What a joke: what jesters can tell us about the past

Where does this story begin and what is it about?

It begins in a bookstore in Kraków, Poland, more than 30 years ago, when I picked up a postcard with this painting on it. This is Jan Matejko’s “Stańczyk,” painted in 1862:

Jan Matejko, “Stańczyk,” 1862.

Jan Matejko, “Stańczyk,” 1862.

I was mystified but fascinated. Who was this sad man in a jester’s costume? Weren’t jesters supposed to be having (or at least pretending to be having) fun? What was the document on the table beside him, and what was going on in the background to the right? And what exactly was a “stańczyk”?

On the face of it, this is a story about a court jester named Stańczyk. Back those 30 years ago, I learned that the painting depicted Stańczyk during the reign of King Zygmunt Stary (Sigismund I the Old, r. 1506-1548). You can learn more about Stańczyk (probably a nickname for Stanisław, or Stanley) here, but it’s enough for now to know he had a reputation as an unusually wise man. He intended his jokes not just to make people laugh, but to get them thinking. He was kind of the Jon Stewart of his day, at least among those who surrounded (and those who criticized) the Polish royal court.

Wikipedia has a good entry on this painting, which you can read here. According to the reputable sources that Wikipedia cites, Stańczyk is brooding over the discarded letter to his right, which describes the 1514 loss of Smolensk to the Duchy of Moscow. While carefree royal officials and nobles dance the night away in the room behind him, Stańczyk ponders the maybe-not-so-great future of his homeland. (There are other symbols that bode ill; see the Wikipedia entry for more.) The jester—the “fool”— is the only one sober enough to realize that the Jagiellonian dynasty is losing its way.

In a broader sense, this is a story about the jester as political commentator, sage, and even revolutionary—about the “fool” who is smarter than the ruler, who has (or takes) the license to speak truth to power, and who in the process might just be able to change the way political power is exercised.

Jesters in a historical context

I have two particular case studies in mind on this topic of jesters and fools as political actors and historical agents, one of which we’re going to explore later in the semester, and one that is more directly an off-shoot of Matejko’s painting but more peripheral to our class. But before I turn to those, I want to point you to two secondary sources that are particularly interesting for thinking about jesters in a broader historical context.

Fig. 34: Folly governeth the world...(p. 234)

Fig. 34: Folly governeth the world…(p. 234)

One is Beatrice K. Otto’s fascinating book Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001). This is a global history of court jesters, going back to the pre-common era and drawing on examples and sources from East Asia, India, and the Middle East as well as Europe. For my purposes, chapter 3, “In Risu Veritas, or Many a True World Spoken in Jest,” is the most useful: in it, Otto discusses jesters’ role as a monarch’s truth-tellers. These were members of the court who had a special but also “sensitive and dangerous” function, she writes, which was “the right to present indirect and even forthright mockery” in a broad sense and with regard to specific policies or people, including the king himself (pp. 101, 102).

Another secondary source worth looking at is the brief essay by Julia R. Fox, “Wise Fools: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as Modern-Day Jesters in the American Court” (I told you Stańczyk was the Jon Stewart of his day), which you’ll find in The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam (Jefferson, NC/London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011), pp. 136-148. Fox notes right off the bat that in order to make sense of how Stewart and Colbert play a role in the U.S. political system today, you’ve got to look back into the past, which she does throughout the piece, also from a global perspective. Where Otto draws on primary sources, Fox draws entirely on other scholars’ work, and although we don’t get a different historical story here than we do in Otto’s book, it’s interesting to see how Fox weaves her discussion of these two contemporary figures into an overview of jesters’ roles in the past. One of the points Fox makes about jesters is that kings allowed them to make jokes at their expense because “the social institutions and the person in power [were] strong enough to tolerate” this, and similarly, she writes, “Stewart’s and Colbert’s mockery reinforces the power of our democracy to allow and even welcome such criticism” (146, 147).

But what if the leaders and institutions are not strong enough to tolerate the critiques of fools? Ah…that’s when it gets really interesting.

Case study #1: Memory as politics: late nineteenth-century “Stańczycy” in Galicia

Matejko’s 1862 painting of Stańczyk wasn’t really “discovered” for a couple decades, but by the end of the nineteenth century, Matejko was one of the leading public figures in Kraków, and that city in Galicia was the most important “haven” of Polish identity in partitioned Poland. This was because Habsburg Austria, shaken by tensions with its Hungarian population and an 1859 military defeat in Italy, embraced liberal reforms in the 1860s and granted Galicia unprecedented cultural, social, economic, and even limited political autonomy. Already in 1861 there were local elections, and in 1866, Kraków was the first Galician city to earn its own municipal charter and be administered by a local council of elected officials. It wasn’t exactly democracy, but the people in charge of the city’s local institutions were Poles, not German-speaking officials. Compared to Poles in the Russian and Prussian partitions, Galician Poles were relatively free to run their own local affairs, and over the next few decades, city leaders transformed Kraków into a cultural destination for Poles across the partitioned territory, by restoring historical monuments, hosting lavish public celebrations of historical anniversaries, opening new museums, and so on.

Matejko and many other notables in Kraków belonged to a conservative political faction that believed the Poles’ best hope for a sovereign state in the future was to hook their cart to Austro-Hungary for the foreseeable future (Wandycz writes about this in our textbook, The Price of Freedom, on pp. 183-184). They weren’t Habsburg sycophants, but they were loyalists. They argued that the “doomed heroism” of the 1830, 1846, and 1863 anti-partition uprisings was exactly what Poles should not be doing; instead, they needed to be cool-headed and sober and practical about putting their social, economic, cultural, and local political worlds in order. By doing so, they would be laying the groundwork for a future independent state (though how that state would come about, they never really said, and they did not advocate going out and fighting for it).

So what did the men of this mindset call themselves (and yes, they were all men)? Yes, indeed: the Stańczyks (Stańczycy). The founders and leaders of this group published a series of best-selling  pamphlets that were a biting satire of Polish foibles (compiled as “The Stańczyk Portfolio,” 1869, published in book form in 1879 by Kraków‘s Drukarnia Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego; you can link to a full text in Polish by clicking on the image below), and they invoked Stańczyk as a model for what Poles needed to do now (i.e., in the late nineteenth century): combine intelligence a jester-like wit with sober realism. And by the way, they saw Galicia—this regional entity and identity that had been created not that long before and that now enjoyed greater political autonomy than anywhere else in the partitioned lands—as the perfect place to realize this revival of Stańczyk-ian wit-meets-sobriety. Where better to forge a new path for Poland than in this “new” place?

Teka Stańczyka, 1869

Teka Stańczyka, 1869

There’s not much out there on the Stańczycy and their politics in English (which may be why Otto doesn’t mention them or Matejko’s painting in her book), but here’s a good introduction: Lawrence D. Orton, “’The Stańczyk Portfolio’ and the Politics of Galician Loyalism,” The Polish Review 27, no. 1/2 (1982), pp. 55-64. Orton sketches out the basic historical context in which “The Stańczyk Portfolio” appeared, and then discusses the pamphlets’ four authors and what they were after (and afraid of with regard to Austria and Moscow). He ends the article by explaining that three decades of Stańczyk-dominated rule didn’t have all that much to show for itself other than in the cultural realm. Economically and politically, Orton argues, it had stagnated. (If you have access to JSTOR, you can read Orton’s article here.)

Case study #2: Modern jesters: bringing down the Soviet empire, with a laugh

If the Stańczyks somewhat unwittingly reinforced  Habsburg imperial rule in Galicia, our second case study takes us to a more modern historical moment in which a group of jokesters helped bring down an empire. And this time, they weren’t invoking sobriety; quite the opposite. They were reminding the communist “emperors” that they had no clothes, and they were out to have a good time in the process.

“Jesters” probably isn’t the right word for these people, as they were never “in the hire” of a country’s political leaders, as jesters had been in the past. And in the case of the group I explore below, they called themselves “dwarves” (I think “elves” would be a better translation). Regardless, like jesters, they spoke truth to power and they used humor to make that truth more palatable to the powers-that-be, and less frightening to ordinary people, than it might otherwise have been.

I won’t say too much more about this case study, since we’re going to be reading and talking more about it when we get to Padraic Kenney’s book A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003); we’re reading excerpts for November 17). But as you’ll see, Kenney argues that the activities of dozens of different carnivalesque groups across eastern Europe in the 1980s helped bring down communism.

I do want to highlight one of the groups that plays a leading role in Kenney’s story (and many others), both as a way of continuing this illustration of a story-driven annotated bibliography and, because, well…it’s just so much fun. That group is the “Orange Alternative,” which was active through much of the 1980s. It began in the western Polish city of Wrocław and spread from there.

To the right is a photo of one of the group’s “happenings,” this one a “Revolution of the Dwarves” in 1988.

Orange Alternative's June 1988 "Revolution of the Dwarves," Wrocław.

Orange Alternative’s June 1988 “Revolution of the Dwarves,” Wrocław.

Orange Alternative (OA) leaders had announced their plans for a “revolution” well in advance, and city authorities decided to stage a big public demonstration of their own, with the hope that their event could sort of swallow up the one and make it disappear. No such luck. Part way through the official event, 10,000 people put on their elfin hats and started their own party. Who wouldn’t want to join this party (they even look sort of like jesters)?

This image is from the catalog of an exhibit on OA at a Kraków museum in 2011, which is published in English and Polish (the image, along with a brief account of the event, appears between pp. 104 and 105). The English title and publication info are Happening Against Communism by the Orange Alternative (Kraków: International Cultural Centre, 2011). The volume is filled with essays on the topic of OA, some by historians and others by participants in the events, and interspersed here and there are photos like the one above, with descriptions of some of the OA’s best-known events. It’s a great resource if you want to know how and why historians, artists, and social activists still pay attention to the OA today.

One of the best short introductions to who and what the OA were is a 1991 essay by Mirosław Peczak, titled “The Orange Ones, the Street, and the Background” (translated and edited by Anna Krajewska-Wieczorek, Performing Arts Journal 13, no. 2 [May 1991], 50-55). As Peczak explains, art—particularly surrealism and the “happenings” of the 1960s and 1970s—inspired the OA’s leader, Waldemar “Major” Fydrych, and Peczak does a nice job of explaining how the OA was both inspired by western trends and contingent on local events and settings. If you only have five minutes to devote to your study of OA, spend it reading this essay. (Here’s a link to the JSTOR article.)

If you have a bit more time, read another essay in the same issue of Performing Arts Journal (which was a special issue on Polish theater), this one Wojciech Marchlewski’s essay titled “The Eve of the Great October Revolution: Chronicle of a Happening in Wrocław” (citation as above, pp. 43-49). If you know anything about the October Revolution in the USSR, this piece is hilarious. It describes the OA’s November 1987 celebration of the Russian revolution, and it includes flyers they distributed in advance as well as a blow-by-blow description of the actual event. Absurdity was at the heart of the OA’s activities, and as this piece hints, by 1987 communist Poland was equally absurd. (The JSTOR copy is here.)

Orange Alternative website.

Orange Alternative website.

Orange Alternative helped draw tens of thousands of ordinary people into public protests against the communist regime in Poland, which by the mid- and late 1980s had lost its legitimacy even for most party stalwarts. OA and other such groups were the beneficiaries of decades of efforts to reform and resist communism, and they didn’t bring down communism single-handedly. But with their irreverent and come-one-come-all approach to politics-as-street-party, they helped speed things along. In Poland and many other parts of eastern Europe, they also helped ensure that when communism did come crashing down, its fall was cushioned with relative good humor rather than  accompanied by gun shots and violence.

By the way, OA leader Fydrych is still around. He has continued his activities as a social and political activist, and he created a foundation in the early 2000s that until very recently had a website that looked like the image to the right and included some great primary material, such as an interview with Fydrych, and, in the “bulletins” area, copies of a couple dozen flyers that OA groups distributed in the1980s (great primary sources, though they were in Polish). Sadly, a couple weeks after I posted this entry, the website disappeared. There is a Wikipedia site on OA, which you can link to here, and perhaps if OA itself revives its website, there will be a link from Wikipedia. Here’s hoping!