Why the 13th Century (and why a jester)

Why the Thirteenth Century, and Why a Jester

(first published in the blog A Bookish Libraria
, January 18, 2013)

I didn’t really expect to find myself writing about a jester in early thirteenth century Florence. Not at all. Quite the farthest thing from my mind, really.

Actually, I intended to write about a poet in late thirteenth century Florence. But the jester, once I encountered his story in history books (nestled cozily in the footnotes), aroused my curiosity, and I just couldn’t resist.

As to why I found myself in the thirteenth century in the first place, and specifically in Florence, that has a lot to do with Dante. His writings, and his life and times, fascinate me, because I believe they carry within them the seeds of the Renaissance.

We all have a mental image of the Florence of the fifteen and sixteenth centuries: the Medici, Michelangelo, Savonarola, Machiavelli, the powerful merchant guilds, the beginnings of banking as we now know it, the luxury cloth trade.

But what went before? What made Florence explode into the artistic center of the Western world? What set the Florentines up to be bankers to kings and popes? How did the city on the Arno manage to produce a body of art that has never been equaled? How did it become the cradle of humanism?

What happened in that fabled city in the years before the Black Death struck? When Guelfs battled Ghibellines in the streets and the city’s skyline bristled with forbidding stone towers, built of the ironically-named pietra serena (peaceful stone) to protect Florence’s citizens from – well, from others of Florence’s citizens?

Dante peopled his Divine Comedy with his Florentine neighbors, as well as with people drawn from history and mythology. His Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso are chock-full of Florentines, each with his or her story and unique place in the afterlife.

Why this particular story?

One of the stories Dante alluded to in the Divine Comedy was the incident that drove the Guelfs and the Ghibellines apart in 1216. It is that tale that forms the core of my novel.

Dante didn’t write about the jester. It’s apparent that he’s alluding to a story so well known to his contemporaries that he doesn’t need to fill in the details. It happened about two generations before Dante’s own time, and he relied on the writings of chroniclers and on tales he had heard.

Several of the early chroniclers who recorded these events refer to a betrothal brokered to make peace and a betrayal that then destroyed the peace. Some go back a step further and speak of a brawl at a banquet, an injury done, and a cry for retribution, which resulted in the negotiated betrothal.

But one of them, the earliest, says it all began when a jester snatched a plate of food away from two knights. One of them was enraged, and a third knight, who was of the opposing political faction, took advantage of the moment to insult the furious knight. A fight ensued, resulting in an injury to one of the knights. That injury in turn led to the ill-fated betrothal.

And nobody ever says another word about the jester. I couldn’t help wondering: Who was he? Who paid him? How did he feel about the brouhaha that followed his prank? Was he in any danger? It seemed likely that he was, if the knight was enraged, since knights tend to be armed with sharp objects and know how to use them. What did this incident do to his career?

So one reason I chose to write from the jester’s point of view was to satisfy my curiosity. To think it through and try to see what I could figure out about this man, who was real, who did work as a jester in that year of 1216, and who we know absolutely nothing else about because almost nobody thought he was worth mentioning. What would his life have been like? What would have been the personal consequences for him of snatching that plate of food? What – or who – caused him to do it? Did he think it was a good idea? Did he have any choice?

It seemed to me in so many ways that it was the jester’s story to tell. Seen through his eyes, it would be very different than just another tale of two squabbling nobles and their factions. I was off and running, looking for answers. Finding some, making up others, because it is, after all, historical fiction. I’m not claiming that I’ve rediscovered this obscure man of so many centuries ago – only that my version of what happened is plausible.

The appeal of a jester

But I had another more personal reason for wanting to write this story from the jester’s angle. He was a performer. He would have juggled, tumbled, jested, made music, and engaged in rough slapstick. He probably had some reliable performing tricks, which could have been anything from sleight-of-hand to working with trained animals. He would have needed to think on his feet, to improvise, to please his employers whether they were being reasonable in their expectations or not. He had to be talented, quick-witted, and ingenious, and the only power he possessed lay in his wit and his skills as a performer.

Performers appeal to me, because I’m a musician. I play various medieval and Renaissance instruments, and I’ve been the leader of a group of musicians in a historical reenactment group. We’ve played at feasts, Renaissance faires, tourneys, and the like. And I know a little something of what it feels like to have to make it all up as you go along.

I’ve been told by the organizer of an event, “This is a very laid-back, relaxed situation. You’re on at 7:32.” (Our group’s idea of “relaxed” was more along the lines of “I think we’re supposed to be playing sometime after dinner. Anybody remember what we’re doing?”)

I’ve had somebody unexpectedly tell me, “Play NOW!” when I was holding a bone-dry shawm reed that needed five minutes of soaking before it would produce a sound.

My group, having already played a wedding processional, has had to scramble (quietly, and during the ceremony) to find another piece of music when we realized the bagpiper who was supposed to play the recessional hadn’t shown up, and we would have to fill in.

At a banquet, I’ve been told “First the fettucini, then the entertainment, then you.” I had no illusions about the fettucini, though I did rather flatter myself that our group was part of the entertainment. But there you go. It’s not a high-status occupation.

I’ve played in rain, wind, extreme heat, close conditions, and – time and time again – in situations where the ground rules kept changing. I’ve led my group in a shopping-mall Renaissance exhibition while we were crammed in next to an armorer who was noisily banging a hammer on an anvil. (We just asked him to keep a steady beat, and used him for the percussion.)

It requires a certain flexibility when you’re poised to begin a six-part Venetian ceremonial motet and some guy at the back of the crowd cups his hands around his mouth and bellows, “Do you know ‘Greensleeves’?”

I like performers. I like improvisers. I like creative people, and when it comes to historical fiction, I tend to find creative people much more interesting than their employers. So it was natural that the jester captured my attention, even though the historians have, for the most part, ignored him. I know how much you can observe when you’re only the hired help and no one remembers you’re there. If there is a story to be told, it will be a clever man like the jester who is in the best position to tell it.

And that’s why the jester, and why the thirteenth century.