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2021.08.01 10:00

Dwarfs and jesters at the court of Lithuania's Vytautas the Great

Rimvydas Petrauskas, Orbis Lituaniae2021.08.01 10:00

The medieval ruler of Lithuania had a taste for pomp and populated his court with ‘exotic’ characters – like the ones he saw in German courts.

Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania (1392–1430), returned to Lithuania from the German Order in 1392, bringing with him a taste for a number of things he got used to during the five years there.

That was the period when he took part in raids against Lithuania with the Order’s knights and administered castles under his supervision. Additionally, he had a number of chances to meet nobles from Western Europe, many of whom would visit Prussia at that time.

The visitors included the Earl of Derby, the future King Henry IV of England, who arrived there with a large escort in 1390. It was that year that the English aristocrat added two Lithuanians to the exotic entourage of his court. During a raid on Vilnius he took part in together with Vytautas, the Earl of Derby paid one mark for the two men. This is attested to by an inscription in his book of travel expenses, alongside purchases of wax and nuts.

In European courts of the late Middle Ages, ‘pagan Lithuanians’ were probably treated just like strange people from other remote lands, such as Arabs or Africans.

Presumably, it was around that time that Vytautas developed his taste for a colourful courtly life with musicians, dwarfs, jesters and other “exotics” – the taste that would remain with him to the end of his days.

These were a marginal and mobile group at the court, while the grand dukes would often lend them or give them as presents. The Grand Master of the German Order would eagerly exchange them with Vytautas because, despite the long-lasting conflict between Lithuania and the German knights, they both belonged to the same world of nobles and shared a similar way of life.

In his letters to the Grand Master, Vytautas discussed features and jokes of his dwarfs and jesters in detail. Paul von Rusdorf, one of the Grand Masters, wrote to Vytautas in 1421, shortly before the latter invaded the Order’s territory together with the Polish troops:

“Your magnificence wrote to us about the dwarf, who is quite old now, a Russian, and does not speak Lithuanian; who, if we liked, you would send to us with pleasure. Dear Sir! As far as we have found out, a cleanly and honest dwarf lives with you at the moment, one who can ride a horse; we do not know whether You meant that one or any other. Still, whatever man Your Majesty sends to us, we will receive him with respect and gratitude.”

Vytautas responded to the appeal of the Grand Master. Several months later, the latter thanked Vytautas for two dwarfs that had reached his court in Marienburg “fresh and on time”.

Hene the Jester ‘knighted’ with a club

The court jester enjoyed a specific status among other “entertainers”, because he balanced between official ceremonials of the court and its marginals.

Jesters became common in the courts of European rulers in the 14th century. Soon the fashion reached the court of the Grand Masters. Vytautas most probably followed the example of the German Order when he chose an “official” jester for his court.

Historical sources have preserved his name for us – Pischer. But it is the other jester of the time that the sources write much more about.

While preparing for a far-off expedition to the lands of Rus, in 1427, Vytautas sent a special request to the Grand Master of the German Order asking him to permit his jester, Hene, who had visited Vytautas’ court a number of times, to take part in the raid.

In the beginning of the raid, Hene made a joke that pleased the Grand Duke so much that he wrote a letter to the Grand Master about that episode: “Vouchsafe to know that Hene the knight caught up with us in Krėva at the time of the raid which we had written to you about, and we are grateful for sending him to us."

“But he arrived dressed as a knight ready for a foray (hoffertig), so he wishes to look witty and smart, because we have knighted him, and he no longer wishes to be a jester or a joke maker," the letter reads.

“He tried to persuade us that once we have knighted him, we should no longer treat him as a jester. Then he threw away his jester clothes in disobedience after which we threatened him with a miss club [Vytautas was already old and ill]."

“[He finally decided] to be a knight in the mornings, smart and decent, and to perform jester duties in the evenings.”

During the same raid, Vytautas ordered “to make another jester costume with ears, pockets, etc for him”.

Turning the knightly ceremonial into a parody, Hene treated Vytautas’ club hit as a gesture bestowing knightfood on him – and asked for proper respect.

Hene was a clever jester. In addition to making jokes before Vytautas and his friends, he also wrote letters to the Grand Master to inform him about the raid.

Music

Music was an important part of the court culture of entertainment. Musicians used to travel from one court to another.

Vytautas, Jogaila and Švitrigaila used to send several categories of musicians, including trumpeters and pipers, to the court of the Grand Master.

In 1406, the Grand Master sent to Vytautas’ court an entire chapel led by one Pasternak to play at the celebration. In 1393, Jogaila sent to Vytautas his trumpeter, Heinze.

Musicians would entertain the Grand Duke as well as his escorts and guests during feasts; they would also take part in other ceremonial rituals within the court. One such example is trumpeters welcoming honourable guests.

Prestige of the medieval court

The colour and solemn nature of the courtly life reflects partly the individual inclinations of the ruler and also testifies to Vytautas' efforts to adhere to European standards befitting the court of a sovereign ruler.

That is why nobles from Europe would discover traditional forms of courtly and knightly culture within Vytautas’ court as well as standard structures and personalities, including residential castles, feasts, receptions, raids, heralds and jesters.

The story is part of the Orbis Lituaniae project by Vilnius University

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