. In fact, if a bard came to the door or gate, it was considered bad manners and an ill omen to turn him away without feeding him. In payment for the meal and lodging, he'd entertain.

The profession may also have included Morris (Moorish) Dancers and Mummers at fairs. Modern Jesters have included stilt walkers, fire performers and other circus workshop acts.

Jester Garb

The Court Jester by Thomas Davidson (1877)

The uniform of the Jester is also steeped in history. The motley coat, hood with ass's (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells probably made famous by Shakespeare's rendition of the Jester. The Jester scepter/rattle filed with sand or dried peas and of course, bells. The tri-pointed hat is probably a rendition of the eared hood. Where did Shakespeare get his rendition?


Jesters have been known in every culture since history has been recorded, from the Middle East to England and beyond in time and distance. has a name application, though I have yet to see any real research there applied to the meaning of Jester.


In English, an occupational name for a jester. From the Middle English gester.

To get to the earliest references we need to look at synonyms to the profession and skills of the Jester. Wikipedia says The modern use of the English word jester did not come into use until the mid-16th century during Tudor times. It probably wasn't common until the mid-16th century, but Geoffrey Chaucer used it in a lesser known Tale in the 14th Century. This modern term derives from the older form gestour, or jestour, originally from Anglo-Norman (French) meaning story-teller or minstrel.

Other earlier terms for the jester included; fol, disour, and bourder. These terms described entertainers who differed in their skills and performances but who all shared many similarities in their role as comedic performers for their audiences.


A Spanish word chiste for Joke, trick, or prank; juglar for Minstrel and bufón for Jester. The word has an even older history, all the way back to an area in the Middle East, in what is now Afghanistan and the Umayyad invasion of Gaul and Hispania. As we see the architectural influence still in today's Spain, we must also listen with a careful ear to the linguistic influences.


In German: from the Germanic personal name Gastharo, composed of the elements gast "warrior" + heri "army."[1] Guest of the Army is interesting. Who would be considered guests of the army? A well hosted army would have a variety of 'camp followers' including Holy Men and Clerics could well be considered Guests of the Army. If the invading Umayyad armies brought their Holy Men and Clerics then we have the origins of the Jester in Europe via the Sufi.


According to the sometimes controversial Idries Shah , everything we know about and associate with The Jester can be attributed to Sufism. The Sufi are mystics in the Muslim tradition that include the beautiful "whirling dervishes" of Turkey who pray and meditate by spinning in graceful circles. Video Here.

Mystics are found in every religion and every culture. They passed their knowledge and wisdom through a variety of skills, including dance, meditation, storytelling, music and songs, poetry, and yes, even juggling. How can juggling be mystical? Consider the concentration, timing and rhythm it takes to juggle.

Pashto is the official language of Afghanistan, and in the time frame of the beginnings of the Sufi Chishti Order, was probably an ancient dialect of Pashto. Here, we also have a location name: Chisht is a town near Herat in Afghanistan and the birthplace of the Chishti Order.

Occupational Names

For the occupation of jesters, the Royal Court was just one stage where the trade was practiced. It’s certainly possible that an ancestral Jester was an actual court jester, and that his descendants kept that occupational name, such as the legend of Philip Crul. Not all the Jesters in the royal or noble courts were documented. There simply weren't enough noble houses to employ every storyteller or Bard, or minstrel. In all my research, I have never found credible evidence of a person named Jester with the occupation of a jester.

There is the possibility that Jesters belong to an old Celtic occupational tradition as the community storyteller. Bourd, in French, means a jest or a tease, and was a characteristic of a good storyteller. The English name Bourder/Border is derived from this aspect of the jester tradition. So, not all jesters were court jesters. Most would have been the singular or troups of traveling minstrals and community storytellers.

It is also possible that another origin comes from the medieval Miracle Play tradition. Miracle plays also included Saint's plays, Spiritual Mystery plays and Morality Plays. During that time, ordinary people were entertained by village miracle plays (much like the way kings were entertained at court by jesters and actors). These medieval plays generally told religious stories, but there were other themes as well. English names like King, Lord, Prince, Pope, Priest, etc. come from that tradition. Here, guilds of families would enact the roles of these characters in plays. The roles became their identities, and eventually their surnames. Jester *might* be one of these. Certainly in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, these plays became more secular, and more popular because permanent theaters developed, such as Shakespeare’s Globe. Maybe Jester belongs to that line of naming culture in the British Isles.

Every village had special feast days, and every village had its storytellers and memorykeepers.

Jester Anecdotes in History

Idries Shah's book The Sufi gives two stories of Licensed Jesters, one well known and one not so well known.

England and Scotland

William the Conqueror supposedly used his jester as a spy in the enemy camp. No one paid any attention him, he acted the fool, and people spoke freely in front of him.

There was a blurb from the International Heraldic Institute LTD of Charlotte, NC that claims the Jester surname derived from a grant by King Henry V in 1417 AD to Philip Crul, a court jester, who assumed in consequence, the surname of Jester, Leam, County Darby, England. However, no documentary evidence has come to light. It is lovely romantic fiction.

In contrast, the story of Archy Armstrong is probably accurate, as its been oft told in several histories. Archy Armstrong was a Scottish sheep thief when he entered the employ King James VI, but once at Court, he became a favorite and was paid two shillings a day. Not well liked at Court except by King James, Archy was given the monopoly on tobacco pipes. King Charles I continued Archy's services, after his succession. And Archy amassed quite a fortune and obtained a king's grant for 1000 acres in Ireland.

When George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was assassinated, Archy declared him "the greatest enemy of three kings." Archy then turned his ire toward Archbishop William Laud whom he openly ridiculed and had heated political discussions.

He pronounced the following grace at Whitehall in Laud's presence: "Great praise be given to God and little laud to the devil" and after the news of the rebellion in Scotland in 1637 he greeted Laud on his way to the council chamber at Whitehall with: "Who's fool now? Does not your Grace hear the news from Stirling about the liturgy?" On Laud's complaint to the council, Archy was sentenced the same day "to have his coat pulled over his head and be discharged the king's service and banished the king's court."

In 1640, William Laud was arrested for treason and executed 10 January 1645. King Charles I was executed 30 January 1649. Archy Armstrong lived to see the monarchy restored in 1660, and later died in 1672.


From Spain comes the Jester of King Philip II. Philip had been married to Queen Mary I of England, aka "Bloody Mary," sister to Queen Elizabeth I. Mary's mother was Catherine of Aragon, Philip's aunt, and first wife of King Henry VIII. Wikipedia does not mention Philip's explusion or persecution of the Jews, it does mention a problem with the Morisco and the Morisco Revolt. The Morisco were descendants of the Moors. However, Idries Shah's The Sufi says Philip was stepping up the persecution of the Jews and decreed everyone of Jewish blood would have to wear a certain type of hat. The Jester came in with three such hats. The King asked “Who are these for?” The Jester answered, “One for me, one for thee, and one for the Grand Inquisitor.”

The Philip II story is probably fiction, as his ancestors expelled the Jews to finance a certain expedition of three ships to find a shorter route to India and the spice trade.


The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) · Sun, Oct 27, 1844 Page 1

Ancient Jesters -- The custom of entertaining at courts and amongst the great attendants who were required to be witty and merry for everybody, passed to the middle age, and spread itself under the feudal government. And yet it must be confessed that the knights and nobles of those days stood truly in need of some merriment extraneous to themselves. Isolated in their castles, passing whole days on the highways and in the woods, the personages described to us by romances in such brilliant colors, were generally as a rude and wild as they were morose and objects of Terror. Deformed beings were preferred for jesters -- in them ugliness was considered a beauty. A mouth so wide that it reached from ear to ear, a very long or crooked nose, a chin like that of a harlequin, eyes deeply set in the head, such were the features most highly prized in a fool; a double hump was considered as a rare perfection. The bells, baubles, and cap with long ears were the distinctive marks of the official jester. At the courts of Burgundy, knights and high-born dames, by way of enhancing their mirth, often performed ballets with fools'-caps on their heads. Shakspeare give his fools a particular dress:

"Hang a calf's skin on those recreant limbs," &c.

The official jester was put under the management of a governor, who corrected him with lashes when he committed any folly which failed to amuse his master, and at whose feet he generally crouched. He was called by the fool nuncle, and used, during the feast, to throw dainty morsels to the poor jester, as if he had been a favorite lap-dog. To such an extent was this wretched system carried, that bishops and abbots fell by degrees into it. The council held at Paris, in 1212, forbade the prelates having fools to make them laugh. Notwithstanding, more then a century later, an author reproaches them for liking to amuse themselves with buffoons (morionibus) and more than with thier studies. The fancy of keeping fools from private individuals of corporations. The Abbot of Misrule has been brought on the scene by the author of the "Monastery," with the talent which rendered so popular the researches of learning, and gave to history the interest of romance. Robert Wace relates that William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, was warned by his fool Golet of a danger which menaced him. This Golet was as faithful as Sir Walter has represented Wamba to be, in his inimitable romance of "Ivanhoe." The "Memoirs of George Chatelain" mention a buffoon of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, named Jean de Chasa. The profession of a jester was not , however, practised exclusively by unfortunate creatures of the rougher sex. It sometimes fell to the lot of the women to degrade themselves thus far; and St. Remy speaks with admiration of Madam d'Or, as assisting in this capacity at the enterainments given on the institution of the Golden Fleece, at Bruges, in 1429; and we know that Margaret, grand-daughter of Charles V., had also a female jester, who followed her everywhere. - Frazer's Magazine.


  1. Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press

Also See 199 synonyms for jester

Recommended Reading

  • Doran, John. The History of Court Fools. Boston: Francis A. Niccolls, 1858.
  • Feibleman, James. “The Meaning of Comedy.” The Journal of Philosophy 35, no. 16 (1938): 421–32.
  • Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans.
  • Fradon, Dana. The King’s Fool: A Book about Medieval and Renaissance Fools. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1993.
  • Otto, Beatrice K. Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters
  • Murray S. Davis, What's So Funny? The Comic Conception of Culture and Society
  • Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies
  • John Allen Paulos, Mathematics and Humor: A Study of the Logic of Humor
  • FOOLS AND JESTERS AT THE ENGLISH COURT, by John Southworth- Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, England GL5 2BU


A special thanks is deservedly and gratefully given to Drew Teague for his splendid editing and polishing of this history. Without his generosity of time and discusssions this history might not have been published and certainly not as beautifully laid out and easy to read as it is. I truly cannot thank him enough. It was also Drew's addition of the Miracle Plays that brought the story home.

For Paula J for originally creating the Jester Name Study page, which was something I have wanted since I joined Wikitree.

Thank you both for making my Genealogy Dreams come to light to be shared.

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