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The Dancing Fool and the mundus inversus


The fools illustrate Psalters, Books of Hours and romances of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They fill the initials, the miniatures and the illuminated leaf margins. Some very specific and visual features identify these fools. With extensive knowledge of ancient, biblical, patristic and historical founding texts of madness, of dance and music, with dazzlingly creative originality, illuminators brought great care to these figures of the mundus inversus and to the transmission of their scholar models.
In medieval literature, madness means nonsense and the insipiens or the fol is always defined in relation to wisdom. This madness is twofold, positive and negative, natural and artificial. It concerns both the soul and the body. In this literature and in these pictures, the David authority figure is the archetype which gives all its visual and moral power to the figure of the fool ; so the fool is related to music, to dance, to rhythm, to movement and to harmony. The initial letter of Psalm 52 (53) "Dixit insipiens" always opposes the moral virtue of David to sin and vice of the fool in a significant and renewed way.
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 with dancing, games, banquets, the Office de l'Âne and the Évêque des Fous. The figure of the fool is ambiguous as well as political power which can condemn or authorize this inversion and this planned disorder.
At the end of the Middle Ages, the jesters dance impossible farandoles or the moresca in a group. They also participate in danses macabres. Always ambivalent, they are the major figures of court's festivities, of the society and of its tensions more generally, of laughter and macabre, of life and death.