19th-century depiction of a medieval boy bishop, attended by his canons

The Feast of Fools or Festival of Fools (Latin: festum fatuorum, festum stultorum) was a feast day on January 1 celebrated by the clergy in Europe during the Middle Ages, initially in Southern France, but later more widely.[1] During the Feast, participants would elect either a false Bishop, false Archbishop, or false Pope.[2][3] Ecclesiastical ritual would also be parodied, and higher and lower-level clergy would change places.[2][3] The lack of surviving documents or accounts, as well as changing cultural and religious norms, has considerably obscured the modern understanding of the Feast, which originated in proper liturgical observance, and has more to do with other examples of medieval liturgical drama, though there is some connection with the earlier pagan (Roman) feasts of Saturnalia and Kalends or the later bourgeois in Sotie.[4] Over the course of a week, the ceremonies would be led by different people in positions of power within the church. On December 26, St. Stephen's Day, the deacons led the ceremonies. The sub-priests (or vicars) were in charge on December 27, St. John's Day, the choirboys on December 28, Holy Innocents’ Day, and the sub-deacons on the first of January, the Feast of the Circumcision.[5] There is some disagreement on whether the term Feast of Fools was originally used to refer to the collection of days[5] or specifically the celebrations taking place on the first of January.[6] The word "fool" is used as a synonym for humble, as was common in the 11th century, rather than the modern use that treats it as another term for clown or jester.[4]


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Narrenkonvent um 1500. Pieter Breugel, südniederländischer Maler, Zeichner und Druckgrafiker. Antwerpen (1551–1563), Italien (1553), Brüssel (1563–1569)

Due to the lack of formal research on the feast, its exact origin is hard to pin down. The most prominent historians place its emergence in Central Europe, somewhere in what is now southeast France, but the margin of error is such that it could have been with France, Italy, or the Holy Roman Empire. Some historians believe a possible start of the feast came between 1119 and 1124 from Herod Games that were led by Geronimo of Reichersberg. These games focused around the alleged absurdity of King Herod, a Jewish-Roman ruler of Judea, and was practiced by storming a cathedral, throwing wooden spears at the choir, and beating by-standers with inflated animal bladders. This is thought to be the start of Feast of Fools since King Herod was coming into vogue in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a notable uptick in the number of plays and pieces being performed about him. Another story that lends strength to the theory of the feast coming from events and plays based on King Herod is his story from the Office of the Star. The story claims that Herod, who was king of what is now south-Israel/Palestine, including Bethlehem, around the nativity of Jesus, learned of Christ's birth and, concerned that a new born king would challenge his own rule of the area, ordered the murder of every new-born boy in his kingdom. The story claims that the murder of Jesus was prevented by King Herod's own page-boys, who then gained God's favor. This is pointed to as the explanation for the reversal of positions with clerical rank during the Feast of Fools, with a God holding page-boys in high regard and not caring for a king. This focus on King Herod is a potential explanation of why the feast did not spread nor survive as long as other festivals, as it was essentially born out of a trend in contemporary medieval theatre.[4]

The first recorded mention of the feast from the Church comes from between 1160 and 1164 in Paris and was written by John Beleth. He explained how sub-deacons, who it had recently been decided to be the lowest of the highest clerical orders rather than the highest of the lower clerical order, were meant to preside over the Feast of the Circumcision, but that the exact details of the feast hadn't been formalized yet. It is theorized that this, in combination of the page-boy and King Herod story, is where the tradition of swapping positions within the church came from, showing how God favors the socially low.[4]

Context and customs

The festival seems to have acted as a brief social revolution, in which power, dignity, and impunity was briefly granted to those in a subordinate position. In the views of some historians, this makes the medieval festival a successor to the Roman Kalends of January, although there is no continuity between the two celebrations.[4] Lower-level clergy would also participate in the festival and hold masses on different day which would mock usually church traditions.[3]

On each day of festivities, the participants would elect a single one of them, often referred to as the Archbishop of Fools, and they would carry and wear the items associated with that rank,[5] in addition to gaining the powers normally associated with that position.[6] The meaning of the festival, beyond serving as a chance for joy like any other holiday, was to show that those with power and wealth would eventually fall from grace.[7]

Similar to modern day celebrations like Carnival and Mardi Gras, dancing in a provocative style, wearing masks, and the community being generally more allowing of obscene acts was common place.[7] Additionally, Mardi Gras celebrations include serving of the King Cake or Gallette de Rois, which contains a small token. In earlier times, the person getting the token was crowned as king, and was expected to host the next gathering. Usually celebrated around Epiphany, it is considered a continuation of the ancient Roman Saturnalia where masters would host for their slaves.

Official condemnation

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Feast of Fools, Misericord carving in Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire[8]

The Feast of Fools and the subversive traditions associated with it were the object of condemnations of the medieval Church, starting as early as the twelfth century.[9] On the other hand, some Catholic writers have thought it necessary to try to deny the existence of such abuses. One interpretation that reconciles this contradiction is that, while there can be no question that Church authorities of the calibre of Robert Grosseteste repeatedly condemned the license of the Feast of Fools in the strongest terms, such firmly rooted customs took centuries to eradicate. It is certain that the practice lent itself to serious abuses, whose nature and gravity varied at different epochs. It should be said that among the thousands of European liturgical manuscripts the occurrence of anything which has to do with the Feast of Fools is extraordinarily rare. It never occurs in the principal liturgical books, the missals and breviaries. There are traces occasionally in a prose or a trope found in a gradual or an antiphonary. It would therefore seem there was little official approval for such extravagances, which were rarely committed to writing.

In order to curb the extremeness of the festivities after the Feast of Fools, on New Year's Day at Notre-Dame de Paris in the twelfth century, the "Lord of Misrule" or "Precentor Stultorum" was restrained, so that he was to be allowed to intone the prose "Laetemur gaudiis", and to wield the precentor's staff, but this was before the first Vespers of the feast, not during it, though the festival was not entirely banned. During the second Vespers, it had been the custom that the precentor of the fools should be deprived of his staff when the verse in the Magnificat, Deposuit potentes de sede ("He has put down the mighty from their seat") was sung. Hence the feast was often known as the "Festum 'Deposuit'". Eudes de Sully allowed the staff to be taken at that point from the mock precentor but laid down that the verse "Deposuit" not be repeated more than five times. There was a similar case of a legitimized Feast of Fools at Sens about 1220, where the whole text of the office has survived. There are many proses, and interpolations (farsurae) added to the ordinary liturgy, but nothing much unseemly. This prose, or conductus, was not a part of the office, but only a preliminary to Vespers. In 1245 Cardinal Odo, the papal legate in France, wrote to the Chapter of Sens Cathedral demanding that the feast be celebrated with no un-clerical dress and no wreaths of flowers.

End of the Feast

The Feast of Fools was officially forbidden by the Council of Basel in 1431 and again in a document issued by the theological faculty of the University of Paris in 1444; numerous decrees of lower level provincial councils followed. The Feast of Fools was condemned by early Protestants, and among Catholics it seems that the abuse had largely disappeared by the time of the Council of Trent, though instances of festivals of this kind survived in France as late as 1721, in Amiens, France,[5] and Brussels, Belgium in 1719.[10]

Connections to other holidays

In popular culture

Victor Hugo recreated an account of a Feast of Fools in his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. In the novel, it is celebrated on January 6, 1482 (Twelfth Night) and Quasimodo serves as the Pope of Fools. The 1939 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame opens with the Feast of Fools: Quasimodo is crowned King of Fools. Disney's 1996 animated film version of the novel shows the same incident with the song "Topsy Turvy".

The Feast of Fools and the Church of Rome's efforts to ban it play important roles in Alan Gordon's series of historical novels about the (fictional) Fools' Guild at the turn of the 12th to the 13th centuries. (Not to be confused with the modern Fools Guild.)


Possibly as a result of it dying out in the 1700 and possibly as a result of it never spreading as much as other celebrations, there is a lack of research works based specifically upon the Feast of Fools. The first major work was done by Jean Bénigne Lucotte du Tilliot in 1741, titled "Memoires pour servir à l’histoire de la fête des foux: Qui se faisoit autrefois dans plusieurs eglises." [12] The first half of the work was effectively a collection of primary sources related to the feast while the second part of the work focused on Infanterie Dijonnaise, a confraternity that he was trying to prove had its beginnings in the feast.[12] The second major work wouldn't come until 1903, written by E.K Chambers and titled "The Mediaeval Stage."[13] Chambers focused heavily on the feasts potential pagan origins, almost writing off its litigurical origins completely.[12] The last major work was "Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools" done by Max Harris in 2011 and is now considered to be the default resource for information on the feast.[4][12] Harris's work argues against nearly everything Chambers stated, instead claiming that the feast has pagan, Christian, and secular roots, its secular roots still being tied back to religious plays.[4]

Further reading

See also


  1. ^ "Overture". The Feast of Fools. Harvard University Press. 1 October 2013. pp. 3–6. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674285002.c1. ISBN 978-0-674-28500-2.
  2. ^ a b "Feast of Fools | medieval festival | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 28 September 2022.
  3. ^ a b c Green, Joseph L. (2011). The Power of the Original Church : Turning the World Upside Down. Shippensburg: Destiny Image, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7684-9004-6. OCLC 781613685.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Harris, Max (2011). Sacred folly : a new history of the Feast of Fools. Ithaca [N.Y.]: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-6161-3. OCLC 732957185.
  5. ^ a b c d Gulevich, Tanya (1 June 2000). Encyclopedia of Christmas: nearly 200 alphabetically arranged entries covering all aspects of Christmas ... Michigan: Omnigraphics.
  6. ^ a b c d Thompson, Sue Ellen (1998). Holiday Symbols (1st ed.). Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics. pp. 125–128.
  7. ^ a b McMahon, A. Philip; Bridaham, Lester Burbank (May 1931). "Gargoyles, Chimeres, and the Grotesque in French Gothic Sculpture". Parnassus. 3 (5): 38. doi:10.2307/770541. hdl:2027/mdp.39015007224945. JSTOR 770541.
  8. ^ Bond, Donald F. (August 1940). "The Gentleman's Magazine The First Magazine. A History of the Gentleman's Magazine, with an Account of Dr. Johnson's Editorial Activity and of the Notice Given America in the Magazine. C. Lennart Carlson". Modern Philology. 38 (1): 85–100. doi:10.1086/388462. ISSN 0026-8232. S2CID 162977253.
  9. ^ "Thomas Forrest Kelly, ed., Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony. (Cambridge Studies in Performance Practice, 2.) Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xi, 241; 9 black-and-white illustrations, many musical examples, many figures". Speculum. 69 (2): 606. April 1994. doi:10.1017/S0038713400028360. ISSN 0038-7134.
  10. ^ Jacobs, Marc (2006). "King for a Day". In Deploige, Jeroen; Deneckere, Gita (eds.). King for a Day: Games of Inversion, Representation, and Appropriation in Ancient Regime Europe. Studies on Discourse, Power, and History. Amsterdam University Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-90-5356-767-8. JSTOR j.ctt46mz50.11. ((cite book)): |work= ignored (help)
  11. ^ Gulevich, Tanya (2002). Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent. Mary Ann Stavros-Lanning. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics. ISBN 9786612263453. OCLC 1340160783.
  12. ^ a b c d "Feast of Fools". obo. Retrieved 7 December 2022.
  13. ^ Chambers, E.K (1903). The Mediaeval Stage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 274–335.