Triboulet The Jester

Nicolas Ferrial, also known as Le Févrial or Triboulet The Jester
Nicolas Ferrial, also known as Le Févrial or Triboulet The Jester

Court Jesters

European royal courts were often filled with comedically gifted geniuses, known as Jesters.

 The word jester derives from the Anglo-Norman (French) variations ‘gestour’ and ‘jestour’, meaning storyteller or entertainer.

A Jester was someone who made fun of others, especially those in positions of power. Court jesters were given the freedom to speak out against injustice and hypocrisy in religion and authority, even if they had to risk their own lives doing so.

Jesters were also known as jokers, buffoons, and sometimes fools. They were usually employed by monarchs and noblemen alike to entertain guests during the Medieval and Renaissance eras.

Their abilities varied from person to person and from court to court, but they were usually multi-talented individuals that wore bright clothes and eccentric hats in motley patterns.

Their main skills were: playing musical instruments, singing, and storytelling. Other jesters also danced, juggled, performed acrobatics, told jokes and puns, and performed magic tricks and also mimicry.

During the reigns of both Louis XII and Francis I of France, there lived a jester of such quick-wit, fast-thinking and comedic prowess, that he went on to live on in the history books, and inspire the works of renowned literary writer Victor Hugo, and Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. His name was Triboulet.

Nicolas Ferrial – Triboulet The Jester

Triboulet The Jester, also known as Le Févrial,  was born Nicolas Ferrial in the city of Blois (France), in 1479.

It is believed that he suffered from some sort of disability, most likely microencephaly; a neurodevelopmental disorder which would have impacted him both physically and neurologically, resulting in congenital disabilities.

His bowed back, his short and twisted legs, his long and hanging arms, amused the ladies, who contemplated him as if he had been a monkey or a paroquet.

Paul Lacroix, 19th-century French journalist

He was a low-level town jester, often seen as an imbecile or idiotic. However, Triboulet’s life changed dramatically around the age of 24, when he was made court jester and employed in the service of the future King Francis I. And from that day on, he became an almost entirely different person.

An illustration of Triboulet The Jester entertaining others at work (ca. 1716 – 1761).
An illustration of Triboulet The Jester entertaining others at work (ca. 1716 – 1761)

[Triboulet] suddenly ceased to be idiotic and imbecile, and became a witty, diverting, and crafty buffoon, and, above all, a perfect courtier.

Paul Lacroix

[Triboulet wore a] costume of vibrant red and yellow, his cap adorned with the royal arms, and the figure of a fool’s head at the tip of his wand

Paul Lacroix
"Keying Up" - The Court, Jester William Merritt Chase
“Keying Up” – The Court, Jester William Merritt Chase

Triboulet’s Mischief

Triboulet used his physical disabilities, which have been likened to him resembling a monkey because of his long-hanging arms and stubby legs, at the beginning of his career; accentuating them for comedic purposes. He performed the natural clowning tasks of his job and was said to be often crude, as well as his ability to loudly pass gas at will.

Nevertheless, his legacy is a testament to his intelligence and talent. He was known for being extremely witty, his comedic style was cutting edge along with razor-sharp wit. He was able to walk a very fine line between impending doom and legend. He converted his talent into a lengthy career that spanned the reigns of both Louis XII and Francis I.

Triboulet carved out a very unique and memorable niche for himself in French society. But because he was quick with the quips and comebacks, he would often get in trouble with the royalty and nobles for his comedic material.

A notable exchange was Triboulet frantically notifying the king that a visiting nobleman was threatening to have him hanged after he had been pestering him with his antics. Other versions of the story say that the nobleman was threatening to beat him to death.

King Francis reassured the jester telling him not to worry, and that he would hang the man 15 minutes later if he dared. To which Triboulet replied: “Ah, Sir!” “Couldn’t you contrive to hang him a quarter of an hour previously?”

Triboulet’s Banishment

Triboulet was involved in some infamous incidents that have persisted in history over time.  He took his work seriously, however, his boldest work nearly killed him.

His most harrowing mistake occurred during the reign of Francis I. Once, in an attempt to lighten the mood, Triboulet struck the King on the rear, expecting the applause of courtiers. Traditionally, touching royalty, or being disrespectful or rude could lead to severe punishment or even death. The King lost his temper and threatened to execute the jester. A while later, after he calmed down, he promised to forgive Triboulet if he could come up with an apology more offensive than the deed itself.

A few seconds later, Triboulet responded: “I’m so sorry, your majesty, that I didn’t recognize you! I mistook you for the Queen!”  Unfortunately, the king’s wife was the one person in court who was entirely off-limits. The King was so furious that he reneged on his promise for once again violating his order not to make jokes about the queen and her courtiers.

Pierre dAillys Court Jester Triboulet Encounters Death (ca. 1500)
Pierre d’Ailly’s Court Jester – Triboulet Encounters Death

However, after reflecting on the jester’s dutiful service for many years, the King granted Triboulet the right to choose his own manner of death. Triboulet barely missed a beat before responding: “Good sire, by Saint Goody Two Shoes and Saint Fatty, patrons of insanity, I ask to die from old age.”

In the original French: “Bon sire, par sainte Nitouche et saint Pansard, patrons de la folie, je demande à  mourir de vieillesse.”

Both the King and the court found his reply so humorous that the King ordered the jester to be banished from the realm instead of executed.

Inspiring The Works of Many

 Triboulet died indeed of old age in 1536 at the age of 56 or 57, according to various accounts. His life and uniqueness have been immortalized in the pages of history thanks to the many works of art he has inspired.

He appears in Book 3 of Gargantua and Pantagruel (The Pantagrueline chronicles), by François Rabelais.

Over the years, his notoriety persisted thanks to Victor Hugo who solidified his legacy in 1832 with the play Le Roi s’Amuse’, literally ‘The King Has Fun’, or ‘The King Amuses Himself’.  And later, in his novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.

The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi based his famous opera ‘Rigolleto on Victor Hugo’s play ‘Le Roi s’Amuse’, casting aside adaptations of Shakespeare’s King Lear, deeming Triboulet a much more interesting character.

Edwin Booth as Bertuccio, the name given to Triboulet in the English translation of Hugo’s play
Edwin Booth as Bertuccio, the name given to Triboulet in the English translation of Hugo’s play
Jester Resting on a Chair, by William Merritt Chase, 1875
Jester Resting on a Chair, by William Merritt Chase, 1875 – William_Merritt_Chase
The character Triboulet - sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt
The character Triboulet – sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt

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