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Four Fools in the Age of Reason

Laughter, Cruelty, and Power in Early Modern Germany
Dorinda Outram

BUY Cloth · 176 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942018 · $35.00 · Apr 2019
BUY Ebook · 176 pp. · ISBN 9780813942025 · $35.00 · Apr 2019

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.

Ritchie Robertson, University of Oxford, author of Mock-Epic Poetry from Pope to Heine

About the Author: 

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.

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