Some of these festivals seem to be so excessive that we could be pardoned for thinking that the historians may have exaggerated somewhat. However, abundant, unquestionable reports from a variety of regions, some of them very distant from each other, are there to prove otherwise.
A further proof in favour of the authenticity of these ecclesiastic Saturnalia was given by Dr Rigollet at the beginning of the twentieth century. The doctor found a certain quantity of lead “money” (or mereaux) where “piety and folly form a strange alliance”. Engraved on them are the name, the coat-of-arms (real or imaginary), the date of the election, and often riddles or puerile allusions to the brief reign of the dignitaries of these carnavalesque festivals. The existence of these metallic coins is another argument in favour of the pagan origin of these festivals, because these coins are an imitation of those used by the Romans during the Saturnalia. It is presumed that the Bishops of the Fools or of the Innocents distributed this money to the people, upon their entry into the cathedral.
In some monasteries in Provence, the Festival of the Innocents is celebrated by ceremonies just as fantastic and as bizarre as the pagan festivals.
A friend of the philosopher Gassendi wrote to him in 1645: “Neither the religious priests nor the guardians go to the chancel on this day; the lay brothers, the cabbage cutting brothers, who go begging, those who work in the kitchen, the kitchen boys, those who do the gardening, take their places inside the church and say that they do a service suitable for such a festival, when they play the fool and the furious and that they are so, really. They dress themselves in sacerdotal ornaments, but all torn, if they find them, and turned inside out; they hold in their hands upside-down and back-to-front books, from which they pretend to read with glasses from which the glass has been removed and to which they have attached orange peels, which makes them so deformed and so frightening that it has to be seen to be believed, particularly after having blown into the censers, which they hold in their hands and which they swing with derision, they make the ashes fly onto their faces, and cover each other with it.
“In this accoutrement they sing neither hymns, nor psalms, nor ordinary Mass, but they mumble certain confused words and cry out as foolishly, as disagreeably and as discordantly as a herd of growling pigs: so much so that the brutish animals would do the service no worse than they on this day.”
We have seen before that the donkey is honoured in certain towns, but other animals also participate in some festivals.
Pierre Gregoire of Toulouse reports that in 1243, a priest of Soissons, counselled by a witch, administered baptism to a toad, adhering to all of the ceremonial attached to this sacrement. The witch was condemned to be burnt.
This baptism is probably not an isolated incident because Abbot Thiers, in his Traite des superstitions, consecrates a whole chapter to baptisms of dogs, cats, pigs and toads. Some time after the assassination of Henri III, the ligueurs even obliged parish priests, by putting a knife to their throats, to baptise calves, sheep, lambs, pigs, greyhound puppies, kids, hens and capons, and to give them the names of pikes, carps, red mullets, trout, soles, turbots, herrings, etc.. The case is not even an isolated one.
Women also played their part in these mystical comedies. Like the monks, nuns celebrated the Innocents. They had their Abbesses of the Fools, their mascarades, their licentious dances.
From 1212, the Paris Council forbade nuns from celebrating the Fools’ Festival. Some thirty years later, an archbishop of the diocese of Rouen complained that the virgins consecrated to the Lord are giving themselves up to indecent pleasures, during the Festival of the Innocents, Saint John’s Festival and the Magdalene Festival. The prelate said: “We forbid you these amusements, of which you have custom.” It is also forbidden for them to dress in profane clothing, to sing bawdy songs, to dance with seculars.
The public is admitted to the show which is put on, in some abbeys, on the Day of the Innocents. A “Little Abbess” is elected and she assumes her function at first Vespers. The real abbess leaves her throne at the verse of the Magnificat: Deposuit potentes de sede. The Little Abbess takes her place and her crozier, continues the service and the following day, celebrates Vespers up to the same verse.
At the beginning of the XVIIIth Century, the nuns of Artois and Cambresis still wore masks inside their cloisters, as well as men’s clothing, so as to divert themselves “honestly and dance secretly among themselves”. As it happens, one of the principal crimes of which Joan of Arc was accused, in letters from the Duke of Belfort, and for which she will be condemned to the stake, is precisely that of having worn men’s clothes, “abominable thing to God”.
In many places, Fool Bishops and Fool Abbesses visit each other.
On 29 December, the Day of Saint-Trophyme, the Archbishop of the Fools goes to the Abbey of Saint-Cesaire d’Arles, where there is an Abbess of the Fools. It is agreed that the Abbess of the monastery will give six groats in silver, one hen, six loaves of bread, six pots of wine, and wood to make a fire in the refectory, to the Abbess of the Fools on the Day of the Innocents, so that she can receive the Archbishop with a meal.
If the Day of the Innocents is a Friday, the Abbess gives three groats of silver on top of the other six, instead of a hen, but if the Archbishop of the Fools does not come to the monastery with his Fool company for a meal, the Abbess is not obliged to give anything. It is easy to imagine the indecencies arising from this meeting of debauched clerics and partying nuns.
In some places, notably at Troyes, in Champagne, at Florence and Pistoia in Italy, a strange (to say the least) ceremony takes place, upon the entry of bishops into their dioceses. The bishops sleep in the convent, in a richly decorated bed, and put a ring on the finger of the abbess. However, they do not always content themselves with only simulating a marriage.
Sixth part tomorrow.