Feast of Fools: January 1st Dec 31, 2013 23:06:42 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 31, 2013 23:06:42 GMT -5
Feast of Fools: January 1st
For many years, the monks at Old Quarr Abbey, founded in 1132 on the Isle of Wight, threw decorum – and faith – to the winds each January 1st. The usually sober men of God elected a Lord of Misrule, donned animal masks or women’s clothing, sang bawdy songs, filled censors with pieces of old shoes that emitted a foul odor, ate puddings at the altar and danced with wild abandon.
The Feast of Fools, which usually took place on the Day of Circumcision (January 1) was a disorderly, even transgressive, Christian festival, which parodied the liturgy of the church. But it didn’t end with playing dice at the altar and other ungodly activities, for afterwards, the monks would take to the streets, howling, issuing mock indulgences, hurling manure at passers-by and staging scurrilous plays.
The feast, which can be traced to medieval times, was celebrated in many parts of Europe, particularly France, and was known by various names, making it impossible to distinguish it from certain other similar celebrations such as the Feast of Asses and Feast of the Boy Bishop. There can be little doubt – and medieval scholars themselves freely recognized the fact – that the license and buffoonery which marked the Feast of Fools had their origin in pagan customs of very ancient date. Some writers trace the celebration to the pagan practice of allowing slaves, serving maids and other subordinates a sort of liberty in which they “should be put upon an equality with their masters, in celebrating a common festivity.”
The Feast of Fools and the almost blasphemous extravagances in some instances associated with it have often been used in a sweeping condemnation of the medieval church. On the other hand, some Catholic writers have thought it necessary to attempt to deny the existence of such abuses. The truth likely lies midway between these extremes. First, there can be no question that ecclesiastical authority repeatedly condemned the license of the Feast of Fools in the strongest terms, no one being more determined in his efforts to suppress it than Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln. But these customs were so firmly rooted that centuries passed before they were entirely eradicated. Secondly, it is equally certain the institution did lend itself to abuses of a very serious character, even though the nature and gravity of these offenses varied considerably.
In hundreds, possibly thousands, of liturgical manuscripts from the medieval period, mentions of the Feast of Fools are extraordinarily rare. However, there are some references. For example, in 1199, Bishop Eudes de Sully imposed regulations to check the abuses committed during the Feast of Fools on New Year’s Day at Notre-Dame in Paris. The celebration was not entirely banned, but the part of the “Lord of Misrule” or Precentor Stultorum was restrained within the limits of decorum. He was to be allowed to intone the prose Laetemur gaudiis in the cathedral and wield the precentor’s staff, but this was to take place before the first vespers of the feast were sung. Apart from this, the church offices proper were to be performed as usual, with some concessions. During the second vespers, it had been the custom that the precentor of the fools should be deprived of his staff when the verse Deposuit potentes de sede (“He hath put down the mighty from their seat”) was sung at the Magnificat. Seemingly this was the dramatic moment and the feast was hence often known as the Festum ‘Deposuit. Eudes de Sully decreed that the staff might here be taken from the mock precentor, but the verse Deposuit was not to be repeated more than five times.
The central idea of the Feast of Fools seems always to have been that of the old Roman Saturnalia, i.e., a brief social revolution, in which power, dignity or impunity is conferred for a few hours upon those ordinarily in a subordinate positions. Whether it took the form of the Boy Bishop or the subdeacon conducting the cathedral office, the parody must always have trembled on the brink of burlesque, if not the profane. A similar celebration can be traced to St. Gall in the 10th century, wherein a student, on the 13th of December each year, enacted the part of the abbot.
The Feast of Fools was finally forbidden under the severe penalties enacted by the Council of Basle in 1435 and this condemnation was supported by a strongly-worded document issued by the theological faculty of the University of Paris in 1444, as well as by numerous decrees of various provincial councils.
The annual Bacchanalia-like celebrations ended at Old Quarr Abbey with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries beginning in 1536.
Today, the monks of Quarr Abbey seek to center their souls on God through sacred reading and personal prayer. Visitors are welcome and the now derelict old abbey, where the Feast of Fools was once celebrated, is a favorite destination for it is said to be haunted by the restless spirit of Eleanor of Aquataine, who was exiled here by Henry II.
Sources: Medieval Celebrations; Max Harris, "Feast of Fools," Oxford Bibliographies, October 29, 2013; The Catholic Encyclopedia; and Cornell University.