'Tis the season for Mockery
Kyng of Chrystmas for the Daft Days
The festive period between the Nativity and the Epiphany as celebrated today, was declared in 567 by the Council of Tours. In medieval time this period provided an opportunity to challenge authority by mocking kings, universities, religious hierarchy and Inns of Court.
The Feast Day of St Nicholas December 6th was when churches elected a Boy Bishop to rule over Christmas celebrations (usually until after preaching a sermon on Childermas or The Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th). St Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Children. There are various apocryphal episodes in the life of St Nicholas surrounding The Three Clerks. Documentation is found in medieval art, manuscripts and on stained glass windows. Nicholas appears with three boys who have been raised from death. He is closely associated with Boy Bishop ceremonies until they were forbidden by Henry VIII (1541).
One version of The Three Clerks (Wace’s Anglo-Norman Life of St Nicholas 1150) tells of students murdered by an innkeeper and resurrected by the Saint. In another story the innkeeper has become a butcher, again encouraged by his wife to murder the students, but on this occasion when it is discovered that the students are penniless, after the killing their bodies are pickled for future use in pies. At this point St Nicholas appears and requests ‘clean meat’. The couple beg forgiveness and the pickled students are restored to life. Another version of the tale involves a vat of simmering brown sauce. Concentration must be on St Nicholas’ miracle not the horribly gruesome.
There are many stories surrounding Boy Bishop ceremonies. One such tale is about a boy who is to be ordained Bishop of Myra, and his overexcited landlady. The landlady, keen to attend the ceremony, leaves her baby in a bath over a fire. She returns from the ceremony to her baby playing with simmering water bubbles.The baby’s survival is attributed to St Nicholas. His miracles feature in a wall painting in Romsey Abbey in Hampshire.
The chosen Boy Bishop (often a Head Chorister), clad in mini bishop’s robes with a mitre on his head and carrying a crozier, performed ecclesiastical duties attended by friends dressed as priests. If the Boy Bishop died during his reign he received the pomp and circumstance associated with the funeral of a bishop. In Works of the Learned and Reverend Mr. John Gregory, 1671, we read:
In the cathedral of Sarum there lieth a monument in stone, of a little boie habited all in episcopal robes, a miter upon his head, a crosier in his hand, and the rest accordingly. The monument lay long buried under the seats near the pulpit, at the removal whereof it was of late years discovered, and translated from thence to the north part of the nave, where it now lieth betwixt the pillars, covered over with a box of wood, not without a general imputation of raritie and reverence, it seeming almost impossible to everie one, that either a bishop could bee so small in person, or a childe so great in clothes."
Lead tokens or coins inscribed SANCTVS NICHOLAVS were handed out by Boy Bishops in East Anglia.It is likely that they were distributed to the poor and exchanged for sweetmeats or with tradesmen who exchanged the coins in the spirit of alms (charitable donations). St Nicholas is reputed to have thrown gold coins through the open window of a home where three daughters without dowries, lived. The money is said to have landed in socks and shoes. Today at Christmas, gold wrapped chocolate coins are given to children and we have a Christmas Eve tradition of hanging up a stocking.
The Boy Bishop’s role commenced on the Feast of St Nicholas (December 6th) and seems to have continued to varying feast days, namely: the Feasts of the Holy Innocents (December 28th) when Herod massacred baby boys in his attempt to kill Jesus; The Feast of Fools (January 1st) or Epiphany (January 6th). Cromwell imposed a ban on misrule in a bid to reign in an excess of Catholic iconoclastic tradition. However, the custom of Boy Bishops had broken down at evangelical Cambridge Colleges well before Cromwell. We read documentation of a Christmas Lord of Misrule within College budgets. One George Ferrers (c. 1500 – 1579) took up the post of Royal Lord of Misrule for the 1552-53 season with an entitlement to his own coat of arms and an extensive staff that ranged from jugglers to clergy including a philosopher and an astronomer. Ferrers entertained an ambassador who spoke total nonsense to amuse Edward VI (1547 -1553). He must have performed well for he was reappointed to the role in 1553-4 by Queen Mary.
In Susan Brigden’s essay Youth and the English Reformation (found in the Impact of the English Reformation 1500-1640), misrule was viewed as a conspiracy in which lewde laddys took concerted action to spread their heresy. The young were among the first Protestant martyrs at a time when assaults of the clergy were widespread. Misrule may well be attributed to a new Post Reformation pastime of the young. Parody may well have eased change at a time of religious upheaval ( i.e. the Reformation).
In the early Celtic church the biggest religious festival was Easter. However, in the days of the Auld Alliance, French influence was strong. In Scotland a Lord of Misrule known as the Abbot of Unreason reigned from Hallowmas – Candlemas, the winter quarter. From St Nicholas’ eve to Childermas a Boy Bishop was appointed. In common with France, religious solemnity was ridiculed. In A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals (Hallowe’en to Yule), F. Marian McNeill writes that in Scotland the Christmas season was known as the Daft Days - reminiscent of the French Fete des Fous.
However, misrule predates Christianity. During the seven days of the Roman festival Saturnalia (December 17th), the feast of Saturn, work was suspended and slaves were granted temporary freedom to behave as they wished. Roles were reversed. The serious and official was set aside and replaced with unruly laughter and a carnivalesque ridiculousness. There was house decoration and gifting and in common with misrule, a mock king Saturnalicius princeps. A King and yet not a King. Accepted hierarchy was turned on its head.
The King for a Day theme is to me as a food writer, synonymous with the Bean King or Feast of Three Kings - Epiphany (from the Greek to reveal) and a cake - La Galette Rois. A pea, bean or figurine (representing Christ) is hidden in this special Epiphany or Twelfth Night Cake. The lucky recipient of the piece of cake which reveals the figurine, is given a paper crown to wear as King or Queen for the day and is said to be blessed with Good Luck for the coming year.
Matt 2:1-6 tells us of the adoration of Christ by the Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold as a symbol of earthly Kingship, frankincense a symbol of deity and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of mortality. At one time it was traditional for the UK sovereign to re-enact the Feast of the Epiphany to mark the end of festive celebrations in person, just as the Magi visited and gifted Jesus. The monarch’s gold is now 25 gold sovereigns (later exchanged and given to charity) and the frankincense and myrrh are provided by the Apothecary to the King or Queen. The ceremony is currently undertaken by members of the Yeomanry in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace.
December 25th Christmas, the feast of the Nativity has replaced Yule,the age old festival that celebrated the winter solstice, and the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun celebrated by the Romans. Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere, occurs at a time of darkness amidst any amount of feast days in a season of mockery of Bishops, Kings, Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas), Epiphany Kings and a large number of masters of festive ceremonies, albeit on a temporary basis.The celebrations were a time for relaxation and merriment but also to question rules. The Feast of Fools (January 1st) was viewed as an exercise in humility for the clergy of the higher echelons. On this day the lesser clergy took over leadership. This was abolished in the 16th century but may be worthy of further consideration today -
Perhaps a celebration of an inversion of hierarchy, authority and order highlights the humility of Christ, beginning with his humble birth in a manager. In the act of openly mocking the importance of earthly kings,there is a realisation of our own human limitations and the promise of a greater heavenly kingdom. The Boy Bishop hints at the wisdom of innocence mingled with the exultation of the meek. Luke1:52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.