During the Middle Ages, jesters were a common part and member of the household of a nobleman, aimed to entertain guests. They often wore brightly-colored clothes and weird-looking hats, which can still be observed in their counterparts of today. They would usually perform at historically-themed events by singing, playing instruments, storytelling, and some other performance like acrobatics, juggling, telling jokes, punchlines, even magic tricks. They were also allowed to poke fun at the monarch without ending up gibbeted or stretched on the rack.  After all, the official job of the jester was to act as the court “fool” and only a fool would criticize his sovereign, right? Perhaps of all the jesters that have ever lived, it was one named Triboulet whose dedication to being the court’s official fool almost got him killed.

Francis I of France

Francis I was the King of France from 1515 until 1547 and was one of the two kings that Triboulet served for, the other one being his father-in-law King Louis XII whom he replaced after dying without a son.

Known as the patron of the arts, he attracted many Italian artists to work for him during his time, like Leonardo da Vinci with his Mona Lisa. He would decorate the royal palaces of France with great paintings, although he didn’t seem like a fan of sculptures. It was in his time that the art collection of the French kings began.

Francis I was married to his second cousin Claude, the daughter of King Louis XII of France and Duchess Anne of Brittany. Francis and Claude had seven children, two of which reached the age of thirty. Claude died in 1524, and Francis remarried, his second wife being Eleanor of Austria, the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.


Triboulet, Jester of King Francis I (Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de Santé , Licence Ouverte, via Wikimedia Commons)

Triboulet or Nicolas Ferrial, as he was known out of costume and character, was born in France in 1479 and was believed to have suffered from microcephaly, a condition that makes one’s head smaller than normal. It also gave him a hunched back, bandy and shortened legs and gangly arms with fingertips extending almost to his knees.  As a public jester in town, he eeked out a living appearing to be idiotic and simple-minded.  Until one day when he caught the attention of Francis Prince Regent, the future King of France, who commissioned him as a new jester in his father’s court. Once he was under the protection of the Prince, Triboulet dropped the act of being an imbecile and was found to possess a quick mind and a savage wit.

Perhaps one the funniest exchange that he had was this:

Triboulet: A noble has threatened to hang me!

The Monarch: Don’t worry! If he hangs you, I’ll have him beheaded fifteen minutes later.

Triboulet: Well, would it be possible to behead him 15 minutes before?

The Joke That Almost Got Him Killed

“The Fool and Death” (Sarah BernhardtCC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons)

He was witty and with a quick tongue that sometimes resulted in words slipped out before he could even think, most of the time getting him in trouble with the royalties.  But since he was in the service of the King, none dared laid a hand upon him in revenge. Then one night he went too far in taking liberties with the King in pursuit of amusing him and the court.

Triboulet was performing a routine and got so carried away that he ended up slapping the royal ass of His Imperial Highness, the King of France, Francis I.  the audience attending court that day gasped and then broke into uproarious laughter at the King’s expense.  Touching the Royal Personage without permission was a death offense in France and the King was equal parts embarrassed and pissed off. In his anger the King threatened to have the now quaking Triboulet executed on the spot and as his guards reached for their swords.  The nobles in attendance did not signal their approval for a prank done in all in good fun, besides, Triboulet was deformed and pitiable and many in the audience liked him.  Sensing that his court did not approve of seeing the jester’s head rolling across the marbled floors of the palace that night, the King offered him a second chance. If Triboulet could contrive apology even more insulting than laying his hands on the King, his life would be spared.

After seconds a now sweating and trembling Triboulet, his life hanging on the next words out of his mouth came up with a response:

“I’m so sorry, your majesty, that I didn’t recognize you! I mistook you for the Queen!”

By the look on the King’s face, Triboulet knew he had failed. even as he succeeded. His apology actually was more offensive than his original offense.  He had insulted the Queen, something he was told he must never, never do.

Triboulet was as good as dead now and everybody in the room knew it.

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Not wishing to appear the angry tyrant, the King noted with gratitude Triboulet’s service to the court for so many years, and in the recognition thereof granted him the right to choose the manner of his own death.

Perhaps the guillotine and a quick and painless death?

Or a fast-acting poison, which he could take laying on a bed in relative comfort?

The King bade Triboulet answer, “How would he choose to die?”

“Good sire, by Saint Goody Two Shoes and Saint Fatty, patrons of insanity, I ask to die from old age,” Triboulet remarked softly with his head bowed.

History does not tell us if the King was amused at being outwitted by a fool but the court was and broke into laughter again, but it does tell us that the King granted his request. Francis I banished Triboulet forever from the Realm of France but spared his life.

Triboulet lived to the old age of that time of 57 and died in 1536.

Most of us have forgotten who King Francis I was, but we do remember Triboulet even though we may not realize it. When you picture a court jester of medieval times in your head, he is dressed all in red with a funny hat with bells hanging from it, right?

This image has a name, it’s called a Triboulet.