Saturday, January 16, 2016

Feast of Fools

by Deborah Bogen

Before we leave January behind, let’s take a look at the Feast of Fools, an early medieval liturgical event, the understanding of which is controversial among both amateur medievalists and scholars. Contributing to the discord seems to be a never-clearly-voiced, but obvious assumption that there’s one answer to what the Feast of the Fools was, to how it was celebrated, and even to what it meant to officials of the church and their parishioners.

At a time when many people never ventured five miles from their place of birth, when travel was difficult at best and correspondence consequently unreliable, when local fiefdoms of various sorts were in constant flux and when much was not written down, it’s hard not to conclude there were likely substantial variations in the celebration of various church holy days. Since the Feast of Fools was one that elevated those not usually in power, the temptation to develop local custom might have been even greater than it was with liturgical events that were performed by the higher clergy.

So let’s take a look. Usually celebrated January 1st, the Feast of Fools was basically a day when subdeacons, usually under strict religious direction from their betters, were allowed to act as if they were the powers within a religious community. The biblical source for the practice is usually given as Corinthians 1:27 (In the King James version “But God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”) Some scholars also cite Corinthians 4:10 (to become a fool for Christ) and others note that Mary, Mother of God, said that God “has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble.”

In any case, on this day lower level clergy were temporarily elevated to the status of their betters, and high level clergy were for that time subject to them. Little direct documentation on the lowly duties the higher clergy were required to perform survives, but colorful versions of the day’s events are plentiful. Medieval art often shows the day as one where elaborate costumes and parades were employed. Sometimes men were dressed as women and versions of sacraments were enacted that included obscene songs or eating food from the altar. Accounts include descriptions of festival-like pageantry and a “Lord of Misrule” to oversee the festivities. One indication that this kind of festivity could be ribald and un-churchlike is a letter from Cardinal Odo, (papal legate to France in 1245) to the Chapter at Sens Cathedral directing that the feast be celebrated with no un-clerical dress and no wreaths of flowers. Claims that celebrations of the Feast of Fools were often rife with blasphemous extravagances is supported by widespread condemnation of the holy day by the Medieval church fathers. Scholars like Robert Grosstestes condemned the license of the proceedings in writing.

Max Harris in his fine book “Sacred Folly” tells us that the first complaints we have on the record occurred between 1198 and 1216. In 1198 when Lothar of Segni was elected Pope, he embraced an expansionist view of papal authority. This included shutting down various practices, including an attempt to stop or regulate the Feast of Fools. Eventually the practice was forbidden by various bodies, notably by the Council of Basil 1431 and by the theological faculty of the University of Paris in 1444. Severe penalties for unseemly practices were imposed.

Perhaps one take away message from the existence of the Feast – and the Church’s official and ultimately successful attempts to quash it – is that at this time much in the way of church practice and even liturgy was driven by local forces, that is, it came from the bottom up. However tempting it may be to view power as flowing downward from Pope to local priests, at least at the time of the Feast of Fools it looks like it often went the other way, or at least was a mixed stream with currents and eddies that were not clearly recorded. In addition, larger cathedrals were used for many purposes and Pope Innocent II’s most well-known tirade against the Feast was in a 1207 letter to the archbishop of Gniezno, Poland concerning the problem of married priests. Max Harris tells us that the Pope complained that the consequences of such laxity would be “theatrical entertainments” and “masked shows” and “scandalous stupidities” and “obscene revellings” among the lower clergy during the feasts “which follow directly after the Nativity.”

However sparse the documentation, a normal acquaintance with human nature inclines me to think that one important feature of the event may have been to simply allow those who lived under strict religious rule to blow off steam once a year. Probably it was rowdier in some parts of Europe, more decorous in others. Sexual misbehavior is sometimes alluded to and during this same period Confraternities of Fools erupted among those not consecrated within the priesthood. These organizations had parades and ceremonies that clearly intended parody of ordinary customs and behaviors and leaned to the burlesque.

In any case the idea of being a “fool” was double-edged, sometimes meaning one was unwise in the ways of God and man, and sometimes meaning almost the reverse, i.e., that you were a “fool for Christ” and entirely devoted to Jesus’s teachings.

You may be familiar with Victor Hugo’s use of a Feast of Fools in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I understand his desire to record this colorful event. A similar church occurrence in the early middle ages was called Boy Bishop Day. Also occurring mid-winter, privileges were afforded to the boys who lived within church communities and were largely expected to take up the priesthood. I found it impossible to resist using the event in The Hounds of God. Imagine the fun you’d have if, for one day, you could lord it over the very priests who could normally keep you kneeling on cold stone for hours, assign you the job of feeding the pigs or put you in charge of latrine clean-up.


Deborah Bogen is a poet with three prize-winning collections. She's new to the art of the historical novel. Her first book in this genre, "The Witch of Leper Cove," brings the 13th century to life through the struggle of a small community to save their healer, Alice of Aldinoch, from the Inquisition's "soul-saving" attentions. The second book in the Aldinoch series, "The Hounds of God," is in process and should be out next year.

Deborah's website 
Deborah's Amazon Author Page
The Witch of Leper Cove


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Really "Imagine the fun you’d have if, for one day, you could lord it over the very priests who could normally keep you kneeling on cold stone for hours, assign you the job of feeding the pigs or put you in charge of latrine clean-up. " are you that much of a non-conformist?

  2. What an interesting feast. In some convents, this is still celebrated as the day to be a fool for Christ. Nothing outlandish as it used to be but just as a chance to laugh at one's self.

  3. The only other time I have heard of Boy Bishops was a post here by Lauren Johnson about the Twelve Days of Christmas during Henry VII's reign. The appropriate part said,

    Boy Bishops paraded and preached across the country, either on St. Nicholas’ Day (6 December) or the Feast of Holy Innocents (28 December). Both dates were associated with children in a typically morbid medieval fashion: St. Nicholas had saved young women from lives of prostitution by giving them dowries, and he raised a bunch of beheaded boys from the dead. Holy Innocents is the anniversary of Herod’s massacre of children under the age of two.
    Boy Bishops appear everywhere from Exeter to York and Norwich to Gloucester.
    In Oxford four colleges sponsored a Boy Bishop in the 15th century and in 1508-9 Lincoln College paid six pence to ‘St. Nicholas' clerk’.
    In Louth, Lincolnshire, the Boy Bishop received six pence for his service on Holy Innocents.
    For visiting the Earl of Northumberland’s home and delivering a sermon the ‘Bairn Bishop’ of either Beverley or York (bairn being northern dialect for child) received a whopping 20 shillings.
    At St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, the Boy Bishop got supper on the eve of Holy Innocents, and was loaned a horse, entertained on Innocents’ day, then permitted to stay up late. He was dressed in clothes befitting the high status of a real bishop, with mitre, crozier and bejeweled robes, in which he delivered a sermon on the feast day of Holy Innocents.
    Beyond Lords of Misrule and Boy Bishops (or Girl Abbesses) the Christmas season saw music and plays erupting throughout the country. A number of towns maintained musicians or ‘waits’ to perform during such periods.

    So that is how it evolved in England. I wonder if anyone but nuns have the courage to do something today?


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