In This Article Feast of Fools

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bourgeois Confraternities of Fools
  • Musical Recordings

Medieval Studies Feast of Fools
by
Max Harris
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0078

Introduction

The Feast of Fools developed in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (1 January). Celebrating the biblical principle that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27), the feast allowed low-ranking subdeacons to assume leadership roles in worship, usually reserved for the bishop or the cantor. Similar privileges were granted to the choirboys and their “boy bishop” on the day of the Innocents (28 December), but the two feasts are best considered in separate articles. The first surviving notices of the Feast of Fools—from Paris, Beauvais, and Châlons, between 1160 and 1172—testify to a joyous, expansive, but not yet fully settled liturgy for the feast of the Circumcision. In 1198, in response to complaints from Pope Innocent III, a prescribed Office of the Circumcision was prepared for use in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Even more-elaborate offices were drawn up in Sens and Beauvais between 1200 and 1234. Surviving manuscripts of the Sens and Beauvais offices contain dignified and often-beautiful scores for corporate worship, deeply indebted to biblical texts and rich in musical variation. Over the next two centuries, the Feast of Fools expanded to some twenty further cathedrals and collegiate churches in northern France, flourishing in some cities for more than three centuries before gradually succumbing to pressures of reform. The first half of the 15th century saw a series of sustained attacks on the Feast of Fools, culminating in its condemnation by the ecumenical council of Basel (1435), the Pragmatic Sanction of Charles VII of France (1438), and a letter issued by the faculty of theology at the University of Paris (1445). While the liturgical Feast of Fools struggled for survival inside the churches, unrelated festivities of bourgeois confraternities of fools outside the churches burgeoned. Dressed in motley costumes with ass’s ears, secular fools had their own distinct traditions of parades, comic performances, and mimicry. Subsequent scholarship largely confused the two traditions, prompting considerable misreading of the older ecclesiastical records and contributing to the mistaken but widespread view that the Feast of Fools was little more than a disorderly clerical revel.

General Overviews

Only three books (Lucotte du Tilliot 1741, Chambers 1903, and Harris 2011) offer substantial engagement with the primary materials and attempt to tell the story of the Feast of Fools as a whole. As a native of Dijon, Lucotte du Tilliot’s primary interest was in the city’s secular confraternity of fools, the Infanterie Dijonnaise, or Mère Folle. Wanting to demonstrate the long history of the confraternity, he argued that it had its origins in an ecclesiastical Feast of Fools in the city’s Sainte-Chapelle. Tracing this origin narrative further, he gathered material not only on the local feast but also on every other instance of the Feast of Fools that he could find, as well as on its supposed precursors in the Roman Saturnalia and other pagan rites. Chambers, too, was inclined to find pagan origins for the Feast of Fools. Diligent in his research, he added considerably to Lucotte du Tilliot’s collection of archival materials, but his interpretation of these materials was too heavily influenced by J. G. Frazier’s The Golden Bough. Detaching the Feast of Fools from its liturgical context, he described it instead as a form of debased clerical folk custom. Harris, by contrast, finds the historical origins of the Feast of Fools in the same impulse for ecclesiastical and liturgical innovation that saw the building of the first Gothic cathedrals and the development of polyphonic chant. Rereading the primary documents (including several overlooked by Chambers), he grounds the feast in the seasonal liturgy of the church, distinguishes it from other contemporaneous New Year festivities, subjects the claims of its critics to careful scrutiny, and attends to the larger cultural contexts that affected both the character and the reception of the feast over time. By doing so, he reconstructs a Feast of Fools that is all the more remarkable for being sanctified rather than sacrilegious. Among shorter treatments of the Feast of Fools, Chérest 1853 is sensitive to its liturgical context, and Dreves 1894 is balanced, but Gilhus 1990 is necessarily influenced by Chambers’ view of the feast. Heers 1983 should be avoided.

  • Chambers, E. K. The Mediaeval Stage. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903.

    E-mail Citation »

    See especially Vol. 1, pp. 274–335, for discussion of the Feast of Fools. For more than a century, the most complete collection of translated, paraphrased, or summarized data culled from the archives, and the source to which scholars necessarily turned for information on the Feast of Fools. Chambers’s interpretation of the data has been suspect for some time and has been effectively rebutted and replaced in Harris 2011.

  • Chérest, Aimé. “Nouvelles recherches sur la fête des innocents et la fête des fous.” Bulletin de la Société des sciences historiques et naturelles de l’Yonne 7 (1853): 7–82.

    E-mail Citation »

    An early and commendable call to reassess the reputation of the Feast of Fools. Appreciative of the Sens Office of the Circumcision in particular, Chérest argued that prevailing scholarly narratives of disorder were incompatible with the prolonged financial and moral support that had been provided for the feast by eminent cathedral chapters.

  • Dreves, Guido Maria. “Zur Geschichte der fête des fous.” Stimmen aus Maria-Laach 47 (1894): 571–587.

    E-mail Citation »

    An early and remarkably balanced attempt to write a brief history of the Feast of Fools.

  • Gilhus, Ingvild Salid. “Carnival in Religion: The Feast of Fools in France.” Numen 37.1 (1990): 24–52.

    E-mail Citation »

    Treats the Feast of Fools as a carnivalesque rite of inversion. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Harris, Max. Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Replaces Chambers 1903 as the most complete collection of data on the Feast of Fools and rewrites the history of the Feast of Fools as a profoundly Christian act of corporate worship rather than a disorderly remnant of pagan folk practices. May be consulted for further discussion of most items in this article.

  • Heers, Jacques. Fêtes des fous et carnavals. Paris: Fayard, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    Heers uncritically repeats the prevailing narrative of clerical disorder. Widely quoted by French scholars, his book is marred by frequent errors and a complete lack of documentation.

  • Lucotte du Tilliot, Jean Bénigne. Memoires pour servir à l’histoire de la fête des foux: Qui se faisoit autrefois dans plusieurs eglises. Lausanne, France: Marc-Michel Bousquet, 1741.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first half of Lucotte du Tilliot’s book contains a miscellany of data about the Feast of Fools in general. The second half provides a valuable collection of documents about the history of the Infanterie Dijonnaise in particular. The second half is far more reliable than the first.

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