What were the different aspects of these festivals during the Middle Ages?

At the end of the XIIth Century, on Christmas Day, after Vespers, the deacons dance in the church while singing an antiphon in honour of Saint Etienne.  The priests do the same thing on Saint Etienne’s Day, but in honour of Saint John the Evangelist.  The choir boys and the junior clerics, on Saint John the Evangelist’s Day, perform in honour of the Innocents.  On the day of the Innocents, the subdeacons honour the day of the Circumcision or of the Epiphany.

In the churches, bishops and archbishops play dice, real tennis, bowls and other games, dance and jump with their clergy in the monasteries and in the episcopal houses.  Like the Saturnalia, the valets take the place of the masters.  In the same way, the junior clerics, the deacons and the subdeacons officiate publicly and solemnly.  This custom is observed notably in the archdiocese of Reims.  However, these are simple little amusements compared to what happens elsewhere.

In certain cathedrals, a Bishop or an Archbishop of the Fools is elected.  After which, he is made to officiate pontifically, going as far as giving a public benediction to the people.  Like the real prelates, he bears a mitre, a crozier and even the archiepiscopal cross.

In the churches more immediately attached to the Holy See, a Pope of the Fools is elected.  He is made to wear the papal ornaments and officiates like the Holy Father.  On these days, clerics and priests attend the ceremonies in fancy-dress and comical costumes.  Some have their faces covered by grimacing or mournful masks.  Others are dressed as persons of the opposite sex or as mimes.  All of them dance in the chancel, where they enter, singing obscene songs.  The deacons and subdeacons bring pork products, which they eat on the altar, transformed into a feasting table, under the nose of the celebrating priest, who also eats his share.

After Mass, “each person ran, jumped and danced around inside the church before becoming so impudent that a few people were not ashamed to indulge in all sorts of indecencies and to take off their clothes completely;  then, they had themselves pulled through the streets in tip-carts full of garbage;  while they took pleasure in throwing it on the population which assembled around them.  They stopped and used their bodies in lascive movements and postures, which they accompanied with lewd words.  The most libertine among the secular people mingled with the clergy, to also make a few Fool characters of monks and nuns in ecclesiastic clothes.  In the end, it was the abomination of the devastation of the holy place and of the people of the holiest state.”

It is principally during the January calends that most of the disorders are committed.  This day is named, in France, the Festival of the Subdeacons or the Festival of the Drunken Deacons.  This Festival of Fools, of Subdeacons, of the Innocents, is the strangest and the most incredible particularity of France’s ecclesiastical history.  Even stranger is the fact that it was able to survive several centuries, without giving rise to any protests capable of bringing it to abolition.  Even so, for the bishops and theologians, these festivals are only “horrible abominations, shameful and criminal actions, mingled with an infinity of madness and insolence”.

In his history of Reims, Dom Marlot evokes this Fools’ Festival.  He speaks of a custom which was visible in almost all of the cathedrals, on the day of the Innocents, and which rapidly degenerated into a sacrilegious display.  A child with a mitre, a cope, gloves, a crozier, and the other episcopal ornaments, is led into the chancel.  In this dress, he gives the benediction to the people.  From the church, he is taken through the town, with indecent games and buffooneries.

On Ash Wednesday, all of the clergy goes to Saint-Remi for a Station of the Cross.  The canons, preceded by the Cross, walk two by two, and all of them pull behind them a herring attached by a ribbon.  Each of them is busy trying not to walk on the herring in front of him, while at the same time, saving his own from the person behind him.

At Noyon, it is a very ancient custom that every service on the Day of the Innocents be sung by the choir boys, to whom the ecclesiastic dignitaries give up their places.  The canons replace the choir boys in all of their functions.

At Sens, an odd custom is practised.  The last admitted canon must receive several buckets of water on his body.  In the capitulary register at Sens, it is indicated that it is forbidden to throw more than three buckets of water on the Precentor of the Fools.  At the Donkey Festival, which is celebrated in this town, several buckets of water are poured onto some naked men, at Matins, independently from those received by the Precentor of the Fools.  Later on, it will be forbidden to lead them into the church on Christmas morning.  They will be led only to the cloister well, and will receive only one bucket of water.

During this festival, the donkey, an animal usually the subject of ridicule, is celebrated.  It is introduced into the chancel, its back covered by a magnificent cope.  The Archbishop of the Fools receives it with great seriousness and then begins the Fools’ service.  This ceremony is particular in that the Alleluia which is said after Deus in adjutorium is cut by twenty-two words placed like this:

Alle [resonent omnes Ecclesiae,

Cum dulci melo symphoniae,

Filium Mariae Genetricix piae,

Ut nos septiformis gratiae,

Repleat donis et gloriae,

Unde Deo dicamus] luia.

The resulting frightful cacaphony can be imagined.  It is presumed that all of these chants, were also accompanied by a lot of drinking.  In the middle of the service, the Fools surround the donkey and sing to him:

Hey Lord Donkey, because you sing;

Beautiful mouth you grimace,

You will have a lot of hay

And oats to plant [lots].

This Donkey Festival, which is very popular, is celebrated by several Chapters, notably Rouen and Autun.

Fourth part tomorrow.

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