As early as 1381, a prince of the House of Cleves, at the time Governor of Burgundy, introduced a company of Fools into the territories under his rule, in imitation of the one which already existed in his native region. This was the birth of the Dijon Compagnie de la Mere-folle (Company of the Mad Mother).
The head of this company has a court composed of officers and, exactly like a prince or sovereign, he has full powers. The judgements rendered by him are executed with no possibility for appeal. The convocations, receptions and meetings must all be in burlesque or comical verse, as well as any letters written by one of them to another. Only people of rank or prominent townspeople can be received into this Company of five hundred men.
The members wear a bonnet of three colours, yellow, red and green. The officers are distinguished by the form of their costumes, the quality of the materials and the arrangement of their little bells. They hold small Fool’s heads on sticks. There are hooded Fool’s heads painted on their pennants and flags, along with the motto: Stultorum plena sunt omnia. The Mad Mother (a man, head of the company) is on a two-horse cart. Sometimes he is accompanied by actors and/or musicians, and the cart is then bigger.
The performances of the Mad Mother take place every year during Carnaval, or in other seasons when there is an important event. If something unusual happens in the town, like theft, murder, an odd marriage, the seduction of a young girl, the Company immediately organizes its procession and the Fools enter into action. The aim of this society is joy and pleasure. The Company will not be completely abolished until 21 June 1630.
The Society of “Conards” or “Cornards” of Evreux has some similarity with the Mad Mother Company. The Conards have “the right of jurisprudence” during the time of their amusements. They choose an Abbot by majority vote. He is recognized as head of this company of singers and witty comedians, with their epigrams and jokes.
Sir Abbot is led through all the streets of the town, and into the surrounding villages, mounted on a donkey and grotesquely dressed. During the whole trip, burlesque verses are sung. These contain allusions, more or less veiled, to events or well-known people. These public faultfinders spare nothing and no-one, and virtue is just as badly treated as vice.
From buffooneries, they progress to impiety and scandalous debauchery, which recall those of the Fools’ Festival. The Abbot of the Conards is mitred, croziered and coped like a Bishop of the Fools, when he is solemnly pulled through the streets in a four-horse cart on Sundays (except during Lent) and other days of Bacchanalia.
In certain cathedral Chapters, an Abbot of the Fools is solemnly elected on 18 July every year, under a big elm tree, in front of the principal door of the church. “Benches, rugs and a desk were placed there: all the gentlemen of the Chapter were present, even the lower clergy; and there, by majority vote, an Abbot was chosen, which old titles call abbas staltorum. The follies which this Abbot was charged with reforming were only certain rough stupidities, which can sometimes happen through distraction or inadvertance, like when a canon appeared in the chancel with one costume instead of another; or if he forgot entirely to robe himself before going in to Mass and other similar indecencies.”
In some places like Rodez, the Abbot charged with the exercise of this sort of temporary magistrature is called the Abbot of Bad Guidance; in others like Viviers, he is simply called the Abbot of the Clergy. The lower clergy, young canons, clerics and choir boys elect him.
The Abbot elected and the Te deum sung, the new dignitary is carried on shoulders to the house where the Chapter is assembled. Everyone rises upon his entry, including the Bishop. After which, there is a collective meal, where the clergy, both high and low, sing senseless verses. This ends with a general procession.
This is all really only a new edition of the Fools’ Festival. However, the Bishop of the Fools, played by a young cleric, differs from the one played by the Abbot of the Clergy. Although he is elected on the Day of the Innocents of the preceding year, he really only assumes the rights of his dignity during the three days of Saint Etienne, Saint John and the Innocents.
To return to the Abbot of the Conards, he exercises his ministry during the Carnaval or Saint Barnaby’s Day, the patron saint of the brotherhood. The Abbot of the Conards puts on his mitre, decorated with little bells, takes up his crozier, mounts his donkey and travels the streets of the towns and surounding villages, followed by his Chapter. This annual visit is a parody of the one which the bishops make in their diocese. The Abbot even gives benedictions to the public along his route, thereby imitating the episcopal benediction.
To begin with, the Conards use their privileges wisely. Soon, however, they no longer limit themselves to just attacking ridiculous or scandalous people, and the authorities have to put an end to their digressions and slander.
Before moving on, let us have a look at the election of an Abbot of the Conards in Rouen. After a good meal, eaten in public, the Abbot in function, surrounded by his Chapter, proceeds to the choice of the man who, in general opinion, has done the most stupid thing during the preceding year, and should be proclaimed “fool and glorious Cornard”. Each of the candidates has a lawyer chosen for him. The debates are always very long and very animated, each lawyer boasting of his client’s right to be chosen, adding to his qualities every time that he hears those of the adversary.
In 1541, the vote takes place three times. A Rouen doctor wins it. His principal qualification being that, on a visit to Bayeux, he gets drunk and, not having enough money on him to pay the inn-keeper, he gambles his wife on a roll of dice. The crozier of honour is solemnly presented to him, to the sound of trumpets and drums.
Ninth and last (short) part tomorrow.