Feast of Fools

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Fools, Feast of

Fools, Feast of, burlesque religious festival of the Middle Ages. It occurred during the Christmas and New Year's revels, on or near New Year's Day. In many places a Lord of Misrule ruled over the revels. In France and England the ceremonies were under the charge of the Boy-Bishop, a young man fitted out as a high clergyman. During the feast, lower clergymen and minor officials parodied the sacred rites and customs of the Church. A similar burlesque, the Feast of the Ass, celebrating the donkey on which Mary and the Child Jesus rode, was widespread in France. Such burlesques were generally put down by the 15th cent.
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Feast of Fools

In the Middle Ages lower clerics in France, Germany, Bohemia, and England celebrated the Christmas season by holding mock religious ceremonies that made fun of their usual solemn duties. These lower clerics held low-ranking positions at local churches that involved assisting the priest in his duties or playing a minor role in religious services. Their burlesque rites were known as "The Feast of Fools" and were observed on a variety of days throughout the season. The deacons led the revelry on December 26, St. Stephen's Day, the sub-priests (or vicars) on December 27, St. John's Day, the choirboys on December 28, Holy Innocents' Day, and the sub-deacons on January 1, the Feast of the Circumcision. The name "Feast of Fools" was most often given to the rites led by the sub-deacons on January 1. Indeed, these were accounted by some to be the most riotous of all these mock ceremonies.


Some scholars trace the roots of the Feast of Fools back to Kalends, the Roman new year celebration that lived on for centuries after the fall of the Empire. Other writers point to similarities between the Feast of Fools and some of the customs surrounding Saturnalia. By the twelfth century the Feast of Fools had emerged in full force. It first established itself as an observance of the sub-deacons, but soon expanded to encompass other lower clerics. It appears to have been more popular in France than in any other European country. By the end of the twelfth century Parisians were treated to the spectacle several times over during the Christmas season, as the deacons (St. Stephen's Day) sub-priests (St. John's Day), choirboys (Holy Innocents'Day), and sub-deacons (Feast of the Circumcision, Epiphany, or the Octave of Epiphany) all had a go at leading the mock rites.

Historical documents record several centuries of complaints registered by priests, bishops, and other high-ranking Church officials who, in spite of their authority, seemed unable to stop the raucous revelry. Not only did lower clerics relish their festival, but townsfolk also enjoyed the outrageous spectacle. In 1435 the Council of Basle forbade the Feast of Fools. Nevertheless, the lower clergy clung to their yearly spree for another 150 years. Clerics from the cathedral of Amiens, France, continued to celebrate the Feast of Fools until 1721.


Participants in the Feast of Fools reversed all customary rules of proper church behavior. Instead of presiding over religious services with dignity, seriousness, and reverence, they brought the coarse, lusty, irreverent behavior of the carnival to church. After their wild mass, they often roamed the streets in an equally wild, mock religious procession. In some places merrymakers chose a bishop or archbishop of fools to preside over the celebration. As insignia of his newfound rank he wore a bishop's miter and carried a bishop's staff. Clerical participants in the follies often dressed in street clothing, including women's clothing, masks, garlands of greenery, or even in fools'costumes.

Our knowledge of these mock ceremonies comes mostly from the writings of higher clergy who disapproved of the revels. According to one irate cleric who observed the proceedings in mid-fifteenth-century France:

Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of the office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gesture and verses scurrilous and unchaste [Miles, 1990, 304].

In a similar observance called the Feast of the Ass, a donkey carrying a young woman was led into church and made to stand near the altar. This act may have been meant to represent the flight of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus into Egypt shortly after Jesus' birth (seealso Flight into Egypt). Nevertheless, the revelers took the opportunity to sing the praises of the ass in Latin and to require the officiant to end the mass by braying three times like a donkey. The congregation responded in kind.

In enacting these rites, those of lesser status in the Church temporarily usurped the roles of higher-ups, performing unflattering impersonations of priests, bishops, and archbishops. In this respect the Feast of Fools resembled other Christmas season rites that authorized similar, temporary inversions of power and status. These include the festivities surrounding the boy bishop, the Lord of Misrule, barring out the schoolmaster, Holy Innocents' Day, Saturnalia, and Twelfth Night.

Further Reading

Chambers, E. K. The Mediaeval Stage. Volume 1. Oxford England: Clarendon Press, 1903. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 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. Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Feast of Fools

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Late December or early January
Where Celebrated: France, Germany, and other European countries. Observed less widely in England.
Symbols and Customs: Archbishop of Fools, Ass
Related Holidays: Holy Innocents' Day, Saturnalia


The Feast of Fools was a mock-religious Christian festival popular during the Middle Ages in Europe, particularly France. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

The Feast of Fools had much in common with the ancient Roman SATURNALIA , observed in late December. Shortly after CHRISTMAS, various lower-level clergy and church officials held a series of revels. The deacons held their celebration on ST. STEPHEN'S DAY (December 26), the choirboys on HOLY INNOCENTS' DAY (December 28), the priests on the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), and the subdeacons on EPIPHANY (January 6). Collectively, these festivals came to be known as the Feast of Fools because they usually involved irreverent and disorderly behavior. The group to whom the day belonged would nominate a bishop or ARCHBISHOP OF FOOLS , who was then ordained in a mock ceremony and presented to the people. Wearing masks and dressed in women's clothing, the revelers would dance and sing obscene songs, play dice or eat black pudding at the altar while the Mass was being said, burn old shoes in the censers, and run around the church behaving in a way that would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances. The Feast of Fools eventually developed into a celebration for the poor and lower-class clergy in general, who undoubtedly had a great deal of fun mocking the sacred but tedious rites performed by their superiors.

The temporary reversal of authority associated with the Feast of Fools was characteristic of the ancient Roman observation of the Kalends, or first day of the month, as was the wearing of beast-like masks and dressing up in women's clothes. In fact, the Feast of Fools probably represents a combination of the Roman feast of the Kalends of January with other Celtic pagan festivals. The lower clergy usually belonged to the peasant or bourgeois class and were not well educated, which made them more inclined to cling to folk rituals. The whole idea of setting aside certain days for reveling and masquerading was probably designed to prevent them from misbehaving during Christmas week.

The Feast of Fools was most widely celebrated in France, although it was also observed in Germany and Bohemia, and to a lesser extent in England. During the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, Church reformers tried to crack down on some of the abuses and even to prohibit the celebration altogether, but it was too popular to be suppressed entirely. Even after it was expelled from the churches of France in the fifteenth century, its traditions continued to be observed outside the church, often at times other than the Christmas season. In the cathedral at Amiens, France, the Feast of Fools was still being observed as late as 1721.


Archbishop of Fools

It was customary for a low-level clerk to preside over the services held throughout the Feast of Fools. He would be given the staff normally used by the official who directed the church's choral services and, dressed in the robes worn by his superiors, he would sit on the real bishop's throne, handing out benedictions and indulgences. He was referred to as the Archbishop (or sometimes cardinal or pope) of Fools.

Aside from being characteristic of the role reversal associated with the Kalends celebrations (see "Origins" above), the Archbishop of Fools may have been a survival of the tradition of crowning a mock king at the SATURNALIA.


The traditions associated with the Feast of Fools were continued by, and eventually blended with, the Feast of the Asses (or Feast of the Ass), which was also observed on January 1, the Feast of the Circumcision. This festival involved a crude reenactment of the flight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt to escape King Herod's order that all the young boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area be slaughtered (see HOLY INNOCENTS' DAY). A young girl holding a baby would ride into the church on an ass, and at the close of the service the priest would bray like a donkey three times, and the congregation would respond in the same manner.

In France during the fifteenth century and later, when the Feast of Fools celebration moved outside the church after being condemned by church authorities as too blasphemous and irreverent, the popular figure of the ARCHBISHOP OF FOOLS was replaced by a Prince des Sots (Prince of Fools), whose distinctive costume included a hood with asses' ears. This is believed to be a relic of primitive times, when the heads of sacrificed animals were often worn by festival worshippers.

The ass is frequently portrayed in Renaissance paintings, particularly when the subject is the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt, or the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Because the ass represents the humblest of animals, its presence at such pivotal events in the life of Christ not only underscores his divine humility but also shows that even the lowliest beings of creation recognized him as the Son of God.


Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. James, E.O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore, and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/06132a.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Fools, Feast of

On or around January 1
A mock-religious festival popular during the Middle Ages in Europe, particularly France, the Feast of Fools had much in common with the Roman Saturnalia. During the holiday period around Christmas and New Year's Day, various classes of the clergy took turns reversing the normal procedures in the church. On January 1, the Feast of the Circumcision, for example, the priests were in charge; on Holy Innocents' Day, December 28, the choirboys held sway. The group to whom the day belonged would nominate a bishop and archbishop of fools, ordaining them in a mock ceremony and then presenting them to the people. Masked and dressed in women's clothing, they would dance and sing obscene songs, play dice or eat at the altar, burn old shoes in the censers, and engage in other activities that would normally be unthinkable. The revelry died out around the time of the Reformation.
The Feast of Fools was similar, but not identical, to the Feast of the Ass that was observed in France around Christmas time.
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 374
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 244
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 99; vol. 6, p. 526
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 253
OxYear-1999, p. 34
SeasFeast-1961, p. 278
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
In the remainder of this paper I assert that these fruitfully align to Bakhtin's depiction of a medieval 'feast of fools' where all things are possible, in a delightfully discursive contemporary sense that utilises the body--as a central form of 'voice'--to its fullest extent.
Feast of Fools will take place at the New Theatre, Cardiff on June 28 & 29.
Smoldon, The Music of the Medieval Church Dramas, Cynthia Bourgeault (ed.), (London, 1980), 224-45; Jerome Taylor, 'Prophetic "Play" and Symbolist "Plot" in the Beauvais Daniel', Comparative Drama 11 (1977), 191-208; Margot Fassler, 'The Feast of Fools and Ludus Danielis: Popular Tradition in a Medieval Cathedral Play', Thomas Forrest Kelly (ed.), Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony (Cambridge, 1992), 65-99; Dunbar H.
By the end, no one really knows who is the "victor." Finally, don't let the Feast of Fools become a complicated event.
Documentary evidence for the Feast of Fools begins in northern France in the second half of the twelfth century, the phrase festum stultorum first used by the Parisian liturgist John Beleth (1160-64).
Durand repeats Beleth's comment about subdeacons celebrating the feast of fools, in some churches on the feast of the Circumcision, in others on the Epiphany or the octave of Epiphany, but comments on its confused character: "Because the authority of the practice is not certain, as in the ancient canons it is sometimes called sacred, sometimes not, therefore the subdeacons do not have a fixed day for their celebration, and their feast is celebrated in a confused way." (87) Durand's comment, derived from Beleth, reflects his disapproval of the practice.
"A Reassessment of the Feast of Fools: A Rough and Holy and Liturgy." XII Colloquium de la Societe Internationale pour l'etude du Theatre Medieval.
A very significant moment in the construction of Esmeralda is the dance sequence at the Feast of Fools. She pops out of a cloud of smoke, simulating a magic trick or even an instance of witchcraft.
In 1969 the Harvard theologian and culture critic Harvey Cox in a book entitled The Feast of Fools faulted him sharply for "assum[ing] a creation that is not only good but perfect." To Cox, though he astutely recognized the theological dimension in Cage's work, the composer's stance risked becoming "a supine acceptance of the world as it is." And there were artists and art critics who had similar objections.
The chairman of Warwick District Council, Cllr Josie Compton, said the Feast of Fools was in aid of Myton Hospice and the Leamington branch of the NSPCC.
Shelves of bread loaves like big leather shoes of sad old clerks not like smell of yeast and life's an open wound, festering, and a feast of fools. No dignity, my darling, in these last three hours of the world.
Now comes The Feast of Fools, the most ambitious, the most brilliantly synoptic, of his works.