The Feast of Fools, known also as the festum fatuorum, festum stultorum, festum hypodiaconorum, or fête des fous, are the varying names given to popular medieval festivals regularly celebrated by the clergy and laity from the fifth century until the sixteenth century in several countries of Europe, principally France, but also Spain, Germany, England, and Scotland. A similar celebration was the Feast of Asses.
The central idea seems always to have been a brief social revolution, in which power, dignity and impunity is briefly conferred on those in a subordinate position. In the view of some, this makes the medieval festival a successor to the Roman Saturnalia.
In the medieval version the young people, who played the chief parts, chose from among their own number a mock pope, archbishop, bishop, or abbot to reign as Lord of Misrule. Participants would then "consecrate" him with many ridiculous ceremonies in the chief church of the place, giving names such as Archbishop of Dolts, Abbot of Unreason, Boy Bishop, or Pope of Fools. The protagonist could be a boy bishop or subdeacon, while at the Abbey of St Gall in the tenth century, a student each December 13 enacted the part of the abbot. In any case the parody tipped dangerously towards the profane. The ceremonies often mocked the performance of the highest offices of the church, while other persons, dressed in different kinds of masks and disguises, engaged in songs and dances and practiced all manner of revelry within the church building.
In the Middle Ages, particularly in France, the Feast of Fools was staged on or about the Feast of the Circumcision, January 1. It is difficult, if not quite impossible, to distinguish it from certain other similar celebrations, such, for example, as the Feast of Asses, and the enthronement of the Boy Bishop. So far as the Feast of Fools had an independent existence, it seems to have grown out of a special "festival of the subdeacons", which John Beleth, a liturgical writer of the twelfth century and an Englishman by birth, assigns to the day of the Circumcision. He is among the earliest to draw attention to the fact that, as the deacons had a special celebration on St Stephen's day December 26, the priests on St John the Evangelist's day December 27, and again the choristers and mass-servers on that of Holy Innocents December 28, so the subdeacons were accustomed to hold their feast about the same time of year, but more particularly on the festival of the Circumcision. This feast of the subdeacons afterwards developed into the feast of the lower clergy (esclaffardi), and was later taken up by certain brotherhoods or guilds of "fools" with a definite organization of their own.
The feast of fools was an imitation of the Roman Saturnalia, and, like that festival, was also celebrated in December. There can be little doubt that medieval censors commonly took it that the license and buffoonery which marked this occasion had their origin in pagan customs of very ancient date. John Beleth, when he discusses these matters, entitles his chapter "De quadam libertate Decembrica", and goes on to explain: "now the license which is then permitted is called Decembrian, because it was customary of old among the pagans that during this month slaves and serving-maids should have a sort of liberty given them, and should be put upon an equality with their masters, in celebrating a common festivity." (Migne, Patrologia Latina 202: 123).
The Feast of Fools and the almost blasphemous extravagances in some instances associated with it were constantly the object of sweeping condemnations of the medieval Church. On the other hand, some Catholic writers have thought it necessary to try to deny the existence of such abuses. Perhaps the truth lies in the interpretation that while there can be no question that Church authorities of the caliber of Robert Grosseteste repeatedly condemned the license of the Feast of Fools in the strongest terms, such firmly rooted customs took centuries to eradicate. It is certain that the practice lent itself to serious abuses, whose nature and gravity varied at different epochs. It should be said that among the thousands of European liturgical manuscripts the occurrence of anything which has to do with the Feast of Fools is extraordinarily rare. It never occurs in the principal liturgical books, the missals and breviaries. There are traces occasionally in a prose or a trope found in a gradual or an antiphonary. It would therefore seem there was little official approval for such extravagances, which were rarely committed to writing.
With a view to checking the abuses committed in the celebration of the Feast of Fools on New Year's Day at Notre Dame de Paris in the twelfth century, the celebration was not entirely banned, but the part of the "Lord of Misrule" or "Precentor Stultorum" was restrained, so that he was to be allowed to intone the prose "Laetemur gaudiis", and to wield the precentor's staff, but this before the first Vespers of the feast, not during it. During the second Vespers, it had been the custom that the precentor of the fools should be deprived of his staff when the verse in the Magnificat, Deposuit potentes de sede ("He has put down the mighty from their seat") was sung. Hence the feast was hence often known as the "Festum `Deposuit'". Eudes de Sully allowed the staff to be taken at that point from the mock precentor, but laid down that the verse "Deposuit" not be repeated more than five times. There was a similar case of a legitimized Feast of Fools at Sens about 1220, where the whole text of the office has survived. There are many proses and interpolations (farsurae) added to the ordinary liturgy, but nothing much unseemly. This prose or conductus, was not a part of the office, but only a preliminary to Vespers. In 1245 Cardinal Odo, the papal legate in France, wrote to the Chapter of Sens Cathedral demanding that the feast be celebrated with no un-clerical dress and no wreaths of flowers.
The Feast of Fools was finally forbidden under the very severest penalties by the Council of Basel in 1431 and a strongly-worded document issued by the theological faculty of the University of Paris in 1444; numerous decrees of provincial councils followed. The Feast of Fools was roundly condemned by early Protestants, and among Catholics it seems that the abuse had largely disappeared by the time of the Council of Trent, though instances of festivals of this kind survived in France as late as 1644.
Victor Hugo recreated a picturesque account of a Feast of Fools, in which Quasimodo serves as King of Fools, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831).
- Cox, Harvey Gallagher, 1969. The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy (William Belden Noble Lectures) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) ISBN 0674295250
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