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Feast of Asses


The name sometimes given in medieval France to the feast of fools, celebrated on or about the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), and sometimes to the Festival of the Flight into Egypt, held within the octave of the Epiphany (January 6). Both feasts, however innocent in origin, were by the 13th century characterized by burlesqued services, in some of whichas at Beauvais, Sens, and Autunthe ass played a part. At Beauvais, two 13th-century MSS, one for the Feast of the Circumcision, the other for the Flight into Egypt, show the normal form of the Mass and the Canonical Office retained, but the text extended by interpolations, or tropes, and the ceremonial including a considerable amount of buffoonery.

The ceremonial for the feast of the Flight into Egypt called for braying by the participants at Mass and, it would appear, the bringing of an ass into church. Both included the Prose of the Ass, Orientis partibus, each stanza of which had as refrain some variant of "Hez, Sire Asne, hez!" A "reformed" version for the feast on January 1, at Sens, although called asinaria festa and retaining the Prose of the Ass, omits the coarser elements of revelry and seems to have been entirely serious in its intentions. The ass itself was not necessarily a comic figure; it had served for the flight into Egypt, for Christ's entry into Jerusalem, and was, moreover, associated with the ox in praesepe observances.

The relation between the Feast of Asses and plays of the prophets such as that of Balaam and his ass is not altogether clear. Karl Young, while noting that the dramatic Ordo Prophetarum came first, denies that the riotous asinaria festa was derived from it. It would appear that in the course of time the ass was introduced from the Feast of Fools into the plays of the prophets, and that sometimes, as at Rouen, the asina forced upon the pious performance the name Festum Asinorum. The Feast of Asses was, of course, included in the ecclesiastical strictures against the Feast of Fools.

See Also: drama, medieval.

Bibliography: e. k. chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2 v. (Oxford 1903; reprint 1948) 1:274335. k. young, The Drama of the Medieval Church, 2 v. (Oxford 1933) 1:104105, 551; 2:154170.

[m. n. maltman]

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