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Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Clown History:

Early Female Clowns

by: Bruce Johnson

The stereotype many people have is that women have not been a part of clown history until recently. The opposite is the truth. Periods of history where there were no female clowns are rare.

Dorian Mimes

The first documented professional entertainers are the comic (clown) characters of the Dorian Mimes who started performing in ancient Greece during the seventh century BC. Although called mimes they were not silent actors. Their name came from their ability to mimic others. The Dorian Mime troupes included women who played the female clown roles. The clown tradition started by the Dorian Mimes lasted in Europe for at least a thousand years, and formed the foundation of most Greek and Roman classical theater.


In Medieval England, itinerant male clowns were called Gleemen. Many of them worked in partnership with a "glee-maiden", a female clown who was a skilled musician, dancer, and acrobat. Glee-maiden's also worked on their own or as an assistant to male troubadours burlesquing his skill.


Some of the itenerate entertainers were hired by royal courts or upper-class nobility and became jesters. There were many female jesters or fools. According to Dana Fradon, in King's Fool, "In medieval days buffoonery was one of the few professions open to women.

The wife of Seneca, a great Roman philosopher, retained a female fool.

The most famous female jester was Mathurine, a seventeenth century jester who presided at the French court during the reigns three kings Henry III, Henry IV, and Louis XIII. Her costume was that of an Amazon warrior, including long flowing robes, armor, shield, and wooden sword. She was described as being pugnacious and outspoken. During her lifetime, satirists called themselves a Mathurine, and a specific type of burlesque writing is called mathurinade because it was associated with her style of comedy. 

When Mathurine was accompanying a lady of the court to an audience with the king, the woman turned to her and angrily said, "I don't like having a fool on my right side."

Quickly moving to the woman's other side, Mathurine said, "I don't mind it at all." (This joke would later be adapted for use by nineteenth century clowns and ringmasters.)

Mathurine was deeply religious. Some knights dedicated their swords to God, and Mathurine dedicated her marotte, a jester's wand, to God. Mathurine was known for her bravery. She helped capture a man who tried to assassinate King Henry IV by blocking the doorway of the king's chambers so he couldn't escape. 

Commedia Del Arte

The Commedia Del Arte, which dominated European Theater from the sixteenth through eighteenth century, also had female clowns. The Commedia Del Arte characters were divided into three categories, the young lovers, the masters, and the servants called the zanni. The masters and servants were clown characters. The zanni instigated most of the action of the plot. Each troupe generally had three zanni, a clever male rogue, his dimwitted male victim, and a female. She participated in the intrigues of the main story, and a subplot involved a love interest between her and one of the male servants. Most of the male zanni characters had female counterparts. For example, Harlequina was the female version of Harlequin. There were also zanni characters that were exclusively female. These female zanni included Columbine, Franceschina, and Smeraldina.

Commedia Del Arte served as the foundation for theatrical comedy. Many of the first comic plays created in Europe were based upon earlier Commedia Del Arte scenarios with characters based on the stock Commedia Del Arte characters. 

English Pantomime

The Commedia Del Arte was also the foundation of the English Pantomime that flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Three Commedia Del Arte characters were incorporated into the English Pantomime becoming stock characters. These three were Pantaloon, Harlequin, and Columbine. Other Commedia Del Arte characters were also sometimes used. 

Late in the eighteenth century, a fourth stock character, the whiteface clown, was added to the English Pantomime. Joseph Grimaldi, the father of modern clowning, made the Whiteface Clown the dominant character in the pantomimes beginning in 1800. In his performances, he worked with female clowns playing the supporting role of Columbine. So leading up to the modern era of clowning, women were very much a part of clown history.

Reprinted from: The Clown In Times Volume Six Issue Three.

Copyright 2000 by Bruce Johnson, All rights reserved.

Information On The Clown In Times, and other publications, by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson


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