The prior of Durham Priory was, for much of the medieval period, a very powerful religous figure who guided the monastery with the piety and seriousness required by the Benedictine Rule. However, this doesn’t mean that, on occasion, he wasn’t open to some levity: we have records of Durham priors employing professional fools (jesters, ‘fatui’, or the like), for example, in the Priory Bursar’s accounts.
In 1330-1 we first find expenses for the provision of garments for Thomas Fatuus (or ‘Fole’), who seems to be a favourite of the prior William de Cowton. Thomas received gifts from the prior including regular provision of sotulares (shoes or slippers), which cease after 1339-40 and may suggest that in the earlier years of his service to the Prior he was a dancing fool. Under the subsequent prior, John Fossor, there are expenses for Thomas’ burial in 1356-7.
Whilst there are no further references to fools in the Durham records, it seems the prior still desired some form of entertainment: just a few years later, in a facinating entry to the Bursar’s account for 1360-1, Prior Fossor apparently bought himself a monkey!:
In vna simia empta apud Eboracum pro domino Priore — xxxj.s.*
(In [expense] for a monkey/ape bought from York for the Prior — 31 shillings)
Whether or not this monkey was trained to perform it is impossible to say, but – coming so close after the death of his beloved fool – it is certainly a telling, expensive purchase!
Detail from a full border of a monkey looking at itself in a mirror, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 270. See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/04/monkeys-in-the-margins.html#sthash.4h3ieMBc.dpuf.http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk
* Found in the Durham Priory Bursar’s Account, 1360-61 (11th November – 16th May), DUL, mb4v.