rigmarole (n.) 1736, “a long, rambling discourse,” from an altered, Kentish colloquial survival of ragman roll “long list or catalogue” (1520s), in Middle English a long roll of verses descriptive of personal characters, used in a medieval game of chance called Rageman, perhaps from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon “Ragemon the good,” which was the heading on one set of the verses, referring to a character by that name. Sense transferred to “foolish activity or commotion” by 1939.
This seems a disjoined and circuitous etymological evolution – a lot of rigmarole if you ask me. As with many early words, the meaning attached to the word migrated completely from its original sense. As it turns out, however, there is some sense behind this migration. Rageman le Bon is Bodleian ms. Digby 86, a late fourteenth-century book of courtly games, the kind of ludic entertainments courtiers indulged in while carefully navigating the more serious game of personal advancement in the service of the prince. Such advancement really did require a lot of ‘rigmarole’, as distinct from court protocols.
Why the sense of the word changed to “foolish activity or commotion” by the late 1930s is a little more difficult to determine, aside from a growing perception, over time, of the utter uselessness of chivalric games and court politics in an increasingly prosaic and more ‘classless’ world (irony intended). Outdated formal or even informal protocols gradually came to be regarded as a lot of stuff and nonsense, the first use of which phrase is recorded in, perhaps appropriately, British parliamentary debate, and printed in The Times,June 1827:
“He [Mr. Pitt] had at once to declare, that all notions of concerting and of dictating to the King in the exercise of his prerogative, was mere stuff and nonsense.”