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Feast of Fools

The Feast of Fools was celebrated on January 1st amongst the clergy and laity during the Middle Ages, notably in France but also in Spain, Germany, England and Scotland.  For this one day the young swapped roles with their elders, the servants with their masters.  A mock pope, archbishop, bishop or abbot would be selected to reign as the King of Fools or Lord of Misrule.  In England he was known as the King of the Bean, in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason.  He conducted church services in the main church of the town during which much of the ritual was sent up, culminating in the singing of bawdy songs, dancing, cross-dressing, drinking to excess and gambling on the church altar.  Amen was often rendered as Hee-haw in reference to a parallel Feast of the Asses.

The Feast of Fools was rooted in the pagan Roman Saturnalia festival which was celebrated in December and involved a lot of drinking and buffoonery.  The medieval Church did not approve of the Feast of Fools with all the blasphemy it entailed but had great difficulty in eradicating a popular practice with far-reaching pagan roots.  Eventually the Council of Basel outlawed the Festival in 1431 and the custom declined slowly although it survived in some places well on into the 17th century.

1. The English oak head illustrated here shows the King of Fools wearing his crown on back to front, the fleur-de-lys at the front instead of the cross.


2. The oak panel shows a French "bishop" in festive mode.