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Martine Clouzot & Marie-José Gasse-Grandjean

The Dancing Fool and the mundus inversus

ISBN: 978-3-906817-11-8
DOI: 10.13098/infoclio.ch-lb-0007
Erscheinungsdatum: 2017


The fools adorn Psalters, Books of Hours, and romances of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. They teem in the initials, miniatures, and illuminated margins of manuscripts. Specific visual features identify the fools as such and describe their nature. With extensive knowledge of ancient, biblical, patristic, and historical sources on madness, dance, and music, with dazing originality, illuminators invested great care in producing these figures of the mundus inversus and in the transmission of the scholar model they personified.

In the medieval literature, madness means nonsense and the insipiens or the fol is consistently defined in relation to wisdom. This madness is twofold, positive and negative, natural and artificial, and concerns both the soul and the body. King David conveys in this literary and iconographic genre visual and moral power to the fool’s figure, who becomes related to music, dance, rhythm, and harmony. Thus the initial letter of Psalm 52 (53) “Dixit insipiens” opposes in new ways the moral virtue of David to the fool’s sin and vice.

The madness of religious inversion is also that of the Fête des Fous. This ritual organized by the Church reverses the church hierarchy, parodies the church service thorugh dances, games, banquets, the Office de l'Âne, and the Évêque des Fous. The figure of the fool is ambiguous also in terms of political power: it can both condemn and authorize inversion and staged disorder.

At the end of the Middle Ages the jesters dance farandoles or the moresca in groups. They also participate in danses macabres. Always ambivalent, they are major figures of court festivities and reveal and relieve through laughter and macabre social tensions and the imagined nature of life and death themselves.