Fools have a long history and they have not always been associated with the Morris, (or with the Beasts).
Indeed many fools still have no association with the dance and have their own comic scene and even competitions. http://www.muncaster.co.uk/festival.htm for example. They are comic performers, close to CLOWNS.
On this site we are concerned with the "Morris Related" characters known by the general term FOOLS
They come in many forms, the Gentleman Fool, the Jester, the Motley Fool, the Steward, the Green Man, (a mysterious character found in churches and cathedrals throughout the land), and, more recently, equivalent Lady Fools.
The Betty, (a man-woman), may be an import from early plays or ceremonies, including Mummers, or possibly a May (or Maid) Marion figure. Molly is the man Woman character associated with the East Anglian "Molly Dancing" tradition.
Man-Woman characters have a long
history, including the portrayal of Beelzebub, (The devil), in Mummers Plays.
Even "Pantomime Dames" and "Bearded Ladies probably have similar roots. It should be noted that these characters are not drag acts as those who play them never use female makeup and often have loud voices and beards.
Fools have many ancestors, including Court Jesters, Punchinello, the Wandering Minstrel and the Village Idiot, (who may even have been elected as the "Lord of Misrule"). Shakespeare portrays them in several plays.
Over the centuries these characters have developed and merged to the extent that it is virtually impossible to categorize them or trace their ancestry. Each fool develops his character to suit his talents and personality, which gives us a rich tapestry of styles.
As they often appeared in local festivals, as Masters of Ceremony or entertainers in their own right, they were linked with other local entertainment including Morris dancing. Hence, they became integrated into the local folk scene and, over the ages, have become an integral part of the Morris.
Their roles are manifold, but in all cases they provide a link with the audience. Perhaps to make the announcements, maybe to give quiet explanations to individuals, possibly to chivvy up the dancers with their pigs bladder, cows tail, or bauble. They may provide an entertainment between the dances as mimes, jugglers, conjurers, musicians, or comics. However, the line between acting as a fool and becoming a Street Entertainer is a fine one.
The Morris fool is there to support the dancers, not to upstage them.
Many an hour has been spent at 'Unconventions' discussing the merits of fools and fooling . Indeed, it was the stupid activities of some 'self created' fools, who were spoiling the dancing, that led the founders to create the Fools Union. These "Bloody Fools" thought that they were the stars of the show and detracted from the skills and traditions of the dancers. Hopefully, this has improved recently, but one individual, who managed to spoil peoples enjoyment at a Ring Meeting, was spoken to by the Order and the errors of his ways explained!