The Fools’ Festival did not suddenly move from the churches to the street. It started by being, at the same time, in sanctuaries and temples, as well as under porches, at cathedral doors, and in cemeteries. These outside locations were where theatre caught up with it.
The first actors of the Middle Ages, those who act in the Follies and who, for this reason, are known as Fools, are not only “the former celebrants of the Fools’ Festival, thrown out of the Church by indignant Councils, and reunited on the town square or at the next crossroads, to continue the festival”. The parody of ecclesiastic hierarchy and liturgy is succeeded by the parody of society as a whole.
The Folly is a universal satire, transported onto a stage and acted by Fools, whose Fool’s hoods protect them from any vengeance and anger which may arise from the audacity of their scandalmongering. These Fools are basically witty people who have come up with the idea of an act founded on the faults of the human race. It is particularly appropriate that the foundation of this acting fraternity stems from the time of Charles VI, the mad (or fool) king.
This idea apparently comes to a few young men of good families, formed by a careful education and by the pursuit of pleasure. These gay companions start to write and act plays, on platforms set up in public squares. These plays are known as Follies because they paint the follies of those portrayed.
Originally named the Enfants sans-souci (Children with no worries) they quickly become fashionable. The King accords a licence to perform to the Prince of the Fools, in confirmation of the title given to him by his friends.
This company keeps itself inside certain limits to begin with. It uses sensible criticism, with no bitterness, to construct its plays. Soon, however, abuses creep in, and the better-mannered actors withdraw and leave the field to the most ascerbic.
It is during the reign of Louis XII that the Enfants sans-souci are at the height of their popularity. Their fashionability declines after the death of this king, who often honours their performances with his presence.
The history of the Enfants sans-souci is intimately linked to the history of the Carnaval because they played on feast days under the pillars of the Halles, which is a traditional refuge of old French gaiety. The Carnaval, festival of licence and free-speaking, drops the reins on the burlesque amusements of the Fools and the Enfants sans-souci.
Several recurrent characters appear in the plays, like Old Mother Fool who is played by a man. She is dressed in a long gown, with a sort of knitted item wrapped around her waist. She has wide sleeves, which hang down in long points, but which are closed at the wrist. She wears a type of short cape, with a pointed hood and donkey ears, covering her head and neck. She holds a small head on a stick in her hand. Old Mother Fool also has a necklace and a belt made from sculpted wooden plates, connected by chains.
In 1608, after an existence of nearly three centuries, the Fools’ Company disappears. It remains after this date in the town of Ham in the Vermandois, under the name of the Fools of Ham. The head of the company has the title of Prince of the Fools and his supporting actors accompany him in the ceremonies of folly, mounted on donkeys, holding their tails as if they are reins.
The Follies can only take place in the town with the Prince’s permission. He wears a Mummers’ costume, and a bonnet with little bells on it. He carries a small head on a stick as his sceptre. His subjects are not costumed in a uniform manner. They are masked and wear fancy-dress.
On the last three feast days and on market day, the Prince divides his company into different squads, three of which guard the doors of the town. The squad chief carries a small head on a stick, made of rags blackened in the chimney or in the oven. Each woman who enters the town for the market is obliged to kiss this blackened head, which is called Saint Suffering, or put a few coins into a basin.
If an elderly woman marries, she is given a charivari, which is acted by the Prince of the Fools and his company. If a patient husband allows himself to be dominated by his wife, the Prince of the Fools assembles his troup, which is followed by a tip-cart and, one morning, they wake this good husband, pull him from his bed, put him in the tip-cart and parade him through the streets.
These Follies were definitively abolished in 1648, but the descendants of the last Prince of the Fools of Ham still bore the names, or rather the nicknames, of Prince and Princess, in 1771.
Eighth part tomorrow.