previously published at Suite101 Tarot
illustrations from Katelan Foisy's deck in progress.
illustrations from Katelan Foisy's deck in progress.
The Fool in the Middle Ages
"Who Is Not a Fool?"
-Horace (65-8 B.C.), Satires, 2.3.158
Tarot decks first emerged in the Middle Ages. To fully understand the fool's role in tarot, it is important to understand his role in Medieval society. As the card is outside of the structure of the Major Arcana, but a unique and important part of it, the fool was outside of the structure of society but a unique and important part of it.
The fool was an outsider by nature because he was extreme in some way. He or she, (the fool, along with the monk, nun and prostitute - one of the few equal opportunity positions in the Middle Ages), was exempt by nature from the rules of society. This exemption could be due to extreme mental or physical superiority or inferiority.
In Europe during the Middle Ages there were two kinds of fools, (by occupation, that is). There were fools who were mentally slow or otherwise disabled and fools who were exceptionally clever and/or agile. Some of these were also deviants. For these, the position of fool often offered an escape from the consequences of crimes committed before they had received their lucky appointment. Sometimes poets, musicians and scholars became fools too.
King of Wands
Fools in all of these categories were often 'discovered' just like comedians and other entertainers are today. Some would (intentionally or unintentionally) impress a passing person of distinction with their wit, stupidity, clumsiness or agility and be offered a job on the spot. For many, this opportunity was a release from the law or from toil and drudgery. Some fools even became rich and famous. A few of their jokes were so good they survive to this day.
Some disabled fools were presented to nobles by their families for a reward. In a few deeply disturbing cases, parents deliberately disabled their children in hopes that they would rise to the position of fool. This is a sort of sick variation on the stage mother of today.
People in the Middle Ages took the idea of laughter being the best medicine very seriously. They actually felt that joking around kept bad things from happening. So the fool's presence in a home or at public gatherings was viewed as a talisman to keep bad luck at bay. Fools performed in marketplaces, at festivals, at court and in private homes.
The fool often brought 'luck' to his employer by attracting attention and deflecting anger. A fool could also break up physical or psychological tension by making a joke of it. Because of the value of this, their behavior was rarely censored.
To do this, the fool drew from his 'bag of tricks', like the bag he carries over his shoulder in many decks. These included humor, music, acrobatics, juggling, magic and contortions. Sometimes they also ate fire, swallowed swords or worked with animals.
Fools were not only unique mentally, they looked different too. In some cases this was the result of ugliness or physical deformity. Their clothing was usually pieced together from absurd pieces of cast offs. Some speculate that their dress was a reflection of how poorly they were treated by their master.
Clever fools often doubled as advisors to the king or nobleman they worked for. The fact that they were on the fringe of the court is perhaps part of the reason they were taken seriously. They had no ulterior motive for misleading the king. They were often punished if they did (sometimes by death) and rewarded if their advice was good.
Sometimes the fool and the master had a very close friendship. Many undoubtedly felt that their fool was the only person who was completely honest with them. This feeling, particularly in the instance of kings, was probably correct much of the time.
The fool also had the opportunity to be a champion of the little people. He was able, if he was clever enough, to undo the system from within. No other commoner could hope to achieve this.
from these examples we see that the original, Medieval concept of the fool in tarot was probably paradoxical, as he was in society. He was both idiot and sage. He was free but downtrodden.
The Fool has evolved in many nations and cultures from earlier mythologies as a symbol of God & Man, a solitary man on a trek through life. His only companions, God & nature, teach him (often by cruel example) what is expected of him in this world and what may follow this life. He may find his way to God with some luck or end up lost forever. It is a risk we all and not just the Fool must take, as we set forth.
The Fool in the picture may be dressed like a country bumpkin or court jester and is often shown in the wilderness, accompanied by his dog, holding a bundle and a white rose. Though the Fool is about to step off a cliff, his plight is not an imminent fatality, but rather a surprising, if not enlightening turn of events. He will learn something about himself because he has seized the opportunity to explore, travel or move on, even though he may not know how, may not have everything he needs to get where he is going, or know why he has acted in this manner. Never-the-less, the Fool unwittingly makes his way to his goal without a plan simply by trusting his own instincts.
The Fool, of course, is us, humanity, the way of the ordinary human being. His situation suggests that he could fall dizzily into spiritual enlightenment or hell-folly and death. His human condition implies that he may not recognize the signs along the way which point in the better direction and that in a divine sense he is constantly surrounded by pertinent information, healing energy and helpful resources, but doesn't always notice it.
Other implications come from playing the fool, suffering the children, playing devil's advocate (taking the opposite side in an argument) and having the noble distinction of being able to reveal truth with impunity. The medieval position of court jester was one of prestige not shame,
shame, since he had the ear of the King as well as the commoner, and like a modern gossip columnist, was able to tell-all without suffering the usual consequences.
Finally, it should ring a bell that everyone is a fool to somebody sometime, that we need to laugh at ourselves more often and be reminded that anything between heaven and hell is possible in life's journey. Up until 400 AD it was possible for a man to become a god, although in today's terms that might mean becoming a superstar.