Feast of Fools

Liturgical and Secular Celebrations

The Feast of Fools
A 14th-century miniature representing the Feast of Fools. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia

At the end of December and the beginning of January, there were several festivals celebrated in medieval Europe, among them the Feast of Fools. There was an official liturgical Feast of Fools within the Church, and there were also secular festivities celebrating fools and foolishness outside the churches. 

The Feast of Fools was also known as:

The Festival of Fools; in Latin, festum fatuorum, festum stultorum, festum hypodiaconorum

The Liturgical Feast of Fools

The officially-sanctioned Church Feast of Fools does not appear to have been celebrated outside of France. The earliest known mentions of it are in Paris, Beauvais, and Châlons, between 1160 and 1172. Its origin, as noted by the 12th-century liturgical writer John Beleth, was apparently a special "festival of the subdeacons." Deacons had a festival on St. Stephen's day (December 26), the priests had one on St. John the Evangelist's day (December 27), and the choristers had theirs on the day of the Holy Innocents (December 28). The subdeacons chose the day of the Circumcision, January 1st.

The Feast of Fools celebrated the biblical idea that "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise" (1 Cor. 1:27). During the festival, the low-ranking subdeacons would take on the leadership roles that were usually performed by the bishop or cantor. This is similar to the feast of the "Boy Bishop," but that was a separate festival that took up several weeks in December.

The tenor of Feast of Fools was one of welcoming fraternity and joy.

In 1198, due to concerns of Pope Innocent III, an elaborate Office of the Circumcision was drawn up to be used in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, which was followed by similar offices for Sens and Beauvais. Surviving manuscripts for these offices contain musical scores for worship that are close to the biblical origins of their texts and are considered beautiful musical renderings.

There is evidence that these festivals were orderly and intricately-planned.

The liturgical Feast of Fools spread to about 20 cathedrals in northern France. The festival was celebrated for about 300 years, until it began to be subject to attacks by the clergy elsewhere -- possibly due to the coincidence of the secular feast. In 1435, the Feast of Fools was condemned by the council of Basel, and in 1438 Charles VII of France issued a "Pragmatic Sanction" against it. Finally, in 1445, the faculty of theology at the University of Paris issued a letter against the Feast of Fools, and the liturgical festival was no more.

The Secular Feast of Fools

While a liturgical feast of beauty and dignity was taking place inside the churches of northern France, a much more unrestrained and raucous festival developed outside. Also celebrated on or about January 1st, the secular Feast of Fools may have been initially sponsored by guilds or brotherhoods of fools and jesters. In these popular celebrations, strict Christian morals were abandoned and ridiculous rites were practiced in a mockery of the ordered society that, usually, prevailed throughout the rest of the year. 

It is difficult to determine exactly when and how the secular event began.

John Beleth and most later scholars theorize a connection to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia; as John put it: 

"now the license which is then permitted is called Decembrian, because it was customary of old among the pagans that during this month slaves and serving-maids should have a sort of liberty given them, and should be put upon an equality with their masters, in celebrating a common festivity."

However, little evidence exists for the popular Feast of Fools before the twelfth century, so it's unlikely, if not impossible, for the event to have a direct connection to something that was discouraged as "pagan" once the empire became Christian 800 years earlier. It seems more likely that the fools and jesters took up the idea upon learning of the liturgical feast. 

While the liturgical festival faced attacks and ultimate censure, the secular Feast of Fools grew in popularity.

It didn't die out completely until the 16th century, probably thanks in part to influences from the Reformation.

Sources and Suggested Reading

The links below will take you to an online bookstore, where you can find more information about the book to help you get it from your local library. This is provided as a convenience to you; neither Melissa Snell nor About is responsible for any purchases you make through these links.

Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools
by Max Harris

The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy
by Harvey Cox

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Snell, Melissa. "Feast of Fools." ThoughtCo, Dec. 30, 2015, thoughtco.com/feast-of-fools-1788859. Snell, Melissa. (2015, December 30). Feast of Fools. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/feast-of-fools-1788859 Snell, Melissa. "Feast of Fools." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/feast-of-fools-1788859 (accessed November 19, 2017).