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On the jester's licence as a heritage of the Reformation by Angela Rinn

Martin Luther
(Collage: Stefan Weigand, Quelle: wikimedia.de)

In his writing “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation: the enhancement of the Christian State”, Martin Luther referred to the jester’s licence to put the finger on a sore spot and to openly say the truth: “ I feel free to say it for my court right.” Yes, it seems as if with his writing he himself takes up the role of a jester: “I want to sing out the fool's play and say what my reason is capable of.” 

People from all ages are afraid of freedom and truth. At the same time, we humans need them for our lives. Even the most unscrupulous liar needs a spark of truth for living and to surviving. For this reason, there was always a jester at the princely courts.

Martin Luther as jester? It would not be his worst role. In the courtly culture which cultivated its own mendacity, the jester was the only person authorized to say the truth. And everyone had to listen to it. In the figure of the jester, the rulers allowed themselves a direct confrontation. Maybe they were even a bit jealous of their jokers. Because this buffoon was the only free man at the court. Already his clothes made clear that he had a special role. He didn't belong it, but he was indispensable.

The truth doesn't rejoice everyone. The truth remains always – like the buffoon – something strange, unusual, exceptional. People feel threatened by it. Martin Luther knows this as well and sings his fool’s play, “whatever happens from secular power or the secret council”.

The only free man at court was – the jester. And he was indispensable, because the people so perfectly ensnared in the lie wished to find out at least in the mirror of the jester, who they really ware. With all their mendacity, they had become strangers to themselves. They had become strangers to themselves, although they were preoccupied the whole day only with themselves. The jester was the only person who was not focused on himself, but who really saw and perceived the others. Behind the bloated facade he recognized the anxious, lonely souls.

It would not be the worst legacy of the Reformation to take over the function of a jester. A demanding heritage, because after all the fools succeeded in bringing the truth to their audience in an entertaining way. Boring jesters had no future at the court. Despite all the humour or precisely because of it: the life of a jester was not and is not without danger. Hardly any dictatorship wanted to bear their jester. To this day it is perilous to hold a mirror up to people.

Nonetheless, every society needs the confrontation. A church that accepts this legacy of the Reformation stands for freedom. This way it encourages. It encourages to say the truth. We need jesters, we need people who recognize us, who hold up a mirror to us. We need people who take away our fear of the truth. We need people, who, despise all the fear, stand up for the jester’s licence. “ I feel free to say it for my court right.” Also in the 21st century.


This text first appeared on www.r2017.org. Luther2017.de was permitted to republish it with the kind permission of the author.