Fools and Folly, Part 3 – Motley

Patchface shuffled his feet in a grotesque dance step. . . At Eastwatch someone had sewn him a motley cloak of beaver pelts, sheepskins, and rabbit fur. His hat sported antlers hung with bells and long brown flaps of squirrel fur that hung down over his ears. Every step he took set him to ringing. . .the cowbells on his antlered hat and the motley tattooed across his puffy cheeks made him hard to overlook.

–George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons



  1. A combination of different colours.
  2. A parti-coloured effect.
  3. The parti-coloured garment of a jester.
  4. A heterogeneous assemblage.
  5. A medley.


  1. Exhibiting great diversity of elements.
  2. Being of different colours combined.
  3. Motley-minded: Having the mind of a fool; incoherent, impractical, foolish.


On with the motley: Prepare for a stage performance.

The meaning of Columbine in the Language of Flowers is "fool"

The meaning of Columbine in the Language of Flowers is “fool”

When Shakespeare wrote, “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest, A motley fool; a miserable world!” (As You Like It, Act II. Scene VII, The Forest), he probably meant a fool dressed in motley, but later in the play, the description, “This is the motley-minded gentleman that I have so often met in the forest: he hath been a courtier, he swears.” (Act V. Scene 4, Another part of the Forest) refers to a man with the mind of a fool; a foolish man. So, it seems that a “motley fool” could be a foolish fool, regardless of his mode of dress.

The word [motley] originated in England between the 14th and 17th centuries and referred to a woolen fabric of mixed colors. It was the characteristic dress of the professional fool. During the reign of Elizabeth I, motley served the important purpose of keeping the fool outside the social hierarchy and therefore not subject to class distinction. Since the fool was outside the dress laws (sumptuary law), the fool was able to speak more freely.

–“Motley”, Wikipedia

Sumptuary laws were designed to regulate habits, especially on moral or religious grounds, to restrict the wearing of luxurious fabrics or styles of clothing by social class or even to eliminate the use of certain luxury goods altogether. Such laws existed in various places and times, including ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, Elizabethan England and America during colonial times.

A 1651 Massachusetts law restricts any person whose estates does not exceed £200 pounds from wearing “any gold or silver lace, or gold and silver buttons, or any bone lace above 2s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, upon the penalty of 10s.  for every such offense.” –Margaret Wood, Sumptuary Laws

Such laws have also been used to force groups of people to identify themselves by wearing particular items or styles of clothing: Canon 68 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear distinctive clothing. In much of Europe, Jews were required to wear the a yellow badge. Muslims were required to wear a crescent-shaped patch or Eastern dress.

At times, prostitutes and courtesans have been required to wear particular clothing, such as striped garments, to identify them. At other times, they have been exempted from clothing restrictions so that they were allowed to wear finery which could increase the profitability of their profession, in spite of the usual restriction of such finery to nobility.

The placement of the fool outside of sumptuary law, allowing the fool to dress as he pleased and speak as he pleased–even in front of royalty–is a tantalizing prospect. It makes me think about becoming elderly and behaving in a foolish manner as described in the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph (the entire poem is reprinted here):

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

"Columbine and Motley", drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 8″ x 12″

“Columbine and Motley”, drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 8″ x 12″


25 thoughts on “Fools and Folly, Part 3 – Motley

  1. Lots of personal resonance in this for me, so I enjoyed it even more than usual.

    We re-watched Kenneth Brannagh’s “As You Like It” not long ago, so when I began reading “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest” in my mind’s eye Kevin Kline very obligingly appeared speaking the part. That was fun.

    And then — my daughter was a Renaissance Faire player when she was in high school, and I went with her to some of the extensive training provided — that’s where I first learned of sumptuary laws. RenFaire said the rules weren’t exactly to forbid “dressing up”; more a tax on the nouveau riche to the elite: a noble could demand instant payment from an upstart, and must be paid. So if several nobles lined up as you walked to the party, it could be a very expensive walk and perhaps a humiliation.

    And finally — when we got home last week from travels, I found our garden very motley indeed but splattered with columbine.


    • Oh! I remember going to a Renaissance Faire in Marin County in 1968 or so. It was delightful. Interesting story about sumptuary law: it could certainly spoil a party to encounter a greeting party like that!

      Yes, it’s a terrible shock to come back from a vacation and see the wild state of the garden. It doesn’t take very long, either. Abundant flowers are the consolation prize.


  2. I had little knowledge about rules of dress. Very interesting. “Columbine and Motley”, is a wonderful piece, windows into many moments of experience but cohesive and complimentary to each as well.


  3. I love the point you are making about the random nature of columbine. They are very free and don’t like to follow rules, that’s for sure. Out of all the garden plants, my favorites are always the weedy ones. I like surprises.


  4. In your fine post I loved the idea that ‘clothes make the man,’ but not any more. Some days we may all be motley – other days see us prim and proper. So What! It’s about the joy of being free and creatively responsive to what we and others may wish for at a particular time. Columbine and Motley is superb.


    • You’re right: we do have the opportunity to dress the way we’re feeling at the moment, and to express our feelings in that way. I’m happy to hear you like the print.


    • I enjoyed learning about these things, as well. The idea of the fool being “outside the rules” echoes Picasso’s use of the harlequin as a representation of the artist as “estranged bohemian outcast”.


    • It’s been fun for me researching this subject. An interesting thought, dressing by profession, though there would have to be quite a bit of leeway for it to be bearable. You wouldn’t want all the gardeners dressed in identical blue overalls, with polka dot scarves and straw hats. Come to think of it, the gardeners might be mistaken for scarecrows! Present company excepted, of course.


  5. How entertaining! maybe we should have dress laws again – we could distinguish the many ‘professional’ fools that are walking around :0
    Like it all! did you use the peacock eyes with a purpose/symbol or just part of the motley?


    • Ah, the peacock paper. There are several shops in town who carry these decorative papers, and I always have a look when I drop in. I bought one piece of this wonderful Italian paper about two months ago and began using it with gay abandon. Now, I can’t seem to find any more of it. 😦


  6. How interesting! Didin’t know that the poor columbine has not only a grandmother image but also means a fool. Poor thing as it’s such a delightful creature!


    • What a lovely description: “like stained glass”. I am absolutely hooked on chine-collé because of the glowing colours that are possible with (don’t tell anyone) very little effort.


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