Boy Bishop

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The name given in the Middle Ages to the leader of the revels of the choirboys on Holy Innocents' Day (December 28). The revels can be traced to the 10th century; their initial motive seems to have been the exaltation of the innocent and lowly. For the duration of the festival, the choirboys took over the senior positions in all the cathedral ceremonies and offices except the Mass. In these activities they were led by a boy bishop, or episcopus puerorum, whom they elected well in advance, often on December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas. The custom, originally confined to the cathedrals, spread to large monastic and scholastic establishments, and to nearly all parishes throughout Europe, flourishing particularly in France, Germany, and England. In England the feast proved far more popular and enduring than the feast of fools. It is amply recorded from the 13th century to the 16th, with full details for the ministry of the boy bishop provided by the Sarum breviary and processional.

The central rite was the great procession between Vespers and Compline on the Eve of Holy Innocents, after which the boys took the higher stalls and kept them until Vespers of the feast. On the Continent, at First Vespers, the baculus (staff of office) was handed over to the boy bishop while the Deposuit potentes of the Magnificat was being sung. In various places in England the boy bishop preached at Mass. Several church councils attempted to abolish or to restrain the abuses, which crept in probably through contamination by the revels of the subdeacons. The boy bishop was, however, less subject to criticism than the lord of fools, and the feast certainly preserved for a longer period the integrity of the original religious tradition. The custom was prohibited by the Council of Basle in 1435, but was too popular to be entirely suppressed. In England it was finally abolished by Elizabeth I; on the Continent traces of the feast survived into the 19th century.

See Also: feast of asses.

Bibliography: e. k. chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2 v. (Oxford 1903) 1:336371, 2:282289. k. young, The Drama of the Medieval Church, 2 v. (Oxford 1933) 1:106111, 552.

[m. n. maltman]