Medieval feudal society imposed a rigid order to society, and you would know your place within it. This blog looks at the rather unusual medieval Christmas traditions that albeit briefly inverted the social hierarchy…
The Boy Bishop
On 6th December, which was also known as the feast day of St Nicholas (who just so happened to be the patron saint of children), a boy bishop was elected. He would serve until 28th December which in the Christian calendar commemorated the massacre of the innocents by King Herod.
The boy bishop, usually a chorister, would essentially parody the role of the real bishop. He would look the part of a bishop by wearing child sized bishop vestments, a mitre, crozier and a ring. His fellow choristers would imitate the role of the cathedral canons also dressed in full garb. The boy bishop would perform all ceremonies except for mass, this mainly included singing and officiating at services. He would have to perform one sermon; usually on 28th December. This was then followed by the boy bishop and his comrades calling at people’s homes singing songs and giving blessings.
Like the real bishop he would set out on a visitation with his canons in tow. The boy bishop would do a tour of local ecclesiastical establishments where he would be generously entertained and be given many gifts. This hopefully made up for any lack of authority to impose correct doctrine and discipline! This tradition was widely observed at many of the leading cathedrals in England. It was eventually outlawed in 1559.
The Feast of Fools
The Feast of Fools was very similar to the tradition of boy bishops in that it involved lowly ranked members of the clergy taking on the duties of the bishop.
The Feast of Fools took place on 1st January, a sub deacon would act the role of bishop and other lowly ranked officials could swap places with their higher ups. Although it may conjure up images of mischievous antics it was actually considered a serious liturgical ritual.
The Feast of Fools would become synonymous with buffoonery and drunken extravagance. The ‘feast of fools’ historical reputation is probably more fanciful than the reality of what actually took place. Certainly, when the tradition began it was considered a way of celebrating the biblical principle of ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise’ (1 Cor. 1: 27). Modern writers consider that this poor reputation derives from post reformation writers exaggerating the extravagant excesses that supposedly took place and historians confusing the Feast of Fools with another Christmas tradition of The Lord of Misrule.
The Lord of Misrule
In the later Middle Ages The Lord of Misrule was appointed to oversee the Christmas festivities that took place in the courts of great noblemen, in the law schools of the Inns of Court and in many of the colleges of the great universities such as Oxford or Cambridge.
The Lord of Misrule was responsible for arranging the entertainment for the Christmas celebrations that year; so essentially a medieval events manager! This involved organising masques and processions as well as plays and feasts. The costumes including ass’s ears would have been quite a sight.
The Lord of Misrule reigned for anywhere from twelve days to three months. During that time, he would preside over a mock court where the revellers would pay comic homage to him. In this sense the lord of misrule and the revellers were mocking the customs of their social superiors. It was also a time where masters would serve their servants and fools could become kings and vice versa.
The rules of society being suspended was not always a good thing, the Lord of Misrule could command anyone one to do whatever he wanted. Naturally this led to some unsavoury incidents driven by drunken excess and wild behaviour. No wonder the Puritans were keen on banning it! There are court records of riots and disturbances with one case involving revellers being arrested after some glass windows had been smashed and one young man being indicted for horror of all horrors; singing a song he shouldn’t have been singing in a church!