Attila’s Jester

“It seems extremely unlikely that Paleolithic Europe produced a stratified elite that just happened to consist largely of hunchbacks, giants and dwarfs.”

Davids Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything

“Don’t go to a mindreader, go to a palmist.

I know you have a palm.

Does your face hurt?

‘Cause it’s killing me.”

Scott Walker, “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)”

A shout out to Zerco, the lisping, double-hunchbacked Berber dwarf who, over the course of a few short years in the fifth century, served (literally, as the enslaved) personal jester for the most powerful military figure in the eastern Roman Empire (magistri militum Aspar), in the western empire (Flavius Aetius, who Gibbons called “The Last of the Romans”), and in the retinues of two Hunnic kings – the brothers Bleda and Attila.

Aspar bought Zerco on expedition in North Africa against the Vandals and lost him in the fog of war somewhere in Thrace. Zerco was captured by Huns led by Bleda, who liked the comedian well enough that he had a custom suit of armor made for him so they could ride everywhere together. He even married Zerco to one of his queen’s handmaidens to put an end to his escape attempts. When Bleda died (that is, when he was very likely killed during a hunt by Attila – an episode reflecting plenty of historical echoes; and a murder Zerco may well have witnessed, given his constant proximity to Bleda, or else which Attila suspected him of witnessing), Attila inherited the jester.

Whereas everyone else in Attila’s court is supposed to have found Zerco’s physical and macaronic humor hilarious – like, piss-themselves funny – Attila didn’t. In fact, people suspected he was scared of the little man. And given the earliest available pretext, Attila gave Zerco away – to Aetius, after terms regarding the matter of a botched hostage ransom, subsequent crucifixions, and some stolen, twice-sold treasure had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction (except Zerco’s, natch).

It isn’t clear whether Zerco ever realized that Aetius had been responsible for fomenting the North African revolt that Aspar was dispatched to quell when he bought the jester. Without any evidence to support my opinion, I suspect he did. Regardless, Aetius afterward had cause to re-gift Zerco back to Aspar in Constantinople – completing one giant circuit in a biographical spiral, and beginning the next, as political advisors of Attila on an embassy to the eastern empire, no doubt starving for laughter back home, persuaded Zerco to return to the Hunnic court (and to the wife and family he’d been torn away from). He was prepared to attach himself to a westward Roman embassy, but Attila told him to stay the fuck away.

Probably Zerco died in Constantinople, but no one knows for certain. There is an extraordinary bit of speculation about his eventual fate by oracular troubadour/30th-century man Scott Walker – a song described thus in Wikipedia:

“Zercon is the protagonist of SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter), a composition by singer-songwriter Scott Walker. The 21-minute song appears on his 2012 album Bish Bosch, and follows the jester’s attempts to escape the cruelty of Attila’s court by ascending through history, eventually becoming the titular brown dwarfstar and freezing to death.”

I listened to it yesterday on a long run along the bog paths of Hampstead Heath, past a 15-story concrete tower with the word “Midgard” emblazoned on it, past a boy spinning like a top in the rain, repeatedly chanting what might have been, “I’ve got gold. I’ve got titanium,” but sounded more like, “I’ve got gold. I’ve got Titania,” and I would highly recommend you too give it a chance. For Scott Walker’s sake, if not Zerco’s.

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