Foolish Medicine: Reflections on the practices of modern clown-doctors and medieval fools
By Bernie Warren
Les Cahiers de l’idiotie, No.3 (2010)
Excerpt: By all accounts medieval fools, much like clown-doctors practiced empty pockets clowning. They carried very few props around with them and when they did use objects they were those found in the room. However the one exception was the fool’ s bauble or sceptre. Several scholars discuss the significance of this object and fools’ various ways of interacting with it. Here I simply wish to observe that modern clown-doctors often carry with them their own baubles. Most wear a stethoscope around their neck that, in combination with a red nose, signifies that I am a clown-doctor, in much the same way as a fool’ s costume and bauble signified who they were. Clown-doctors also often use finger puppets that they will speak to and personify in much the same way as the jester embodied his bauble with life. Dr. Haven’t-A-Clue carries with him a toilet plunger. When the rubber plunger is on, it is used to perform “belly-button-otomies”. More usually he removes the rubber plunger and places a finger puppet on the wooden stick and uses it much the same way as the jester used his bauble.
If scholars such as Welsford and Otto are to be believed the list of skills and jests attributed to medieval fools is almost limitless, this is in large part because “The number of fools is infinite” (Ecclesiates, 1 :15). While the number of clowns working in hospitals is not infinite, at least not yet, nevertheless currently there are literally thousands of individuals working as clowns in hospitals. No two clowns are the same ; nevertheless there are many commonalities in the ways that they work. Here I will provide a few brief examples of how modern clown-doctors currently use the verbal, physical, musical, and specialty skills of their antecedents in a hospital setting.
Many fools, particularly court jesters, were reputed to be quick-witted and quick tongued. They would play with words and sounds and recite poetry, running the gamut from elegiac to the nonsensical. They would also discuss topics and deliver news that no one else could.