‘Laughing At’: The Exploitation of Disability as Comedic Entertainment in Pre-Industrial Europe

James Belarde //

“They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.” –Nathaniel Lee, 17th century dramatist, after being committed to Bethlem Hospital

In late June 1340, the members of the French royal court found themselves in a tricky situation. France’s navy had just been decimated in the Battle of Sluys, the first major battle of the Hundred Years War. Under King Edward III, a small English naval force overcame the superior numbers of the French. The defeated sailors jumped overboard and swam for shore to avoid certain execution if captured, though many drowned under the weight of their armor. The defeat was so embarrassing no one had the nerve to report it to King Philip VI of France. No one, that is, except the King’s court jester, who finally declared, ‘Our knights are so much braver than the English.’ When the King asked why, he responded, ‘The English do not dare to jump into the sea in full armour.’1

Though tales like these may owe as much to legend as fact, history is more certain of their underlying sentiment. Court jesters were often able to say things to their superiors that others feared uttering. Such professional fools were protected by their ‘insignificance’ and the humorous antics they used to curry favor with royalty. But these well-known medieval comedians were not the only court entertainers. Unfortunately, there was another significant population retained for this purpose called ‘natural fools,’ a group which presents one case in a dark history of using those living with mental illness and disability for comedic effect. This exploitation for live humor has gone on for centuries, particularly in medieval Europe, and it highlights the distinction the dominant neurotypical culture created between their own humanity and that of the group they exploited.

As their name implies, ‘natural fools’ were considered to be imbued with foolishness by nature.2 From a medieval perspective, nature was a conceptual shorthand indicating powers of creation (usually divine) that were considered outside the realm of human manipulation or understanding. Thus, to be a ‘natural fool’ was to have a permanent quality of foolishness from birth. Often ‘this folly itself was perceived as a mental difference,’2 or what we would likely diagnose as an intellectual or learning disability in modern medicine. However, those suffering from physical disabilities were also retained as ‘natural fools,’ as evidenced by the ubiquity of entertainers with dwarfism and severe kyphosis.

Either way, for the medieval royal elite, most ‘natural fools’ had one primary purpose: entertainment. A person with a mental or physical disability wasn’t someone to respect as an equal but someone at whom to marvel and laugh. At best, the court’s favorites were considered deserving of a sort of patronizing care, and these were normally those deemed ‘holy fools’ (individuals with learning disabilities whose sometimes illogical words were thought to belie a deep connection with divine wisdom).3 Still, though ‘natural fools’ were highly valued by royalty and could be well taken care of, this was often only insomuch as they were regarded as property. This attitude created a sense of otherness, one that was reinforced by the nature of live entertainment. The ‘fools’ were the show, the royals were the audience, and the concept of performance was an artificial boundary that clearly separated the two. The fact that these exploited entertainers were considered natural creations of a divine will, ones who couldn’t be cured or helped, only exaggerated the otherness established by the royals’ behavior.

These ‘natural fools’ weren’t the only ones exposed to such ridicule. Even those suffering from disorders that medieval thinking considered to be treatable were sources of merriment for the neurotypical public. Mental illnesses of all sorts, usually reduced to the simple descriptor ‘madness,’ were thought to be diseases ‘of the body, not of the brain, which could be cured.’4 Unfortunately, the list of commonly recommended ‘cures’ included inducing bouts of diarrhea or vomiting, blistering the skin, cold baths, and a medieval physician favorite: bleeding of the veins. These therapies were usually administered at asylums for the treatment of mental illness, the most notorious of which was the infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital in London.

Established in 1247, for centuries Bethlem was a chaotic environment full of mentally ill patients abandoned by society and frequently made worse by the hospital’s treatments. Nicknamed Bedlam, giving us the word meaning a place of uproar and confusion, the asylum also became a popular attraction for tourists. ‘By the 1750s Bethlem was accepting tens of thousands of paying visitors a year,’ making it ‘second only to St Paul’s Cathedral in popularity.’4 For a small fee, just about anyone could enter Bethlem to taunt or laugh at the patients. Some of the more self-aware patients were even known to put on an exaggerated display of ‘madness’ for tips from delighted visitors. Here again, the concept of performance, particularly comedic, worked to separate the inmates with mental illness and the neurotypical tourists. The former, sequestered behind the walls of the asylum, were an exploited out-group used for entertainment by the dominant in-group.

A Rake’s Progress VIII: The Madhouse (1734); William Hogarth

One of the more famous depictions of this depraved sightseeing demonstrates the imposed sense of otherness. In A Rake’s Progress, a series of scenes painted by William Hogarth in the 1730s, the eighth and final painting portrays a variety of Bethlem patients.5 Some of these are clearly intended to be comical examples, such as the man at the far left who believes himself to be the pope. What looks most out of place, though, are two well-dressed ladies in the background, clearly amused and tittering to each other. Other than the main subject in the foreground (the ‘rake’ alluded to in the work’s title), these ladies are the most prominent feature of the painting, and both their manner of dress and their attitude highlight the fact that they feel separate from and above the squalor and suffering that surrounds them. They are here to enjoy an afternoon of sightseeing, treating the patients and their various mental illnesses as an immersive comedy show.

Even those with more enlightened sentiments were not immune to being humored by the patients at Bethlem. The English poet William Cowper, a noted abolitionist, once visited before the asylum stopped allowing paying visitors in the 1770s. In a letter written in 1784, he admits that the tourism practice was cruel before explaining his paradoxical feelings during the visit. ‘Though a boy, I was not altogether insensible of the misery of the poor captives…But the madness of some of them had such a humorous air…that it was impossible not to be entertained, at the same time that I was angry with myself for being so.’6 Clearly, one didn’t need to be filled with malicious intent to find humor in something that was maliciously set up to evoke it.

Interestingly, Cowper himself had endured multiple episodes of insanity in adulthood and had even been institutionalized while recovering (though he wasn’t exposed to conditions like those at Bethlem).7 As such, he was someone who experienced being on both sides of this established dichotomy that empowered neurotypical groups to treat those with mental illnesses and disabilities as abnormalities to be laughed at for entertainment. Could experiences like his actually be beneficial in working to dismantle the otherness imposed on those living with medical conditions by centuries of continued exploitation? In a follow-up piece to this article, I will explore this question and examine how humor has been used in literature and the performing arts to try erasing this boundary of otherness, just as it has been used to create it. After all, there is both a ‘laughing at’ and a ‘laughing with’ in comedy, and the ostracization that divisive humor creates can be opposed by the understanding that inclusive humor engenders.


1. Battle of Sluys. (n.d.). British Battles. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from https://www.britishbattles.com/one-hundred-years-war/battle-of-sluys/

2. Von Bernuth, R., Ph.D. (2006). ‘From Marvels of Nature to Inmates of Asylums: Imaginations of Natural Folly.’ Disability Studies Quarterly, 26(2). Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/697/874

3. Lipscomb, S. (2011). ‘All the King’s Fools.’ History Today, 61(8). Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.historytoday.com/archive/all-king%E2%80%99s-fools

4. Chambers, P. (2020, April). ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital: Why did the infamous Bedlam asylum have such a fearsome reputation?’ BBC History Revealed, (80). Retrieved November 29, 2020, from https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/bethlem-royal-hospital-history-why-called-bedlam-lunatic-asylum/

5. Hogarth, W. (1734). A Rake’s Progress VIII: The Madhouse [Painting found in Sir John Soane’s Museum, London]. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from http://collections.soane.org/object-p47

6. Cowper, W. (2014). The Works of William Cowper: His life, letters, and poems, now first completed by the introduction of Cowper’s private correspondence (T. S. Grimshawe, Ed.). Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/47790/47790-h/47790-h.htm

7. Taylor, T. (1834). The Life of William Cowper, Esq: Comp. from His Correspondence and Other Authentic Sources of Information; Containing Remarks on His Writings, and on the Peculiarities of His Interesting Character, Never Before Published. Key & Biddle. Retrieved December 06, 2020, from https://books.google.com/books?id=VZdKzQEACAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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