The 16th-Century Court Jester Whose Wit Saved His Life

The history and literature of European royal courts are littered with comedically-gifted jesters, but no court entertainer was as quick-witted as Nicolas Ferrial — also known as “Triboulet.” He served in French courts, inspired the works of Victor Hugo, and even saved his own life with a particularly cunning display of his talent. While Triboulet took his work seriously, he often took things too far. He made his most harrowing mistake during the reign of King Francis I. In an attempt to lighten the mood, he slapped the king on his rear. The monarch wanted Triboulet executed but offered him the chance to apologize. Instead, the jester dug himself even deeper, and the king ordered him killed. After reflecting on the jester’s dutiful service, King Francis offered him the choice of how he wished to die. Triboulet gave a retort so amusing it inspired famous works of literature and opera and made him a legend. His response marked the most memorable act of his life: “Good sire, for Saint Nitouche’s and Saint Pansard’s sake, patrons of insanity, I choose to die from old age.” Remarkably, the king found this so humorous that he granted Triboulet banishment instead of death. He died of old age in the French countryside in 1536.