Heralds, Magicians and Jesters: Courtiers in the Late Middle Ages
The medieval court is a popular subject for cultural historians. Many studies have been devoted to its intricacies and its impact on the formation of a national state, ranging from the various means in which the court represented a model society from which the entire country could be derived, to court rituals and the ways in which they ‘domesticated’ the nobility or were viewed by the non-noble population. In this article I will not tackle this complicated subject, but I will follow the idea that the court was partly created as a mirror of society, and that therefore it had to accomodate to representatives of all walks of life. I will examine the various roles at court that were neither domestic nor reserved to noble dynasties – such as, for example, the official cupbearers, a purely honorary title – but rather those that combine profession with the actual merit(s) and/or skills of an individual. Some of these roles are also present in Medieval II: Total War.
Probably the most highly regarded of these individuals, heralds formed an essential part of the knightly society. Their first introduction in written sources is in a literary text by Chrétien de Troyes, ‘Le chevalier de la charrette’, dated 1164-1174, where ‘un hiraut d’armes’ appears as an expert on arms and armour. This casual remark implies they were already familiar to the nobles of their times.
The heralds were charged with checking the armour and weapons of combatants at jousts and at tournaments, and often announced the victors or commented on the games. Over time they grew to be the foremost experts on the coats of arms employed by the various knights, but initially this was a skill they shared with common minstrels, who were also present at tournaments.
Originally most heralds were probably not employed full-time, but in stead would visit various tournaments and courts, display their skills and get paid as a reward. During the 14th century, this changed. Heralds became more prestigious. This follows a different cultural development: knighthood became more highly regarded than ancestry or nobility, and this allowed many knights from non-noble backgrounds to make a name for themselves. As interest in these warriors grew, so did their numbers, and the shields displaying their knightly arms became too plentiful for people without encyclopaedic memory to tell them apart.
With heralds gaining more recognition, the minstrels lost out – they were no longer required to tell apart heraldic emblems. Heralds, on the other hand, gained a stricter hierarchy, including regional ‘Kings of Arms’ or ‘Kings of Heralds’ who were considered exceptional at their work. All noblemen who could afford it took heralds in their service, although many of them did not live at court and often went abroad to gain experience and extend their network of friends and acquaintances.
Inevitably, heralds also became to play a part in warfare. They helped position the army, delivered messages, and sometimes scouted ahead. Heralds were widely considered non-combatants and would, as such, not be attacked. This caused some leaders to use them as spies, like Robert of Artois at Kortrijk in 1302 and John IV of Brabant in 1424. The latter sent his herald into England to spy on the army of Humphrey of Gloucester, who was about to invade. However, the herald was apprehended, imprisoned, and beaten. He was eventually released when he was discovered by the Bishop of Winchester, with whom he had once made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Heralds went out of fashion by the late 15th century, when the professionalisation of the military continued; drummers, pipers and messengers replaced them. They can still be found at some European courts today, though their function has become entirely ceremonial.
It was the jester’s job to make his patron laugh and reflect on life’s absurdities. The jester, despite his madness (sometimes real, usually feigned), was one of the few who dared speak frankly to his master without having to worry too much about it. However, we should not think too much of his role as advisor. While in our present culture, we like to regard jesters as paragons of wisdom, soothsayers of a kind, who could tell the truth and get away with it, this was not the reason the jester was at court, and if he were to neglect his duty as a comic in favour of a job as an adviser, his tenure at court might be short-lived.
Jugglers and acrobats
Somewhat related to the jesters were the jugglers and acrobats, who performed a variety of jobs, ranging from tricks like eating fire to acrobatics. Like some other professions at court, like actors and musicians, it is very difficult to find out what they did exactly. These people travelled from court to court to make a living, and they often left no traces apart from the extent of their reward in the financial accounts of the court.
Magicians were not officially in the court’s service. There were not too many of them, as it was not always easy to get employment as a person dealing with the occult. The Christian institutions strictly forbade the use of magic, but some lords still thought employing magicians could be useful. Magicians or soothsayers were employed primarily for telling the future, sometimes as astrologers, and for providing miracle cures. There are also accusations of magicians being used to curse individuals hostile to their lord – usually other courtiers – but in these cases it is difficult to distinguish between political trials inspired by courtly rivalry, and ‘real’ magic.
Magicians at times also did magic tricks to amuse an audience; even the familiar ‘sawing the woman in half’ trick appeared in their repertoire, as an impressed clerk noted down in the financial accounts of the county of Holland.
In the middle ages, there were two different types of writer or poet. The first was the cleric, who had received a proper education at a monastery, chapter school or even university. The cleric spoke Latin as well as his native tongue, and so had access to important literary sources, like the Bible or Aristotle’s works.
The second type was non-clerical, a layman, who might not even be capable of reading or writing and might often be reciting from memory. As opposed to the clerics, who were often employed permanently as scribes at court, the laymen were also travellers. Their work was slightly different in style to that of the clerics, as they had to produce far more texts. They were commercially minded, and thus had to abandon literary merit in favour of quantity. Most of their texts – usually in poem style – dealt with subjects important to the nobles, and eulogies of deceased noblemen and advisory songs about money or government were common. Sometimes subtle hints about the speaker’s poor finances are included, to induce the crowd to hand out larger fees. This was necessary because the speakers did not perform for a fixed sum, but were rewarded solely by the generosity of the public. But when treated rudely, the offender was often pilloried in public, like a late 14th century Teutonic Order commander in Leiden, who was immortalised by the speaker Willem van Hildegaersberch for refusing hospitality, despite having promised this earlier on.
Many nobles from the Holy Roman Empire made trips to Lithuania and surrounding territories, to try and subjugate the pagans. As a souvenir, many noblemen brought back a local pagan to the home country, as a prestige symbol. Usually, the pagans were only children, and were forcibly converted. The Frisian chronicle of Worp Tyaerda van Rinsumageest tells of two pagan children brought back to Sneek to be educated; one of them used to grab children he was playing with and would then roughly throw them into the water, saying he baptised them like he had been baptised.
Not all pagans were forced to convert, but by the end of their lives most of them would be Christian, anyway. There was no real alternative in an exclusively Christian court.