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JOE MILLER, AND THE JESTERS OF ALL TIMES AND
BY WILLIAM J. THOMS.
WITH A PORTRAIT OF JOE MILLER.
Motley's your only wear.”—SHAKSPEARE. “ MOTLEY's yo&r only wear ?" quoth Shakspeare, and of a verity Shakspeare as usual is in the right; for motley has worn long and well
, and found favour in the sight of our forefathers and ourselves from the time when it was first donned by the Vice of the Old Moralities, some centuries since, until it was doffed by poor Joe Grimaldi, who had not the smallest particle of a vice about him but this same suit of motley.
In all ages and conditions of society the humors of the professed droll or merrymaker have found universal welcome. To discuss the why and the wherefore would here be out of place; the fact was and is as we have stated it.
In the olden days the monks, who sought to instruct their unlettered flocks by dramatic representations of the most striking incidents record. ed in Scripture story, knowing as well as Dryden himself that
“Men are but children of a larger growth,” seasoned the feast of reason to the popular palate, and enlivened the grave scenes of Biblical history by the introduction of a singular character entitled the Vice, a buffoon wearing a fool's habit, and the great. er part of whose employment consisted in teasing and tormenting upon every occasion the Devil whose bitter enemy he was. This character, according to the late Mr. Douce, ceased to be in fashion at the end of the sixteenth century. But as in the times of which we are speaking, this love of fun and frolic could rarely be gratified by anything approaching to the character of dramatic performances,-since the mysteries and moralities were for the most part enacted only in celebration of the great festivals of the Church, this fondness for mad pranks and witty conceits gave rise to that now obsolete character, the domestic fool or jester ; and the reader will readily conceive how prevalent must have been the custom of keeping such merry retainers, when he learns that a clever German writer has devoted a goodly octavo volume to the discussion and illustration of the history of Court Fools.
The subject is indeed a prolific one, for the practice was universal. Not a court in Christendom but resounded with their witticisms; not a feudal lord but sought relief from the troubles of war, or relaxation and amusement after the fatigues of the chase, in listening to the gibes of his jester; while so far was this practice from being confined to sovereign princes and the secular nobles, that it prevailed among ecclesiastics of the veryhighest rank, and this notwithstanding that the Council held at Paris, A. D. 1212, had expressly declared that churchmen should not keep fools !
The Popes Paul the Second and Leo the Tenth are known to have numbered such philosophers in motley among their retainers; and old Sebastian Brandt tells the story of a bishop, by other writers said to be the Archbishop of Cologne, who did so much to his discomfort. The story paints in such vivid colours the manners and spirit of the times
as to justify its insertion, though certainly of a very questionable character. This bishop had a favourite fool who, as was the custom of that age, lay in the same bed with him, in which upon one occasion it so happened that a nun made a third party. The fool, upon finding more legs than ordinary in the bed, laid hold of one, and asked whose it
Mine, said the bishop. He then laid hold of the second leg, a third, and a fourth, asking the same question, the bishop each time answering that it was his ; whereupon the fool sprang from the bed, and running to the window, cried, " Come in here come in here !behold a miracle! Our bishop has got four legs !” And thus made he known to all the world what his master would fain have kept secret.
Among the cardinals who are recorded as having kept fools, our own Wolsey must not be forgotten ; and like the bishop we have just re. ferred to, he would seem to have had good cause to repent of having disobeyed in this respect the ordinances of the Church. Wolsey who as is well known was the son of a butcher, received no heartier congratulations on obtaining his cardinal's hat than those which his jester offered him. “ Thank God! you are a cardinal,” said the jester ; “ now have I nothing more to desire than to see you pope.” The cardinal inquired of him his reasons for this wish. “ Why,” said the saucy knave, “ St, Peter was a fisherman, and he therefore ordained fasts that fish might fetch a better price : now your eminence being a butcher bred would of course abolish fasts, and command us to eat meat, that your trade might flourish.”
But if it be matter of surprise to find the dignitaries of the Church seeking amusement in the rude sallies of these carping knaves, it must be still more so to see them intruding into the Council-chamber when matters of the gravest moment were under discussion; yet such was undoubtedly the case. Triboulet the favourite jester of Francis the First we are told, was present at the council of war held by that monarch previous to his unfortunate campaign of 1525, in which he was taken prisoner at Pavia. The council, after gravely deliberating upon the most advantageous mode of entering Italy, being at length dis. solved, were very coolly told by the jester, that though they doubtless flattered themselves they had given their sovereign most excellent advice, they had unquestionably forgotten the most important part of the question. “ What is that ?" inquired they. " Why," said Triboulet, “
suppose mean to stay in Italy ; and yet have never once considered how you are to get back again !" The unfortunate issue of that expedition proved, that though the fool's bolt might have been soon shot, it had hit the mark.
The following anecdote furnishes however a still more remarkable proof of the extent to which this practice was carried, and shows how little the presence of such characters, even upon the gravest occasions, was considered either intrusive or indecorous.
At the time of the celebrated disputation between Luther and Eckius at the castle of Leipsic in 1519, Duke George of Saxony, the bitter enemy of Luther and his followers who was always present, was attend. ed by a favourite jester who had but one eye, and who generally sat at his master's feet. Some of the courtiers had in jest told the fool that the learned doctors were disputing upon the subject of his marriage which Luther defended, but which Eckius would by no means allow. This was sufficient to inspire the poor fellow with a violent dislike to
you don't I
Eckius, against whom therefore, during the disputation, he kept con. tinually darting all the angry looks that his one eye was capable of. Eckius at length noticing this, and not knowing the reason of it, look. ed just as angrily at the fool, and by way of deriding him for the in. firmity under which he laboured, put up his hand and mockingly closed one of his eyes. At the sight of this, the jester lost all patience, and in the face of the whole assembly, he called Eckius a lying priest, a rascal, and a thief, and quitted the hall in a towering passion, amidst the laughter of all who witnessed that extraordinary scene.
But it would appear that there is more of philosophy and shrewdness in the practice of keeping fools than one would at the first glance be inclined to suspect. The celebrated Professor Hufeland of Berlin tells us, that “ Laughter is one of the greatest helps to digestion with which he is acquainted ; and the custom prevalent among our forefathers of exciting it by jesters and buffoons was founded on true medical prin. ciples. In a word, endeavour to have cheerful and merry companions at your
meals. What nourishment one receives amidst mirth and jollity will certainly produce good and light blood !" And from a very curious account of Lord Burghley, written by one of his household, which is preserved among the manuscripts in the British Museum, we learn that that profound minister was habitually“ very free and cheerful in his hours of refection."
Professed jesters have however now for many years been out of vogue ; the reader of course knows why. I might dissertate at some length upon the point, speak in loud-sounding pirase an infinite deal of nothing, hide the reasons like two grains of wheat in a bushel of chaff, -yet gloss them over as I might, the causes of this altered state of things, designate them what you will, are those stereotype ones which are now a-days called into use to account for every change, be it for the better or for the worse, or neither for better nor worse, but merely for change sake,—the march of intellect,—the schoolmaster being abroad, which, by the bye, he never ought to be the diffusion of useful knowledge.
But if jesters are gone out, the love of a good jest is as strong as ever,
“And men, keep jest books now, who once kept fools." Not that jest-books have arisen since jesters disappeared-far from it. Their origin is coeval with the existence of the jester, and among the earliest specimens of them which exist, must be reckoned those which are devoted to the quips, quirks and merry pranks of some well-known droll. In fact they were originally special biographies of individual men of fun, and not as now, medleys made up from the good things said and done by a whole body of wits. In the former class, one of the most curious is a book which Fuseli is said to have delighted in, “ The Merry Adventures of Tyll Eulenspiegel or Howlglas," a German knave or a German fool, which you will, or both, and it so please you. But as we have elsewhere* introduced Master Eulenspiegel to the English reader, we will bid him stand aside, and give place to another rogue as witty as himself, but who, we believe, now makes his first appearance in this country ; though the collection in which his witticisms are recorded was for many years the delight of the lovers of such merry histories throughout all Germany.
* Lays and Legends. Germany, p. 79.
Klauss von Ranstet, or as he is more generally called, Claus Narr, filled the office of court-jester or domestic fool in the household of four successive Electors of Saxony and one Archbishop. He is first found in the service of the Elector Ernest who died in 1486 ; then in that of his successor Albert who died in 1500; he is next seen in the service of Ernest Archbishop of Mageburgh who died in 1513; from whom he appears to have been transferred to that of Frederick the Wise who died in 1525; and lastly we find him among the retainers of the Elector John, commonly called the Confessor. The incident which led to his adoption of this strange calling is so characteristic of the state of society at the period when it occurred, as not only to justify but to call for its assertion.
Claus being the son of very indigent parents was employed by them to watch their flock of geese in the environs of Ranstadt. The elector passing that neighborhood upon some occasion, accompanied by a numerous retinue both on horseback and in carriages, Claus the gooseherd was very desirous of seeing the sight; but that he might not pay too dearly for it by losing his geese, he determined to take them with him ; and accordingly he tucked the necks of the young ones under his girdle, took the two old ones one under each arm, and thus accoutred set out for Ranstadt. The elector, as may be supposed, was struck with his extraordinary appearance; and laughing heartily at his simplicity, set him down in his own mind as being by nature intended for a fool. He accordingly desired Claus' father to be sent for, and asked him whether he was willing to allow him to take his son to court. The father readily consented, saying, “My gracious lord, you will thereby rid me of a plaguy trouble, for the lad is not of the slightest use to me. He does nothing but create a riot in my house, while his follies set the whole village in an uproar!" Upon this the elector took Claus into his service, paid his father for the geese, and dismissed him with a handsome present.
The French, if they cannot boast greatly of their jest-books, may very justly be proud of that most admirable substitute for them, their match. less Ana, of which we purpose speaking at large on some future occa. sion. Their collections of facetiæ are also very abundant; and one among them, a very prominent volume in the Shandean Library, “ Les Bigarrures et Touches du Seigneur des Accords," contains, at least the best edition of it, two collections of jests, one entitled, “ Les Escraignes Dijonnoises,” and the other a number of ridiculous stories, some. what like the Facetiæ of Hierocles, or our own Tales of the Wise Men of Gotham, and which are there attributed to a certain Sieur Gaulard. The following may serve as a specimen, and has at all events its brevity to recommend it.
The Sieur Gaulard being told by a friend that the Dean of Besan. çon was dead, begged his informant not to believe the report.
« De. pend upon it,” quoth he, “it is not true; if it had been, he would have written to me, for he always makes a point of writing to me when he has anything particular to communicate.” One of the best of the mo. dern French Jest Books is that published in London some few years since under the title of “ Marottes à vendre, ou Triboulet Tabletier ;" which contains, among other remarkable productions, the song of “Le Fameux La Galisse; which has been imitated by Goldsmith in his two elegies, on a Mad-Dog, and on Mrs. Mary Blaze. It is much to be regretted however, that this collection which contains
many admirable stories is as much disfigured by indelicacies as if it had been formed three centuries since.
If quitting France, we cross the Alps in search of the Facetiæ of Italy, the first object, and indeed the principal one which we encounter, is the collection of witty sayings and doings attributed to the Florentine priest Arlotto.
Provano Arlotto, or to give him his proper title, Arlotto Mainardi was born at Florence on the 25th December, 1396 : and though originally brought up as a woolstapler, afterwards entered into holy orders, was priest at the church of Saint Cresci, and eventually at that of St. Just in Florence. He died in 1483, having gained for himself a reputation for wit and humour which not only spread throughout the whole of Italy during his life-time, but which has endured even to our own days. Crescembini, who like Quadrio enurnerates him among the poets of Italy on the strength of the occasional verses introduced into his stories, tells us that he caused his monument to be erected during his life-time, and the following characteristic inscription to be engraved upon it,—“Questa sepoltura ha fatto fare el Piovano Arlotto per se, e per tutte quelle persone, le quali dentro vi volessero entrare." —“ Piovana Arlotto caused this tomb to be made for himself, and for everybody else who should wish to enter it.”
His facetiæ, which are reckoned among the best and most agreeable to be found in the literature of Italy, having been formed in the best days of Florentine taste, were not however collected by himself, as some writers have supposed. The earliest edition is one in quarto, published in Florence without date; that in octavo published at Venice in 1520, being the next. The following tale may serve as a specimen of Arlotto's shrewd and pleasant wit.
It happened after a long drought that a very plenteous rain fell while Arlotto, and a number of his boon companions, were seated at table. All the party immediately began to vie one with another in praise of this well-timed shower, which they declared to be of such value as to be beyond all price. “ That is all very true," quoth Arlotto, “it is indeed a delightful rain; yet I do not see that any of you make the slightest use of it. You have praised the rain ; but not a drop have you mixed with your
wine." The party laughed, and continued as before to drink their good wine without any intermixture of this invaluable rain. By-and-bye a supper of partridges and sausages was laid before the party: Arlotto tasted the sausages and praised them most exceedingly, whereupon the whole party fell to eating them, with the exception of Arlotto, who contented himself with the choicest pickings of the partridges. Presently, the sausages being finished, the company would needs try the birds ; but they found that all the best parts of them were already eaten. Why, how is this, Arlotto ?” cried they; "you, who so praised the sausages, have eaten nothing but partridges." _“Why," said he, “I have but followed your example ; you praised the water, and drank wine. It is true, the sausages were ex. cellent; but then the partridges were still better !”
But it is time that ws should say a word of the jesters and jest-books of merry England, and more especially of the world-renowned Joe Mil. ler, whose portrait here greets the reader. But as the rule, irritiamus ab initio, which is good in all cases, is especially so in the present one, we will first devote a few words to the predecessors of this well-known wit. For predecessors he had in abundance,
“Vixerunt fortes ante Agamemnona multi."