Feast of Fools
FEAST OF FOOLS
A widely celebrated mock-religious festival of the Middle Ages. It was originally celebrated by the subdeacons of cathedrals, and was held on or about the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1). The name is sometimes applied collectively to the several liturgical revels of the Christmas season, particularly as celebrated by the deacons on the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26), the priests on St. John's Day (December 27), the choirboys on Holy Innocents' (December 28), and by the subdeacons on or about the Circumcision (January 1). Such revels, disputedly claimed to have been a Christian adaptation of the pagan festivities of the Kalends when great license was permitted the lower classes, were widespread in Europe during the Christmas season, and especially at the festivities of the subdeacons, whose feast came to be known specifically as the Feast of Fools. Though observances varied locally, they usually included burlesqued services, censing with unseemly objects, and more or less riotous behavior.
The essence of the feast was inversion of status, the control of the services of the day being given over wholly to the subdeacons. At First Vespers their representative (variously styled Lord, Abbot, Bishop, or Pope of Fools) received the staff of office from the master of ceremonies, assumed his authority, and retained it throughout the feast. Though the feast had its vogue in the French cathedrals, there are records of it in England, notably at Lincoln, Salisbury, and Beverley.
The feast seems to have originated about the 12th century; although official opposition was manifested as early as 1207, it continued in popularity through the 14th century. In 1435 very severe penalties were imposed by the Council of Basle for its observance; it was eventually suppressed, but remnants lingered on well into the 16th century.
See Also: feast of asses; boy bishop.
Bibliography: e. k. chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2 v. (Oxford 1903) 1:274–335, 336–389. k. young, The Drama of the Medieval Church, 2 v. (Oxford 1933) 1:104–111. e. welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London 1935) 197–217.
[m. n. maltman]