fools


fools
   Laughing at stupidity and craziness is a basic, universal form of humour, well represented in English tradition. The language is rich in inventive semi-proverbial phrases to express just how daft someone is, from the medieval jeer that he or she would 'shoe a goose' or 'cut off the branch he's sitting on' to the modern 'he's a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic'; the nonsense world of *nursery rhymes is full of jokes about silly or impossible acts and topsy-turvy situations. Visually, the theme can be recognized in medieval art and sculpture, where grotesque figures pulling faces and/or engaging in undignified or ludicrous actions were surely intended as fools.
   Whole communities and ethnic groups have been labelled fools, and made the topic for cycles of jokes; older examples (often called 'noodle' or 'numskull' tales) relate to people from specified villages or rural districts, for example the Men of *Gotham and the Wiltshire *moonrakers, more recent ones to certain immigrant groups, especially the Irish. In some contexts, notably in schools and workplaces, custom allows practical jokes aimed at making people look foolish, and this is especially true on *April Fools' Day.
   Until fairly recent times it was socially acceptable to laugh at the behaviour of those born 'simple-minded', at the mad, and at freaks. From medieval times till the reign of Charles I, there are ample records of fools, jesters, and dwarfs at court and in wealthy households; some of the fools were undoubtedly 'innocent', i.e. half-witted, while others were skilled entertainers, with a repertoire of bawdy and/or slapstick humour and witty repartee lightly masked as 'folly'. 'Jest books', i.e. collections of stock anecdotes about the cleverness (or stupidity) of fools, circulated as popular literature. Some are sheer fiction, such as those about the legendary Marcolf who supposedly disputed with Solomon; others describe real people, such as Henry VII's fool Will Somer, and may contain accurate reminiscences alongside the inventions. As is well known, the professional fool-as-entertainer is also an important figure on the stage, from Elizabethan plays to modern circus clowns and cinema comedians. See Clouston, 1888; Welsford, 1935; Billington, 1984;
   ■ Christie Davies, in Spoken in Jest, ed. Gillian Bennett (1991), 215-35; Malcolm Jones, Folklore 100 (1989), 201-17.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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