Boy Bishop

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Boy Bishop

Bairn Bishop, St. Nicholas Bishop

In the Middle Ages the Christmas season offered a special delight to a few lucky boys. On December 28, Holy Innocents' Day, religious communities, cathedrals, colleges, schools, and parish churches throughout Europe permitted an ordinary choirboy to take over the role of the local bishop. Known as the boy bishop, these kingsfor-a-day were enormously popular with the people, in spite of the reservations of some Church authorities. They wore episcopal robes and rings especially made for boys, led processions, officiated at services, preached sermons, made visitations, and received gifts. What's more, the administrators of local cathedrals were sometimes expected to entertain the boy bishop and his entourage in a manner befitting their assumed rank. These festivities came to an end around the sixteenth century, when Church and state officials finally prohibited boy bishops. In some areas, however, the custom lingered on. One French diocese supported a boy bishop until 1721. In recent years some English cathedrals have revived the medieval custom of sponsoring a boy bishop at Christmas time.


During medieval times custom permitted the low-ranking church staff, such as deacons, sub-deacons, and choirboys, to engage in a number of boisterous celebrations and mock religious services during the days that followed Christmas. They included the reign of the boy bishop on Innocents'Day. These frolics were sometimes referred to collectively as the Feast of Fools. Some experts believe that these customs may have evolved out of the topsy-turvy festivities that characterized the Roman winter feast of Saturnalia. During Saturnalia, things were not always as they seemed. Men masqueraded as women or animals, and mock kings were selected to preside over feasts. Some authors believe that the habit of celebrating midwinter with playful role reversals may have persisted into medieval times, inspiring the creation of the boy bishop. The chosen boy was also known as the "bairn bishop," bairn being an archaic word for child.

Historians are still trying to piece together the origins of this custom. Some believe that the boy bishop was originally associated with St. Nicholas's Day, December 6. They suspect that the boy bishop's reign shifted to Holy Innocents' Day over time. These writers point out that St. Nicholas was a bishop in his lifetime and became the patron saint of children after his death. Therefore, they reason, it makes sense for the custom of the boy bishop to have developed around the celebrations held in St. Nicholas's honor. Indeed, in some areas of England the boy bishop ruled on St. Nicholas's Day and was known as the "St. Nicholas Bishop." Furthermore, even though most cathedrals held the ceremonies associated with the boy bishop on Innocents'Day, many held elections for the boy bishop on St. Nicholas's Day. Some researchers have concluded that the boy bishop held office from St. Nicholas's Day to Holy Innocents' Day. During this time he enjoyed many of the privileges of a real bishop and attended to many of the responsibilities. Other writers point out that Innocents' Day also provided an appropriate occasion on which to elevate a boy to the role of bishop, since it commemorated the martyrdom of Bethlehem's male children.

The earliest known historical record of a boy bishop comes from what is now Switzerland. It tells us that in 911 and the bishop of Constance visited the monastery of St. Gall and attended a service presided over by the boy bishop and his choirboy attendants. The king entertained himself during the service by rolling apples into the aisles in an attempt to distract the children from their solemn duties. Apparently, the children demonstrated more dignity than did the king, since none stooped to pick up these tempting sweets.


Various customs surrounding the boy bishop reveal that this role reversal not only enjoyed popular support, but also received some degree of support from the Church. The institutions that sponsored boy bishops kept vestments specially made for them. These vestments were as luxurious and expensive as those made for real bishops. One old document describes a boy bishop's miter as being made of white silk, covered with flowers embroidered in silver and gold threads and ornamented with precious stones.


The reign of the boy bishop began on the eve of Holy Innocents'Day in most places. At England's Salisbury Cathedral the choirboys, dressed in the silk robes of archdeacons and canons (clerical staff) and led by the regally clad boy bishop, began their procession towards the altar near the end of vespers, the evening prayer service, on December 27. The boy bishop censed the altar, after which the canons rose from their chairs and went to the places vacated by the choir. The choirboys then assumed the seats normally occupied by the clergy. This seating arrangement persisted until vespers on the following day. Moreover, during that time the canons took over the choirboys' duties at services, such as carrying the book, candles, and incense. The boy bishop presided over all services until vespers on Holy Innocents' Day. Most researchers believe he was not permitted to say mass, although at York and Winchester cathedrals it appears that he may have done so. On Innocents' Day the boy bishop led a procession through the streets, blessing the people as he went. The procession, along with his Innocents' Day sermon, formed the highlights of his brief career. Only a few of these sermons have survived to the present time, and all show clear signs of having been written by adults. In their tone and choice of topic, they range from humorous to tedious. In one sermon the boy bishop, referring to the choirboys and other children present, quipped, "It is not so long since I was one of them myself" (Miles, 1990, 307).


In addition to his clerical duties, the boy bishop was expected to pay visits to churches, monasteries, and dignitaries throughout his diocese. The boy bishop and his entourage carried out this duty with zest, riding out in full regalia to receive the kind of respect, courtesies, gifts, feasts, and entertainments that would normally be offered to a real bishop. Many boys found that it took several days to execute this responsibility properly. Indeed, in 1396 the boy bishop of England's York Cathedral finally concluded his round of visitations on Candlemas. He collected more than eight pounds over the course of these visits. Of course, he did pay out a large portion of that sum in meeting the expenses of his entourage, which included a preacher, a steward, two singers, two attendants, and all their horses.

In general, people seem to have been amused by the boy bishop and welcomed his visits. In wealthy households the Lord of Misrule arranged food, drink, and gifts for the boy bishop and his entourage. It appears that, in return, the boys often entertained the household with songs or speeches. England's Queen Mary (1516-1558) is said to have received the boy bishop of St. Paul's Cathedral, who entertained her with a song. Since many churches, schools, and religious communities sponsored boy bishops, however, any one diocese might contain a small but highly active squad of miniature Christmas bishops, whose trails were sure to overlap. Thus, especially wealthy and high-ranking households and institutions sometimes received visits by more than one boy bishop during the Christmas season.


In spite of the costs and potential inconvenience this custom presented to ordinary people, most did not complain. Church authorities, though, led periodic campaigns to curtail the activities of the boy bishop and his court of choristers. These sporadic crusades appear to have been triggered either by the boys' unruly behavior or by disruptions caused by onlookers. In England the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral limited the rights of the boy bishop to demand either service by or entertainment from the canons in 1263. Similar limitations were enacted at Salisbury in 1319. In addition, however, Salisbury officials warned that anyone who shoved the boys or blocked their rightful activities risked excommunication. In 1443 authorities from Salisbury Cathedral penned a decree restricting the choristers from disrespectful behavior.

Tradition gave the choirboys the right to elect the boy bishop without interference from adults. Perhaps fearing that things could get out of hand, authorities at various English cathedrals slowly chipped away at this tradition. In 1263 officials at St. Paul's Cathedral eliminated this privilege entirely, claiming it for themselves. Authorities at York Cathedral proceeded more slowly, announcing qualifications for the post of boy bishop in 1367. They stipulated that the choir must choose a boy from among those with the longest and most exemplary records of service to the Cathedral. The boy also must possess both good looks and an acceptable singing voice. At Salisbury Cathedral the takeover attempt backfired. The choirboys revolted when the precentor (choral minister) attempted to curtail their free election of the boy bishop in 1449. The dean quickly convened a meeting of the canons, who upheld the choristers' right to choose the boy bishop without outside interference.


After its introduction in the tenth century, the custom of sponsoring boy bishops at Christmas time spread throughout Europe, becoming a common practice by the thirteenth century. Although known in many lands, boy bishops were especially popular in England, France, and Germany. The custom fell out of favor in the fifteenth century, an era of religious turmoil in which many old practices were questioned or eliminated (see also Puritans). In England King Henry VIII issued a proclamation forbidding the boy bishop in 1541. His lengthy edict demonstrates the changing attitudes of the time:

Whereas heretofore dyvers and many superstitions and chyldysh observances have been used, and yet to this day are observed and kept, and in many and sundry parts of this realm, as upon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Clement, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be stranglie decked and apparayled to counterfeit priestes, bishoppes, and women, and so be ledde with songes and daunces from house to house, blessing the people and gatheryng of money; and boyes do singe masse and preache in the pulpitt, with suche other unfittinge and inconvenient usages, rather to the deryson than any true glory of God, or honor of his sayntes: The Kynges Maiestie therefore, myndinge nothinge so moche as to advance the true glory of God without vaine superstition, wylleth and commanded that from henceforth all such superstitious observations be left and clerely extinguished throwout his realmes and dominions, for asmuch as the same doth resemble rather the unlawfull superstition of gentilitie, than the pure and sincere religion of Christe [Mackenzie, 1987, 15].


In recent years the boy bishop has sprung back to life in England. A few churches, among them Hereford Cathedral, have reinstituted some of the ceremonies and customs surrounding the boy bishop. On December sixth the boy bishop presides over an elaborate service at Hereford Cathedral. Dressed as a real bishop, the chosen boy walks at the head of a formal procession, gives the sermon, and leads the prayers and blessings. At one point in the service the real bishop of Hereford rises and offers the boy bishop his seat. Contemporary boy bishop ceremonies are observed on St. Nicholas's Day. In this way, they neither conflict with nor find themselves overshadowed by the celebrations and ceremonies already clustered around Christmas Day.

Further Reading

Chambers, Robert. "December 6 - The Boy Bishop: Eton Montem." In his The Book of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Howard, Alexander. Endless Cavalcade. London, England: Arthur Baker, 1964. Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994. ---. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Mackenzie, Neil. "Boy into Bishop." History Today 37, 12 (December 1987): 10-16. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
References in periodicals archive ?
"The name Boy Bishop. Why does their leader call himself that?"
There is no chapter on the boy bishop. Because role reversal characterizes both the Feast of the Innocents and the Feast of Fools, Harris includes accusations against the boy bishop with complaints against the subdeacons.
there's a long and popular history of Boy Bishops in the Church which has been "rediscovered" in recent years.
One of the clerics responsible for compiling the book rails in a long rubric against lascivious behavior, associating the lewd songs and dances that the clergy were accustomed to perform with the old feast of the Boy Bishop, for which liturgical books of Beauvais and Sens provide conductus and versus; yet this cleric himself composes new cantiones for "when the bishop is elected" and "when they go outside the church to dance."
Its rise had accompanied that of the boy bishop's festival, which is studied for earlier centuries by Shulamith Shahar, with particular attention to the sermons boy bishops preached.
The very rich section on "Parishes" (of which, for the pre-Elizabethan period, which supplies almost all the evidence, twenty-seven of the 108 parishes yield accounts, while forty-three inventories from the reign of Edward VI are extant) has subsections on the "Liturgical Calendar" (with fascinating information on the Boy Bishop, Palm Sunday prophets, and other parish plays), on "Parish Customs" (hocking, Maying, pageants, costumes, royal entries, celebratory connections), and on "Parish Rentals" (for performances in churches, churchyards, and halls).
Above all, the inspiration for burgeoning Edwardian misrule was not a continuation of traditional rites, such as the defunct Boy Bishop or long absent court Lord of Misrule, but a revival and expansion of the zealous revels initiated by evangelicals in the 1530s.
West Midland oddities featured include the Boy Bishop of Hereford, who is installed in the Lord Bishop's throne at Christmas as a lesson in humility, reviving a practice dating back to the 13th century, the gathering of the Court Leet and Court baron at Alcester Town Hall and the Woodmen of Arden, the country's most exclusive society of longbow enthusiasts founded at the Bulls Head in Meriden on November 15, 1785, by Heneage Finch, the 4th Earl of Aylesford.
The book opens as a priest tells the tale of a boy bishop to an audience of children and adolescents.
This was the boy bishop ceremony, observed at the cathedrals of Wells and Exeter during the month of December from the early fourteenth century at least, as well as at the collegiate church of Ottery St Mary and at Cowick Priory, a dependent cell of Tavistock Abbey.
This transformation of the saint may have occurred because the date of his martyrdom, 29 December, is close to the festal dates of the saints who figured so largely in boy bishop ceremonies and clerics' revels--Holy Innocents (28 December) and St Stephen (26 December).
But Labour's Frank Field fears boy bishops will use technicalities to keep the gals out whatever they say.