Unveiling the nearly lost world of the court fools of eighteenth-century Germany, Dorinda Outram shows that laughter was an essential instrument of power. Whether jovial or cruel, mirth altered social and political relations.
Outram takes us first to the court of Frederick William I of Prussia, who emerges not only as an administrative reformer and notorious militarist but also as a "master of fools," a ruler who used fools to prop up his uncertain power. The autobiography of the itinerant fool Peter Prosch affords a rare insider’s view of the small courts in Catholic south Germany, Austria, and Bavaria. Full of sharp observations of prelates and princes, the autobiography also records episodes of the extraordinary cruelty for which the German princely courts were notorious. Joseph Fröhlich, court fool in Dresden, presents more appealing facets of foolery. A sharp salesman and hero of the Meissen factories, he was deeply attached to the folk life of fooling. The book ends by tying the growth of Enlightenment skepticism to the demise of court foolery around 1800.
Outram’s book is invaluable for giving us such a vivid depiction of the court fool and especially for revealing how this figure can shed new light on the wielding of power in Enlightenment Europe.
This book is original to an exceptional degree. The fools Outram discusses reveal a past age in its strangest and most alien form, especially in showing an alliance between power, cruelty, and fun which must be shocking to present-day readers.
If one thinks that court fools had disappeared from the European stage by the eighteenth century, this fascinating book proves one wrong. German courts of the eighteenth century did not just host philosophes and Aufklärer, such as Voltaire and Lessing. In Four Fools in the Age of Reason, Dorinda Outram uncovers the biographies of fools migrating from one court to another, such as Peter Prosch or the improbably named Joseph Fröhlich, and places them alongside the better-known figure of Jacob Paul Gundling, who thus appears in a novel light as well. Based on extensive research, this stimulating, elegantly written, and convincingly argued book reestablishes fools at the heart of the "Age of Enlightenment", and challenges not only our view of the eighteenth century, but also our own notions of rationality.
Dorinda Outram is Gladys I. and Franklin W. Clark Professor of History at the University of Rochester and the author of Panorama of the Enlightenment and other books.