The Feast of Fools
The Feast of Fools
The medieval Feast of Fools seems to have developed out of various midwinter celebrations, both Pagan and Christian. One of its components was the Church's Feast of the Holy Innocents, which combined traditions of a Children's Festival, with the burlesque element of children taking over the roles of senior clergy; and the Play of the Ass, derived from the story of Mary's flight into Egypt on a donkey to escape Herod's massacre. Eventually the possibilities for indecorous and inappropriate behaviour in this Feast became too much for the authorities to ignore, and they repeatedly tried to abolish it right up until the seventeenth century.
Here are two contemporary descriptions of the Feast of Fools:
Medieval France: At Sens the Feast of the Ass was associated with the Feast of Fools, celebrated at Vespers on the Feast of Circumcision. The clergy went in procession to the west door of the church, where two canons received the ass, amid joyous chants, and led it to the Precentor's table. Bizarre vespers followed, sung falsetto and consisting of a medley of extracts from all the vespers of the year. Between the lessons the ass was solemnly fed, and at the conclusion of the service was led by the Precentor out into the square before the church; water was poured on the Precentor's head, and the ass became the centre of burlesque ceremonies, dancing and buffoonery being carried on far into the night, while the clergy and the serious-minded retired to matins and bed.
Seventeenth-Century France: The lay-brothers, the cabbage-cutters, those who work in the kitchen ... occupy the places of the clergy in the church. They don the sacerdotal garments, reverse side out. They hold in their hands books turned upside down, and pretend to read through spectacles in which for glass have been substituted bits of orange-peel.