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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Feast of Fools

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FEAST OF FOOLS (Lat. festum stultorum, fatuorum, follorum, Fr. fete des fous ), the name for certain burlesque quasi-religious festivals which, during the middle ages, were the ecclesiastical counterpart of the secular revelries of the Lord of Misrule. The celebrations are directly traceable to the pagan Saturnalia of ancient Rome, which in spite of the conversion of the Empire to Christianity, and of the denunciation of bishops and ecclesiastical councils, continued to be celebrated by the people on the Kalends of January with all their old licence. The custom, indeed, so far from dying out, was adopted by the barbarian conquerors and spread among the Christian Goths in Spain, Franks in Gaul, Alemanni in Germany, and Anglo-Saxons in Britain. So late as the 11th century Bishop Burchard of Worms thought it necessary to fulminate against the excesses connected with it (Decretum, xix. c. 5, Migne, Patrologia lat. 140, p. 965). Then, just as it appears to have been sinking into oblivion among the people, the clergy themselves gave it the character of a specific religious festival. Certain days seem early to have been set apart as special festivals for different orders of the clergy: the feast of St Stephen (December 26) for the deacons, St John's day (December 27) for the priests, Holy Innocents' Day for the boys, and for the sub-deacons Circumcision, the Epiphany, or the 11th of January. The Feast of Holy Innocents became a regular festival of children, in which a boy, elected by his fellows of the choir school, functioned solemnly as bishop or archbishop, surrounded by the elder choir-boys as his clergy, while the canons and other clergy took the humbler seats. At first there is no evidence to prove that these celebrations were characterized by any specially indecorous behaviour; but in the 12th century such behaviour had become the rule. In 1180 Jean Beleth, of the diocese of Amiens, calls the festival of the sub-deacons festum stultorum (Migne, Patrol. lat. 202, p. 79).

The burlesque ritual which characterized the Feast of Fools throughout the middle ages was now at its height. A young sub-deacon was elected bishop, vested in the episcopal insignia (except the mitre) and conducted by his fellows to the sanctuary. A mock mass was begun, during which the lections were read cum farsia, obscene songs were sung and dances performed, cakes and sausages eaten at the altar, and cards and dice played upon it.

This burlesquing of things universally held sacred, though condemned by serious-minded theologians, conveyed to the child-like popular mind of the middle ages no suggestion of contempt, though when belief in the doctrines and rites of the medieval Church was shaken it became a ready instrument in the hands of those who sought to destroy them. Of this kind of retribution Scott in The Abbot gives a vivid picture, the Protestants interrupting the mass celebrated by the trembling remnant of the monks in the ruined abbey church, and insisting on substituting the traditional Feast of Fools.

This naive temper of the middle ages is nowhere more conspicuously displayed than in the Feast of the Ass, which under various forms was celebrated in a large number of churches throughout the West. The ass had been introduced into the ritual of the church in the 9th century, representing either Balaam's ass, that which stood with the ox beside the manger at Bethlehem, that which carried the Holy Family into Egypt, or that on which Christ rode in triumph into Jerusalem. Often the ass was a mere incident in the Feast of Fools; but sometimes he was the occasion of a special festival, ridiculous enough to modern notions, but by no means intended in an irreverent spirit. The three most notable celebrations of the Feast of the Ass were at Rouen, Beauvais and Sens. At Rouen the feast was celebrated on Christmas Day, and was intended to represent the times before the coming of Christ. The service opened with a procession of Old Testament characters, prophets, patriarchs and kings, together with heathen prophets, including Virgil, the chief figure being Balaam on his ass. The ass was a hollow wooden effigy, within which a priest capered and uttered prophecies. The procession was followed, inside the church, by a curious combination of ritual office and mystery play, the text of which, according to the Ordo processionis asinorum secundum Rothomagensem usum, is given in Du Cange.

Far more singular was the celebration at Beauvais, which was held on the 14th of January, and represented the flight into Egypt. A richly caparisoned ass, on which was seated the prettiest girl in the town holding in her arms a baby or a large doll, was escorted with much pomp from the cathedral to the church of St Etienne. There the procession was received by the priests, who led the ass and its burden to the sanctuary. Mass was then sung; but instead of the ordinary responses to the Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, &c., the congregation chanted "Hinham" (Hee-haw) three times. The rubric of the mass for this feast actually runs: In fine Missae Sacerdos versus ad populum vice, Ite missa est, Hinhannabit: populus vero vice, Deo Gratias, ter respondebit Hinham, Hinham, Hinham (At the close of the mass the priest turning to the people instead of saying, Ite missa est, shall bray thrice: the people, instead of Deo gratias, shall thrice respond Hee-haw, Hee-haw, Hee-haw).

At Sens the Feast of the Ass was associated with the Feast of Fools, celebrated at Vespers on the Feast of Circumcision. The clergy went in procession to the west door of the church, where two canons received the ass, amid joyous chants, and led it to the precentor's table. Bizarre vespers followed, sung falsetto and consisting of a medley of extracts from all the vespers of the year. Between the lessons the ass was solemnly fed, and at the conclusion of the service was led by the precentor out into the square before the church (conductus ad ludos); water was poured on the precentor's head, and the ass became the centre of burlesque ceremonies, dancing and buffoonery being carried on far into the night, while the clergy and the serious-minded retired to matins and bed.

Various efforts were made during the middle ages to abolish the Feast of Fools. Thus in 1198 the chapter of Paris suppressed its more obvious indecencies; in 1210 Pope Innocent III. forbade the feasts of priests, deacons and sub-deacons altogether; and in 1246 Innocent IV. threatened those who disobeyed this prohibition with excommunication. How little effect this had, however, is shown by the fact that in 1265 Odo, archbishop of Sens, could do no more than prohibit the obscene excesses of the feast, without abolishing the feast itself; that in 1444 the university of Paris, at the request of certain bishops, addressed a letter condemning it to all cathedral chapters; and that King Charles VII. found it necessary to order all masters in theology to forbid it in collegiate churches. The festival was, in fact, too popular to succumb to these efforts, and it survived throughout Europe till the Reformation, and even later in France; for in 1645 Mathurin de Neure complains in a letter to Pierre Gassendi of the monstrous fooleries which yearly on Innocents' Day took place in the monastery of the Cordeliers at Antibes. "Never did pagans," he writes, "solemnize with such extravagance their superstitious festivals as do they .... The laybrothers, the cabbage-cutters, those who work in the kitchen ... occupy the places of the clergy in the church. They don the sacerdotal garments, reverse side out. They hold in their hands books turned upside down, and pretend to read through spectacles in which for glass have been substituted bits of orange-peel." See B. Picart, Ceremonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples (1723); du Tilliot, Memoires pour servir d l'histoire de la fête des Fous (Lausanne, 1741); Aime Cherest, Nouvelles recherches sur la fête des Innocents et la fete des Fous Bans plusieurs eglises et notamnzent dans celle de Sens (Paris, 1853); Schneegans in Miiller's Zeitschrift fur deutsche Kulturgeschichte (1858); H. Wilmer, art. "Narrenfest" in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklop. (ed. 1903); Du Cange, Glossarium (ed. 1884), s.v. " Festum Asinorum."

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Feast of Fools'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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