The arrival of Christianity did not suppress Greco-Roman polytheism. The cult of the Cross and paganism lived side by side for a long time. They assimilated each other, inter-penetrating. Christianism absorbed the pagan cult, recuperating certain elements of it.
Paganism, sensual and poetic, was able to satisfy all of the weaknesses of the flesh and of the imagination, with astonishing variety. The Church, destined to replace it, at first displayed an inexorable austerity.
It permitted, on certain days, that demonstrations of gaiety, songs and satires be mingled with the masculine mournfulness of penitence and the chaste chanting of virgins and martyrs.
The acceptance of the popular joys of the ancient Saturnalia into the heart of the Christian Church, introduced a mixture of buffoonery and profanity, libertinage and impiety, typical of pagan distractions.
However, all of these exaggerated pleasures contain deep symbolism.
Within the Saturnalia, in spite of all of the disorders which they provoke, there is the basic idea that the rich should not always be at the top of the tree when it comes to honours and power. The poor, the weak, should someday have their compensation.
In several churches, the festival is renamed the Deposuit Festival, in allusion to the words of Mary’s song, Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles, that everyone sings joyfully on the day that their superiors, stripped of their honours, abandon the symbols of their dignities.
Apart from this laudable egalitarian idea, it was also a frenzy of pleasure, a hurricane of madness which swept into the churches and shook the arches of the immense cathedrals.
These extravagances were not just limited to France. England also shook the bells of folly. The inventory of the ornaments of York Church (1530) mentions a little mitre and a ring for the Bishop of the Fools. However, France seems to have been more passionate about these burlesque parodies than other nations.
It has often been written that, on this day, people sang off-key (literally “false” in French). This could have been a misinterpretation of the words in falso which should be translated by singing in fauxbourdon, or drone, which seems to show that the Fools’ Festival music was not as discordant as has been said.
The whole church service was performed backwards. Instead of incense, old shoes were burnt. The officiants drank and gambled on the altar cloth, and parodied everything which commands respect. These grotesque people were named Fools.
It would be unjust to say that these festivals were tolerated by an ignorant, superstitious clergy, so as to court the favour of a people who loved good entertainment. In reality, on many occasions, serious souls showed their aversion for these absurd, sometimes obscene, practices. Saint Augustin complained of certain excesses committed during his time.
The Fools’ Festival was organized by the ecclesiastic powers from the beginning of the XIIth Century. Pierre, Cardinal-Deacon of Sainte-Marie, legate of the Holy See, “considering that the Fools’ Festival gave place to so many indignities and infamies that the sacred home of the Virgin was soiled not only by obscene words, but usually also by the shedding of blood,” advised the Bishop, the Dean and other dignitaries of the Church, “to reform the service of this festival, and to remove everything which was hurting ecclesiastical dignity and respect for religion”.
In obedience to this injunction, Bishop Eudes de Sully and the Chapter, draw up in 1198, the details of the service, and forbid songs, performances and personifications.
The low clergy, whose members came mostly from the people, were possibly the only ones to encourage these sacrilegious buffooneries. What would they have gained by fighting these customs, so deeply embedded in society, that they subsisted, almost with no modification, for centuries?
Less than two hundred years ago, the choir boys in the Diocese of Sens, were still perpetuating, through their games, some of the ceremonies which gave joy to their ancestors of the Middle Ages.
On the day of the Holy Innocents, thanks to a sum of money accorded to them by the Chapter, they performed a sort of repetition of former festivals, playing at being the Archbishop, and celebrating Mass. The least intelligent among them was chosen to be the Archbishop.
The festivals of the Middle Ages were therefore only a softened imitation of the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia, as they were celebrated in Rome, at the time when they were introduced among the Christians, giving birth to the first Carnaval, are only a combination of all of the similar festivals transmitted by the Greeks to the Romans.
The Carnaval belongs equally to all of these festivals, although it appears to be directly derived from the cult of Saturn. The time of the opening of the Carnaval accords perfectly with the celebration of the last Saturnalia.
During the first centuries, the Carnaval opens on 25 December, and the Festival of Christmas gives the signal for celebrations, which continue for several weeks. In parallel to this, the Saturnalia, at first of a determined length, were extended by different ceremonies, which were added one after the other.
In this way, the old superstitions are regenerated with the imprint of the new beliefs. The spirit of licentious practices remains, only the name is changed. Here is an example.
At the time of the pagans, there were Lupercalia, instituted by King Evandra, and celebrated in the month of February. Their name was derived from the luperces, priests of the god Pan, who ran, completely naked, through the streets, hitting women with a goatskin, with the intention of making them fertile, or to make them give birth more easily. Only grown men could take part in these festivals. The young men “with no beard” and children were carefully excluded from them.
In the XVIth Century, we see a revival of the Lupercalia among the Franconians. Only, this time, young girls and boys participate in the disorder.
Groups composed of clerics and people of all conditions, men, women, children, the elderly, gather in the churches, dance in a circle around the altar, where a fake new-born baby is on display. By their cries while they dance, they copy the performance of the Corybanths, writhing and screaming on Mount Ida, around the cradle of Jupiter.
As scandalous as these ceremonies were, they do not indicate that the members of the clergy were impious or sacrilegious. They were only following old superstitions.
Third part tomorrow.