The New Year's Feast That Transformed Fools Into Popes and Kings - Atlas Obscura
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The New Year’s Feast That Transformed Fools Into Popes and Kings

In medieval churches, hierarchy was inverted for a day.

A depiction of the Feast of Fools.
A depiction of the Feast of Fools. Kim Støvring/CC BY 2.0

The Feast of Fools, as described by the French theologians who condemned it in 1445, sounds like a ton of fun. This New Year’s Day celebration, they wrote, caught up high-ranking church officials in a bacchanal unworthy of their exalted positions.

“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office,” the theologians recounted, presumably with a sniff of horror. “They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings… while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice… They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame.”

Officially banned in the 15th century, the Feast of Fools had its origins 300 years before, in the 1100s, and continued as a tradition well into the 16th century. It was memorialized in church documents condemning its excesses and in paintings depicting streets full of merry chaos. It appears in Victor Hugo’s famous 19th century novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when Quasimodo is swept up in the festivities and crowned King of Fools.

This rowdy revelry may never has been quite as raucous as was rumored. It started out as a much tamer liturgical celebration, which accrued an outsized reputation for subversiveness. At its heart, though, the Feast of Fools always turned power on its head—a reversal that naturally made church leaders very nervous.

A 14th century representation of a much tamer Feast of Fools.
A 14th century representation of a much tamer Feast of Fools. Public domain

In the book Sacred Folly, independent scholar Max Harris traces the history of the Feast of Fools to three locations in northern France. There, on the first day of each year, lower members of the clergy would take on the duties of higher-ranking priests and bishops. (There was, for instance, a Pope of Fools.) This inversion of power, though, wasn’t meant to bring down the more powerful clergy so much as uplift the lower: The “fools” here were fools in a particular Biblical sense, people beloved of God precisely because they were of lower status.

There were some elements of merriment to these early Feasts of Fools, including a “song of the ass,” which “evoke[d] the beauty, strength, and virtues of an ass as it journey[ed] from the East, across the river Jordan, to Bethlehem,” and sometimes involved an actual donkey being led into church. And once, Harris reports, someone did use this celebration as an opportunity to hit a cleric with “an inflated and swollen hen’s bladder.”

For the most part, though, he finds “no verifiable rowdiness,” only second- and third-hand reports from worrywarts distant from the actual celebrations.

An engraving of the Feast of Fools, made in 1559, after it was banned.
An engraving of the Feast of Fools, made in 1559, after it was banned. Pieter Van der Heyden

But outside the church doors, concurrent celebrations were much more irreverent. In these medieval centuries, Harris writes, it became popular for students to parade through the streets with their faces blackened with mud (or even animal dung) to conceal their identities while they parodied clergy, doctors, civil officials, and rulers. These parades certainly featured cross-dressing, drinking, singing, and all manner of other mischief and behavior that usually wouldn’t be tolerated.

Wintertime celebrations like these, where the less powerful parts of society had the chance to break loose for a day, trace their roots to Roman and other European pagan festivals of role-reversal. They weren’t always held on New Year’s Day, but in some places the New Year’s Feast of Fools took on a second, more secular meaning.

Compared to other scholars, Harris goes unusually far in trying to distinguish the Feast of Fools inside the church from the revelry outside, a distinction that leads him perhaps too close to “the opposite statement of the Feast of Fools as lacking disarray,” as one reviewer wrote. Even if actual clergymen weren’t getting dressed up and rampaging through the streets, the reversal of power that they did indulge in was enough to make their leaders crack down on the tradition. People in power don’t always have a sense of humor about their power being questioned, even if this critique stops at donkey songs and hen bladders.

It’s easy to imagine, too, that lower-ranking religious servants did occasionally get caught up in the madness going on in the streets. After all, if some strange behavior is banned, it’s usually because someone tried it.