I think that it has been amply demonstrated that the Christian sanctuaries of the Middle Ages, and even later than that, housed parodies of religious ceremonies, inspired by pagan festivals.
The Church tolerates them more than it actually encourages them. From time to time, it tries to severely condemn the authors and perpetrators of these disorders, but it publishes bullae and orders without much success. It meets with resistance which it is unable to overcome. Two canons of Evreux are hung on the cathedral bell-tower by the clerics, for having wanted to oppose these burlesque festivals.
As well as obstinate critics of these lewd festivals, the Church also contains fanatic partisans of them.
While Gerson, the great reformer of ecclesiastic discipline, is sounding off against these sacrilegious buffooneries, an Auxerre doctor maintains, from the pulpit, that the Fools’ Festival is as healthy as the Festival of the Conception of Notre-Dame. Like a good disciple of Rabelais, he cries, in joyful, epicurian terms: “Wine barrels would burst, if the bunghole or the drain wasn’t sometimes opened to give them air. We are old vessels and barrels badly bound, that the wine of wisdom would break, if we leave it the way that it is, to boil by continual devotion to divine service. It is for this reason that we give ourselves a few days of joy and buffoonery, so as to return afterward, with more fervour, to the study and the service of religion.”
From the point of view of religion, what are the consequences of these pious extravagances? For certain members of the protestant clergy, they weaken religious sentiment and give to the people the occasion to lack respect for the men of the Church. The depravation of these festivals should perhaps not be exaggerated. In spite of the mockery heaped on the clergy during these days of celebration, the population remains extremely religious and respectful of the institutions.
However, for some, the dignities conferred on them during the Festival of the Innocents and the Fools’ Festival, are not always fleeting. Even if they have only one day of triumph and absolute power, they do not disappear back into the anonymous ranks of choir boys or vicars the very next day. They conserve certain prerogatives and probably do not give up their titles until the end of the year, when a new election gives them a successor. However, once the festival is over, nearly all of the actors go back to their places in society. In the end, the people are disciplined and ask only a few days of fun, during which to forget life’s labours and worries.
Gradually, the burlesque is no longer shown only by religious parodies. The festival extends outside the churches. Carnaval then takes to the streets.
Hunted from the temple, the Fools continue their demonstrations in the town. Because of this, the Fools’ Festival will not disappear before the XVIIth Century. Once the processions take to the towns, their principal actor, the donkey, is no longer to be seen. From then on, the band of Fools will receive at court and in the town, the hospitality refused it by the Church.
The Festival finds a welcome at court, well before being expulsed from the sanctuary. History students will remember the terrible accident which caused the insanity of King Charles VI. A gentleman, admired for his inventive spirit, had imagined a distraction for the monarch. Known as The Mummery of the Ardents, a ballet of wild men, in which the King led five lords on a leash, all of them, including the King, dressed in long fibres of hemp and flax, caught on fire. Only the King and Lord de Nantouillet were saved. The King by the Duchess of Berry, who enveloped him in her train. Nantouillet by running to throw himself into a vat of water in the room we would today call the Bar.
Seventh part tomorrow.