Sacred Folly

Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools

Max Harris
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7z9wb
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  • Book Info
    Sacred Folly
    Book Description:

    For centuries, the Feast of Fools has been condemned and occasionally celebrated as a disorderly, even transgressive Christian festival, in which reveling clergy elected a burlesque Lord of Misrule, presided over the divine office wearing animal masks or women's clothes, sang obscene songs, swung censers that gave off foul-smelling smoke, played dice at the altar, and otherwise parodied the liturgy of the church. Afterward, they would take to the streets, howling, issuing mock indulgences, hurling manure at bystanders, and staging scurrilous plays. The problem with this popular account-intriguing as it may be- is that it is wrong.

    In Sacred Folly, Max Harris rewrites the history of the Feast of Fools, showing that it developed in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (1 January)-serving as a dignified alternative to rowdy secular New Year festivities. The intent of the feast was not mockery but thanksgiving for the incarnation of Christ. Prescribed role reversals, in which the lower clergy presided over divine office, recalled Mary's joyous affirmation that God "has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble." The "fools" represented those chosen by God for their lowly status.

    The feast, never widespread, was largely confined to cathedrals and collegiate churches in northern France. In the fifteenth century, high-ranking clergy who relied on rumor rather than firsthand knowledge attacked and eventually suppressed the feast. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians repeatedly misread records of the feast; their erroneous accounts formed a shaky foundation for subsequent understanding of the medieval ritual. By returning to the primary documents, Harris reconstructs a Feast of Fools that is all the more remarkable for being sanctified rather than sacrilegious.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6161-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. Prologue: A Letter from Paris
    (pp. 1-8)

    On 12 March 1445 the faculty of theology at the University of Paris issued a letter to the prelates and chapters of France.¹ We feel compelled, they wrote, “to describe how much we abhor and how much we execrate a certain kind of ritual of merriment, which is called by its organizers the Feast of Fools.” The origins of the feast, the theologians insisted, lay in ancient pagan rites of the kind condemned long ago by the apostle Paul and the blessed Saint Augustine. The Kalends of January were an especially potent influence. By the cunning plans of demons, the...

  7. Part I. Before the Feast of Fools

    • Chapter 1 The Kalends of January
      (pp. 11-24)

      The fifteenth-century Parisian theologians were right in one regard: the history of the Feast of Fools begins with the Kalends of January.

      In ancient Rome, the first day of each month was known as the kalendae ( Kalends). After 153 BCE, when the date on which new consuls took office was fixed at 1 January, the Kalends of January ushered in not merely a new month but a new political and calendar year.¹ Civic rituals included a solemn procession of the two new consuls to the Senate, where each sacrificed a bull to Jupiter and where, too, under the empire,...

    • Chapter 2 The Holy City of Byzantium
      (pp. 25-31)

      Not all Kalends activities were subject to the disapproval of those in power. In a few cases, if the historical records can be trusted, those at the top of the prevailing civil and ecclesiastical hierarchies took part themselves. The Byzantine Empire provides us with two possible examples. The first concerns a young emperor who led his friends in public mockeries of the liturgy. The second involves an even younger patriarch who introduced scandalous songs and dances to the divine office. Faced with these reports, some scholars have erroneously suggested that the Feast of Fools began in Constantinople.¹

      Tenth-century Byzantine historians...

    • Chapter 3 Roman Games
      (pp. 32-40)

      A more reliable account of Kalends activities in high places reaches us from papal Rome in the early twelfth century. Sometime between 1140 and 1143, Benedict, a canon of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome, compiled his Liber politicus. This miscellaneous collection of materials contains an ordinal; a brief history of the papacy; and a regionary, cataloguing processional routes through the ancient city.¹ One of the appendices to the ordinal gives an account of several outdoor ceremonies in which either the pope or members of the papal Schola Cantorum took part.² These ceremonies were, in the order in which Benedict presents...

    • Chapter 4 Herod in Germany
      (pp. 41-53)

      In thirteenth-century Padua, during matins on the feast of Epiphany, clerical actors representing King Herod and his court invaded the cathedral. Herod climbed into the pulpit, hurled a wooden spear into the choir, and angrily read the ninth lesson. His followers set about beating the bishop, canons, choristers, and men and women standing in the nave with inflated bladders. Instructions for the Padua Representation of Herod are found in a thirteenth-century ordinal preserved in the cathedral library.¹ We can safely assume, therefore, that this was not an unlicensed intrusion into the liturgy but an annual embellishment approved by the cathedral...

    • Chapter 5 Tossing a Ball in a French Cathedral
      (pp. 54-62)

      As far as we know, John Beleth was the first author to mention the Feast of Fools by name. He was also the first to write about a liturgical ball game that was still popular in some French cathedrals nearly four hundred years later. Both notices are contained in his Summa de ecclesiasticis officis, composed between 1160 and 1164. Before we turn in chapter 6 to Beleth’s announcement of the Feast of Fools, we can pause to enjoy the game.

      In some churches during the Christmas season, Beleth wrote, “it is customary for archbishops and bishops to play with their...

  8. Part II. Shaping the Feast of Fools

    • Chapter 6 The Feast of the Subdeacons
      (pp. 65-73)

      Charles Haskins has famously written of “the Renaissance of the twelfth century.” The era, he writes “was in many respects an age of fresh and vigorous life. The epoch of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, and of the earliest bureaucratic states of the West, it saw the culmination of Romanesque art and the beginnings of Gothic; the emergence of the vernacular literatures; the revival of the Latin classics and of Latin poetry and Roman law; the recovery of Greek science, with its Arabic additions, and much of Greek philosophy; and the origin of the first European universities. The...

    • Chapter 7 The Feast of the Ass
      (pp. 74-85)

      The story of the early Feast of Fools in Beauvais is a tangled one, confused rather than clarified by centuries of scholarly retelling. Amid the wealth of tantalizing details ascribed to the feast in twelfth-century Beauvais, its rootedness in the liturgy is easily overlooked. Captivated instead by rumors of impropriety, historians have fabricated lively narratives of clerical disorder. But the testimony on which these stories depend is second- or third-hand, surviving only in seventeenth-century accounts of earlier manuscripts now lost or destroyed.

      Careful local history is nowhere more vital to the larger history of the Feast of Fools than in...

    • Chapter 8 The Complaints of Innocent III
      (pp. 86-97)

      The first official complaints about the Feast of Fools appear between 1198 and 1216. Although they can give the impression that the Feast of Fools was already widespread and disreputable, there are good reasons to be skeptical about this view. First, many of the complaints appear to be grounded in unsubstantiated rumor rather than in eyewitness accounts. Second, many consist only of one small item in a long list of complaints on a wide variety of topics. Gathered out of context, they seem weightier than they are. Third, there is no documented evidence of the Feast of Fools anywhere outside...

    • Chapter 9 The Office of the Circumcision
      (pp. 98-112)

      Peter of Corbeil, archbishop of Sens between 1200 and his death in 1222, may have been the first to compile a fully prescribed office for the feast of the Circumcision.¹ He was previously a canon of Notre-Dame and a teacher of theology in Paris, where the young Lothar of Segni (later Innocent III) was one of his students.² He was also among those to whom Peter of Capua’s complaint was addressed and a signatory to Eudes of Sully’s decree. He was probably active in drafting the Paris reform. Two years later, Innocent appointed his former teacher to the prestigious archbishopric...

    • Chapter 10 The Plays of Daniel and Joseph
      (pp. 113-128)

      The Beauvais and Laon subdeacons’ offices differed from those in Sens and Le Puy in one significant respect. Each added a lively play to the liturgy of the feast: a Play of Daniel in Beauvais and an Office of Joseph in Laon.

      The Beauvais Play of Daniel, now the best known and most frequently revived of medieval liturgical plays, is preserved in the same manuscript as the Beauvais office of the Circumcision.¹ Both were inscribed in the same hand and had the same musical notator,² but the play was probably composed earlier and copied into the surviving manuscript from a...

  9. Part III. Supporting the Feast of Fools

    • Chapter 11 Chapter Support
      (pp. 131-142)

      In 1853 Chérest remarked that his fellow historians tended “to exaggerate the abuses” of the Feast of Fools. If the Feast of Fools was nothing more than “an occasion for intolerable scandals,” he asked, why had “eminent cathedral chapters” not only tolerated the feast but also given it such prolonged financial and moral support?¹

      Chérest’s question has largely gone unanswered. This evasion is partly due to continued scholarly prejudice, but it is also due to the fragmented nature of the history of the Feast of Fools between 1234 and 1400. By 1234 the offices of the Circumcision in Sens, Beauvais,...

    • Chapter 12 Rumors of Disorder
      (pp. 143-155)

      Despite the evidence of sustained chapter support, rumors of disorder in the Feast of Fools abound. In this chapter I show how some of these rumors were started and how poorly they stand up to close examination.

      The first such rumor arises from a reference to the Feast of Fools in the Roman de Renart, a collection of fables by various authors about Renart the fox and his friends. In the twelfth “branch” of the collection, written by Richard of Lison between 1190 and 1200,¹ Tibert the cat steals a priest’s horse and books. Mistaking the priest’s distress for drunkenness,...

    • Chapter 13 A Spirited Defense
      (pp. 156-166)

      In 1246 the chapter of Nevers cathedral received a series of directions from Eudes of Tusculum, the same papal legate who in the previous year had complained to the Sens chapter. Predictably, one ruling had to do with the Feast of Fools: “Because we have become aware that on the Feast of Fools, which is [celebrated on the feast] of the Innocents and the New Year, they do many shameful things in your church, we strictly insist, under penalty of excommunication, that they not presume to hold such mocking feasts [festa irrisoria] in the future, strongly enjoining that solemn divine...

    • Chapter 14 Youth Groups, Coal Dust, and Cow Dung
      (pp. 167-171)

      Another factor that has confused historians of the Feast of Fools is the appearance in the seasonal records of lay activities having little to do with the liturgical Feast of Fools except, perhaps, to serve as a rival attraction. Although some young clerics might take part, these activities were beyond the immediate jurisdiction of the church. Most involved young, unmarried laymen. We have already met the street game with a grill in Vienne in 1385. The damage to church property in Troyes in 1380 and 1382 was probably due to similar lay festivities there.¹

      An earlier example comes from Paris....

    • Chapter 15 Outside France
      (pp. 172-184)

      There is very little evidence of the Feast of Fools outside France. Most comes from England, where French influence was especially strong. After the Norman conquest in 1066, nearly all the secular landowners, bishops, and heads of monasteries in England were Norman. The first Plantagenet king of England, Henry II (1154–1189), was also the duke of Normandy, the count of Anjou, and the duke of Aquitaine. As such, he ruled over western France from Normandy to the Pyrenees. English claims to this territory were variously renounced and enforced over the succeeding centuries, but were only finally abandoned in 1453...

  10. Part IV. Suppressing the Feast of Fools

    • Chapter 16 Jean Gerson and the Auxerre Affair
      (pp. 187-199)

      Jean Gerson was appointed dean of the collegiate church of Saint Donatian in Bruges in 1394. He was thirty-one years old. A year later he was appointed chancellor of the University of Paris. With some difficulty, he held both positions until 1411, when the chapter in Bruges removed him from office because of his many prolonged absences. He remained chancellor of the university until his death in 1429.¹

      These were not good years to be in France. Throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, “the forces set in motion during the fourteenth century played themselves out, some of them...

    • Chapter 17 Trouble in St.-Omer and Noyon
      (pp. 200-207)

      Although Auxerre was the only cathedral chapter named by Gerson, his campaign almost certainly prompted others to take action against the Feast of Fools. In this chapter I look at Senlis, St.-Omer, and Noyon, three towns where concerted efforts to suppress the Feast of Fools began during Gerson’s lifetime, nearly two decades or more before the ecumenical Council of Basel issued its authoritative ruling against the Feast of Fools in 1435. In each case, despite both national and local opposition, traces of the feast lingered into the sixteenth century. As with Auxerre, I avoid later fragmentation of the narrative by...

    • Chapter 18 Troyes, Sens, and the Council of Basel
      (pp. 208-217)

      The Council of Basel was, at least in name, an ecumenical council. The Roman Catholic Church accords it equal status with such better-known councils as those of Nicea, Chalcedon, Constantinople, Trent, and Vatican I and II. But the Council of Basel was also a fragmented council. When it opened in 1431, Pope Eugenius IV stayed away. In 1437 those delegates loyal to the pope moved to Ferrara—where they were joined by the pope—and subsequently to Florence and Rome, finishing their business in 1445. Their decisions are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. The remaining delegates stayed in Basel...

    • Chapter 19 Rereading the Letter from Paris
      (pp. 218-224)

      Historians have treated the 1445 letter from the Paris theologians as if it were an objective, timeless description of the Feast of Fools. It is not. Those who issued the letter were heirs to an extended campaign against the Feast of Fools, begun in 1400 by the former chancellor of their university, Jean Gerson, and subsequently backed by the Council of Basel and the Pragmatic Sanction. More immediately, in January 1445, the Paris theologians had been petitioned by Jean Leguise, bishop of Troyes, for support in his efforts to suppress the Feast of Fools and its perceived assaults on “archiepiscopal...

    • Chapter 20 A Durable Feast
      (pp. 225-236)

      The cumulative impact of Gerson’s attacks, the Council of Basel, the Pragmatic Sanction, and the letter from the faculty of theology in Paris failed to halt the Feast of Fools with equal effect everywhere. Some chapters capitulated quickly: the Feast of Fools was expelled from Auxerre’s cathedral in 1411, reappearing in the sixteenth century as a communal outdoor summer festivity. In Troyes, the cathedral church of Saint Peter removed all offensive material from its ordinal in April 1445, but the collegiate church of Saint Urban was still supporting the feast in 1468. Other chapters managed to extend their feast for...

  11. Part V. Beyond the Feast of Fools

    • Chapter 21 Festive Societies
      (pp. 239-245)

      The suppression of the clerical Feast of Fools cleared the way, according to Chambers, for “a second tradition of Feasts of Fools, in which the fous [were] no longer vicars but bourgeois, and the dominicus festi [was] a popular ‘king’ or ‘prince’ rather than a clerical ‘bishop.’ ”¹ We have already seen evidence of this “second tradition” in the late-fourteenth-century youth groups of Vienne, Troyes, Lille, and Amiens, in the anticlerical sottie staged by the law clerks of Reims in 1490, and in the jeux played by the young men of Noyon at Laon’s feste des bourgeois in the first...

    • Chapter 22 Innocents and Fools
      (pp. 246-257)

      Toul’s clerical feast of the Innocents happily combined indoor liturgies with outdoor cavalcades, plays, and masked parades. According to the statutes of the city’s cathedral of Saint Stephen, collected in 1497, choirboys and subdeacons took part in a single feast.¹ “All the boys and the subdeacons celebrating the holiday [subdiaconi feriati], who are reckoned in the number of the innocents,” elected one of the boys as “bishop.” Wearing an episcopal miter and vestments and holding a bishop’s crozier, the “bishop of innocents” presided over divine office from first to second vespers of the feast of the Innocents. He also rode...

    • Chapter 23 King of the Breeches
      (pp. 258-264)

      If lay festive societies had in fact grown out of the church’s Feast of Fools, as Chambers and Petit de Julleville supposed, we might expect to see the clearest evidence of such influence in those lay festivities that most closely followed the clerical feast in the calendar. After 1 January itself, the next date on which major secular festivals were held was the twentieth day after Christmas. The most prestigious vingtième gatherings took place in Laon and Cambrai. Although the cathedral in Cambrai had both a bishop of innocents and an abbot of fools, the surviving records of their counterparts...

    • Chapter 24 Our Lady of the Trellis
      (pp. 265-271)

      Lille’s major civic festival, which took place in early summer, brought youth groups, festive societies, and the bishop of fools from the collegiate church of Saint Peter together in a single celebration. Chapter and town jointly funded the participation of the bishop of fools. This unusual alliance was due not to any continuity between the Feast of Fools and the city’s summer festival, but to a shared church and civic interest in the latter.

      The civic festival had its origins in an annual procession, founded in 1270 by Countess Margaret of Flanders, in honor of a statue of the Virgin...

    • Chapter 25 Mother Fool
      (pp. 272-284)

      No festive society has been more frequently linked to the Feast of Fools than the Infanterie Dijonnaise, whose name ( Dijon Infantry) playfully identifies the society’s members as both “children” and “foot soldiers.” Nor, as we shall see, has any supposed link done more to distort the history of the Feast of Fools as a whole. More commonly known by the name of its elected leader, the Mère Folle (Mother Fool), Dijon’s celebrated société joyeuse is widely but erroneously believed to have developed from a clerical Feast of Fools that took place annually in the city’s Sainte-Chapelle.

      The earliest surviving...

  12. Epilogue: Orange Peel in Antibes
    (pp. 285-288)

    One of the last reports of a clerical Feast of Fools pertains to the Franciscan monastery in Antibes, in the south of France. Chambers summarizes thus: “It was on Innocent’s day in the church of the Franciscans. The choir and office were left to the lay-brothers, the quêteurs [mendicant friars], cooks and gardeners. These put on the vestments inside out, held the books upside down, and wore spectacles with rounds of orange peel instead of glasses. They blew the ashes from the censers upon each other’s faces and heads, and instead of the proper liturgy chanted confused gibberish.”¹ This cautionary...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 289-314)
  14. Index
    (pp. 315-322)