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shameless pleading

Family Fool

Dear Word Detective: I was reading Samuel Smiles’ “Lives of the Engineers,” and in James Brindley’s biography he writes, “It was formerly the residence of the Bellot family, and is said to have been the last mansion in England in which a family fool was maintained” (page 39, The Folio Society Limited Edition, sixth printing, 2010). I assume by “a family fool was maintained” they mean keeping the handicapped person comfortable at home. I can find no reference for this, though. — Edward Stockert.

That’s an interesting question. I must admit that I am unfamiliar with Samuel Smiles, and for a moment I actually wondered whether “Lives of the Engineers” might be some sort of historical railroad epic. Fortunately, that moment lasted just long enough for me to look up Mr. Smiles on the internet and discover that he was a very prolific 19th century author whose three-volume “Lives of the Engineers” concerns itself with engineers in the sense of scientists, canal-builders, bridge designers, etc. His fame, however, rests primarily on his 1859 book Self Help, which became wildly popular and made Smiles a worldwide celebrity. Some things never change.

Much as I endorse the idea of families caring for relatives who have some degree of cognitive impairment, I’m relieved to be able to say that the quotation you supply has no connection with any kind of disability. By the term “family fool,” Smiles meant what was known in an earlier age as a “licensed fool” or “court jester.” The “license” in “licensed fool” is not a legal permit, but refers to the tolerance of the jests and japes of the “fool” by the monarch or aristocratic household that employed him. The role of the “fool” was to provide amusement to members of the court or family, often mocking them within strict limits, and also serving as a sort of safety valve for those not lounging in the seat of power. Hearing the resident paid comedian “speak truth to power” provided a bit of light in the otherwise humdrum days of servants and courtiers. And the peasants no doubt enjoyed hearing the jokes second- or third-hand.

Such “fools” have a long history in many human cultures as speakers of truth who escape punishment either because they are considered “odd” or “crazy” or because they play a recognized and protected role. Many American Indian tribes have a tradition of “fools” breaking social taboos during festival celebrations, and the period of late December in Medieval Europe was the occasion for the “Feast of Fools” (a direct descendant of the Roman festival of Saturnalia), during which a mock Pope was appointed, servants assumed the roles of their masters, and propriety was tossed out the window. Shakespeare’s plays are full of “wise fools,” albeit not always identified as such (though the character Feste in Twelfth Night is indeed a hired “licensed fool”).

English derived our word “fool” from the Old French “fol,” meaning “madman, insane person,” but the root of “fol” was the Latin “follem,” which meant literally “bellows” (as used by a blacksmith) and, figuratively, “windbag, empty-headed person.” The English word “fool,” when it first appeared in the late 13th century, meant “simpleton, one who acts or behaves stupidly, a silly person,” but the word didn’t carry the overtones of insult or contempt it does today. By the end of the 14th century, “fool” had also taken on the meaning of “one who feigns stupidity or madness for the entertainment of others,” and the “licensed fool” had arrived.

Though we tend to associate the court jester and paid fool with the Middle Ages, and the British monarchy abolished the position in the 17th century, the institution persisted to an extent among British nobility, where some grand houses kept a “family fool” on staff. The librettist and poet W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) even wrote a humorous poem (“The Family Fool”) offering advice on how to amuse your employers when you have both a headache and a toothache. Today, of course, we have standup comedy and SNL, but I think there’s a strong case to be made for a law mandating that every government office employ a professional fool to keep the elected ones in line.

1 comment to Family Fool

  • h.s. gudnason

    Gilbert’s poem is in fact a song from The Yeomen of the Guard, which is set sometime during the 16th century. Although the term “family fool” is clearly one of the period-color terms in the play, many critics think that Gilbert was also speaking of his own perceived role in society as a satirist.

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