A Brief History of Famous French Fools, Farce, and Fanfare

From the time of ancient kings, people have appreciated humor arising from the behavior and appearance of fools. Throughout history, such characters have taken many forms. Comedic actors have created entertaining personas that reappear in performance after performance. Others adapt idiotic conduct to real-world figures in an attempt to mock the powerful. Antics such as these make us laugh. So, to celebrate April Fools’ Day, I thought I’d write about some of France’s most famous zanies as well as the French festivities that feature them.

Le Bouffon

The French word bouffon historically refers to a performance artist from the Middle Ages or Renaissance who entertained kings or members of the nobility. However, some bouffons traveled from town to town, juggling, singing, telling stories, and performing magic at fairs or markets where average people could enjoy their performances. Those employed by the royal court often played an important political role since they would deliver bad news to the king that no one else dared announce.

Frequently, people with mental or physical disabilities became bouffons de la cour, or court jesters. It was believed that such outsiders, who were normally shunned by society, harbored a unique perspective of the world. Their unconventional insights helped inform those in positions of power.

Bouffon, by Jean Fouquet
Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester Gonella, by Jean Fouquet, circa 1445

Triboulet

One of the most famous French bouffons, known for his quick wit, is Triboulet, born with microcephaly in 1479. Triboulet is said to have served both King Louis XII and King Francis I. Legend has it that Triboulet perpetually got away with insulting his masters but after the jester slapped Francis I’s royal behind one day, the humiliated monarch had had enough. He threatened to hang Triboulet unless the cheeky clown could think of an apology that would be even more offensive than the disrespectful swat.

Triboulet offered his apology by saying that he hadn’t realized he was spanking Francis since he had mistaken him for the Queen. Apparently, this wasn’t the kind of retort the king had hoped for. He planned to execute Triboulet anyway but would allow the fool to choose the method of execution. Triboulet asked to die of old age. This time, his quick wit saved his skin and King Francis let him live.

The classical portrait of a court jester or bouffon dressed in red is believed to be based on Triboulet.

Jester, by William Merritt Chase
Jester Resting on a Chair, by William Merritt Chase, 1875

La Comédie-Italienne

In the mid-16th-century, theater groups from Italy began to appear in France. Their performances were largely farcical improvisations. The actors spoke Italian so performances relied heavily on gestures. Familiar scenarios, with minor variations, were employed over and over again. Even the commonly recurring characters fell into 4 recognizable categories:

  • Pantalon—an old debaucherous, miserly type who usually dresses in a tight-fitting suit emphasizing the groin, all flattery of which is understood to refer to days long passed.
  • Le Docteur—a know-it-all figure who actually knows next to nothing and dresses in black, scholarly-looking clothing.
  • Le Capitaine—a boastful, swaggering soldier (often Spanish) adorned with myriad braids, a feathered cap, and a huge ruff, who pursues the ladies vigorously but deep down is a coward.
  • Le Zanni—the bouffon of the group who is usually a servant to Pantalon. This indispensable role received the widest range of interpretations, from cunning manipulator to devoted counselor to bumbling fool.
Troupe de comédiens italiens
Troupe de comédiens italiens, artist unknown, circa 1580

Little by little, these groups spoke more and more French until, at the end of the 17th-century, Louis XIV saw them as a threat to French theater and banned them from France. The fact that La Comédie-Italienne sometimes mocked the king may have also had something to do with their expulsion. However, shortly after Louis XIV’s death in 1715, Phillippe II, Duke of Orléans, welcomed a newly assembled troop of Italian actors to Paris where again they produced plays entirely performed in French.

An Artist’s Portrayal

In looking for portrayals of French bouffons, I came across a large collection of colored engravings attributed to Maurice Sand. I wondered if this artist was in any way connected to the famous French novelist, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who went by the masculin pen name George Sand. As it turns out, Maurice was her oldest child and only son and the two were very close.

Born Jean-François-Maurice-Arnauld Dudevant, Maurice took a cue from his mother and adopted the pseudonym Maurice Sand for his professional work as an author, artist, and entymologist. He studied under Eugène Delacroix and during his lifetime produced numerous paintings, engravings, and a large collection of marionnettes. He also wrote several novels and a few plays but never attained the level of success enjoyed by his prolific mother.

Below are some of Maurice Sand’s depictions of famous characters from La Comédie-Italienne. The year listed on each engraving corresponds to the year when that particular character was introduced. Sand made all of the engravings around 1860.

Pierrot

Another character that sprang from La Comédie-Italienne is Pierrot. Pierrot emerged at the end of the 17th-century as a secondary zanni. Another bouffon, naive and servile, who was often duped by his fellow comics. In the mid-1800s, however, the French actor, Jean-Gaspard Deburau, transformed Pierrot into a major character. Instead of a timid, lazy, and greedy bit-player, Poirrot now dominated the scene with his clever and enigmatic personality, relying heavily on pantomime.

Pierrot Grimacing, by Gustav Doré
Pierrot Grimacing, by Gustave Doré

Deburau also drastically altered the clown’s costume by getting rid of the large ruffled collar, adding voluminous sleeves and pantlegs, and substituting a skullcap for a hat. For the next century, a succession of Poirrots kept the popular character alive and well—not only on the Paris stage but in paintings, sculptures, novels, and poetry. Even 20th-century superstars like Marcel Marceau and Charlie Chaplin modeled many of their characters’ gestures, mannerisms, schemes, and behaviors after those of the Poirrots that had come before them.

Paul Legrand, by Nadar
Paul Legrand as Poirrot, photographed by Nadar, 1855

Le Carnaval

In the weeks between New Year’s and Lent, many European communities hold carnivals that feature parades of people wearing extravagant costumes and carrying large puppets. There is music, dancing, and singing in the streets, and downpours of confetti. According to Wikipedia, Le Carnaval is most popular in France and Belgium, with over 90 cities in France hosting some form of this annual street party.

Carnaval à Bruxelles, by François Gaillard
Carnaval sur les boulevards centraux, by François Gaillard, Brussels 1886

Le Carnaval has Christian roots, providing an occasion for adherents to feast on fatty foods, drink, and make merry before the more introspective fasting period of Lent. However, festivities where people celebrated with masks, music, flowered floats, and other forms of fanfare pre-date Christianity.

Carnival Procession, by Adrien Moreau
17th-Century Carnival Procession, by Adrien Moreau, 1887

France’s premier Carnaval is held each year in Nice. The 17-day celebration begins in mid-February and spans 3 weekends. Nice is proud of its annual extravaganza that first kicked off in 1873 and has only been canceled during times of war and more recently in 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Many of the bouffons mentioned in this post, from Triboulet to Pantalon to Pierrot, have made repeated appearances in the form of massive puppets. This year’s towering jesters included mannequins of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Everybody Loves a Fool

Why do people love the antics of a fool? Perhaps, because we’ve all experienced times when our own behaviors left us feeling like idiots. Comedy seems to have healing properties. It lets us forget about our own gaffs and focus on the absurdities commtted by another. In a performance setting, it binds spectators and participants. All present are in on the joke and momentarily united against the undesirable forces of the world. Some people believe that in addition to making us laugh, comedy helps hold the powerful in check. Why do you think fools never seem to go out of fashion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.

24 Comments

  1. I think comics and impersonators playing the fool kept me sane 2016-2000. (Maybe still do!)

  2. A curious custom, and one which must sometimes have required a certain amount of nerve to uphold at times, as Francis I’s condemnation showed. It’s too bad modern dictators haven’t continued the tolerance for the bouffon, and thus have no one at all who dares tell them uncomfortable truths.

    It never occurred to me to associate Marceau and Chaplin with the earlier tradition of the “fool”, but it’s obvious once you mention it.

    All present are in on the joke and momentarily united against the undesirable forces of the world. Some people believe that in addition to making us laugh, comedy helps hold the powerful in check

    I can imagine that a kind of combination of these is also important. It can be very frustrating to feel that no one except oneself is aware of the absurd and unjust behavior of the powerful, that all one’s neighbors are deceived and are on board with the way things are. To see the powerful mocked, and to see that everyone else also gets the joke, provides a reassurance that we are all aware of the madness of things, even if there’s nothing we can do about it.

    Do you have a source on the pre-Christian roots of some aspects of the Carnaval? I wonder if there is any link with the pagan procession rituals that survive here and there in Britain, given the Celtic roots of both countries.

    • I think you’re right Infidel, the camaraderie aspect is significant. Even when watching TV, there’s a sense that you’re enjoying a joke with a large audience and that you’re not alone in identifying BS.

      I normally list all my sources but was pressed for time this week and didn’t put it out. If I get time, I’ll change that. However, most of the information that I got about Carnaval came from French Wikipedia pages. I saw next to nothing about pagan rituals but that would have been an interesting addition.

      If you learn more, I hope you’ll share. Thanks for reading!

  3. This is a brilliantly constructed and informative post. I have learnt so much. Thank you, Carol!

  4. I found this exploration of the bouffon—dare I say?—boffo! My favorite story involves Triboulet’s life-extending wit, though kudos to Francis 1 for giving the man a second chance. One rarely reads of such royal forbearance.

    Yes, comedy has healing qualities. But I am trying to think of comedy today that might reach across our societal divides and bind us together. It’s a worthy question to which no ready answer comes to my mind.

    • I agree Annie, it is surprising to learn how much power these court jesters wielded.

      After spending my Saturday with relatives that have a wide range of political views, I feel like plenty of comedy still exists that reaches across societal divides. We shared many laughs and watched online content together that was full of mockery. Everyone was careful, however, to not tread into sensitive areas.

      Unfortunately, the widest-reaching media sources stay in business by focusing on issues that divide and provoke.

      One example of a funny story that almost everyone will appreciate is from Infidel753’s blog. Check out the tall tale video from March 19.

  5. I enjoyed studying the beautiful drawings of the comical figures you assembled. The French version of Trump was interesting and much darker and monster-like than American takes on the buffoon.

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Triboulet. Triboulet, born with microcephaly in 1479, is one of the most renowned French bouffons, famed for his sharp wit.

  7. fascinating! so interesting to think about how every culture has it’s fools that often are that foolish 🙂

  8. Wow it’s amazing that the Carnaval has been going on for so long and that they still continue. The history was also so interesting to learn. Although I have learnt some French history most of this was new to me.

  9. Indeed, a very informative article. .(Bouffon is not to be confused with bouffant – see https://bit.ly/3MkXlMW )

  10. A very interesting article and especially insight into the Comedie Italienne characters, which I am sure shaped European consciousness in some way being so prolific. I guess many of these characters stem from ancient stereotypes and the character pair and certain personalities remind of simple playing card figures and Tarot. I know Harlequin and Pierrot best because of popular songs and ballet spin-offs, such as Ballets Russes productions. I think it is also interesting to think of the link between bouffoun as a witty jester and the concept of a holy fool and that kind of wisdom that can only exist in a person who is viewed as being outside participatory society and not governed by ordinary conventions, who is completely innocent in certain aspects and maybe having some intuitive, even if childish, insight which our logic and education simply prevent us having.

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