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The Feast of Fools

Updated: Feb 1


On this day, 28th December, celebrated as the 'Holy Innocents Day' ( Dia de los Inocentes) in the Western church, traditional 'misrule' let loose on the medieval church. Accounts vary as to the importance and extent of it with much exaggeration in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Daniel Soars at Cambridge organised an excellent conference a couple of years ago on the theme of 'Deus Ludens'. Below is an extract from the chapter I wrote on the Trickster and Holy Fools in the Christian tradition which looks at this theme from several angles. Whilst it is clear that the accounts of the Holy Fools (and Innocents) has become distorted with time the tradition survives and clearly had a purpose within the church. Today, it survives in the 'misrule' of the Christmas season evidenced in Spain and many Latin American countries by the tradition of playing pranks on this day. In the United Kingdom it continues with the Lords and Dames of Misrule celebrated in the annual Pantomime season. I shall be going to see Sir Ian McKellan as 'Mother Goose' later in the week to keep up the tradition - Happy Cervulus everyone!





Dancing in the aisles: reclaiming the Feast of Fools

One of the most memorable passages in Jung’s essay on the Trickster with which we began is his description of the medieval ‘Feast of Fools’. Taking his descriptions mainly from the 17th century accounts of Du Cange, Jung uses the later reports of the phenomenon to press his case for the trickster as a ‘psychologem’ – ‘obviously an archetypal psychic structure of extreme antiquity. In his clearer manifestations he is a faithful reflection of an undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level’ (Jung 1968: 260). To make this argument he demonstrates a well-worn trope that the medieval ‘feast of fools’, occurring in the days after Christmas and culminating on the Feast of the Circumcision (1st January) is a relic of the ancient Roman ‘Cervula’ or ‘Cervulus’ that ‘took place on the calends of January and was a kind of New Year’s festival, at which people exchanged [gifts] dressed up as animals or old women and danced through the streets singing, to the applause of the populace’ (Jung 1968: 257 fn. 3). The notion that the pre-Christian ‘Cervulus’ persisted into the Christian Middle Ages and underlay the post-nativity festivals in medieval Christian Europe, especially France, is an abiding one and found in many commentators. As we can expect from Jung’s prose here, he revels in the absurd situation and quotes Du Cange’s late descriptions of the misrule with relish:


In the very midst of divine service masqueraders with grotesque faces, disguised as women, lions, and mummers, performed their dances, sang indecent songs in the choir, ate their greasy food from a corner of the altar near the priest celebrating mass, got out their games of dice, burned a stinking incense made of old shoe leather, and ran and hopped about all over the church. (Du Cange 1954: 1666 quoted in Jung 1968: 257)


Jung also embellishes his description with an account of the so-called ‘Liturgy of the Ass’ (festum asinorum) seemingly celebrated at Beauvais cathedral in memoriam of the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt on an ass and incorporating, according to Du Cange, quoted by Jung, a responsory for the congregation where after ‘each part (Introit, Kyrie, Gloria etc) of the high mass that followed, the whole congregation brayed [Jung’s emphasis], that is, they all went “Y-a” like a donkey’ and the whole service concluded so that ‘at the end of mass, instead of the words “Ite missa est”, the priest shall bray three times, and instead of the words “Deo gratias”, the congregation shall answer “Y-a” (hinham) three times’ (Jung 1968: 258).

Amusing and intriguing though these accounts are (and Jung milks them for their entertainment value throughout), Max Harris in his 2011 Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools has painstakingly combed through the French cathedral records to disentangle the reality of the festum stultorum from the layers of myth that have built up around it, especially in the hands of 17th century writers such as Du Cange. What he conclusively demonstrates is that, pace Jung, the festum did have a clear liturgical and theological purpose whose aims have been distorted by later attacks and especially the cartoonish exaggerations of 17th and 18th century writers. The existence and occurrence of the festum asinorum as described by Du Cange is dubious in the extreme and in his description of the 1st January ‘festum stultorum’ Du Cange runs together descriptions from diverse sources, usually unsympathetic or hostile ones such as the Parisian masters who wrote a letter of condemnation in 1444. Peering through this liturgical fog, however, Harris is able to piece together an explanation for the practices so strongly libelled at a later date. What then was the purpose of the feast and how does it link to this chapter’s pursuit of the psycho-spiritual role of the trickster in contemporary Christian setting?

As Harris points out, the first person to make explicit mention of the festum stultorum is John Beleth in his Summa de ecclesiasticis officis (1160 – 1164). In his description Beleth notes: ‘it is customary for archbishops and bishops to play with their subordinates in the cathedral close and even to indulge in a ball game’ (cited in Harris 2011: 54). What was this ‘ball-game’ and how did it relate to the festum stultorum? For authors such as Harris the ‘ball-game’ was almost certainly a form of liturgical dance that was performed in French medieval cathedrals, such as Auxerre, sometimes along the labyrinth inscribed into the nave:


Early in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, the dean and as many as ‘a hundred’ canons would gather at a paved stone labyrinth set into the floor at the west end of the nave. The newest member of the chapter carried a large leatherball. In 1412 the cathedral chapter ordered that the ball should be ‘smaller than usual, but too large to be grasped in one man’s hand, requiring two hands to stop it.’ It was, perhaps, the size of a soccer ball. (Harris 2011: 56)


Once assembled, the cathedral chapter would initiate the game-dance as described in a manuscript account of 1538:


The dean began to sing antiphonally the appropriate Easter sequence, ‘Victimae paschali laudes’; then he took the ball with his left hand and danced the tripudium[dance] repeatedly in time to the music, while the others joined hands anddanced the chorea [circle dance] around the labyrinth [circa daedalum].While they danced, the dean would deliver the ball alternately to each and everyone of the dancers, [who were] in the form of a garland [serti in speciem], and they would throw it back. There was sport, and the meter of the dance wasset by the organ. (cited in Harris 2011: 56)


No stinking leather-shoe incense, no clergy dressed as animals or old women and definitely no donkey-braying. The Auxerre dance-game (and evidence for others comes from Sens, Reims, Amiens and Chartres, see Harris 2011: 60) suggests a more stately measure that had a clear intention to reinstate the ‘Deus ludens’ at the heart of the post-Easter liturgy.

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