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  • Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max Harris
  • Jenna Soleo-Shanks
Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. By Max Harris. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011; pp. 336.

In Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools, Max Harris undertakes an ambitious and significant project: to rewrite the history of a medieval tradition commonly cited for its importance to the development of comedy. According to Harris, however, this tradition has been overwhelmingly misrepresented in modern scholarship. Noted for its supposed pagan origins, the Feast of Fools has typically been described as a rite of inversion and parody of Christian rituals, including drunken clerics, cross-dressing priests, and dice playing on the altar. Harris’s aim in this densely detailed though highly readable book is to separate reliable data from the titillating, but misleading, reports that have reduced the feast to its alleged excesses. By uncovering new and recontextualizing old evidence, Harris locates the Feast of Fools in its liturgical context as a celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision and offers a balanced assessment of the disruptive and [End Page 142] innovative elements that characterized its development in northern France from the twelfth through fourteenth centuries.

Harris begins his argument by identifying and discrediting the most frequently quoted description of the feast, a fifteenth-century letter by Parisian theologians. This source, which he convincingly critiques as inflated and based on hearsay, was first detailed in English-language scholarship by E. K. Chambers’s The Mediaeval Stage (1903). While acknowledging the debt historians pay to Chambers’s monumental survey (still the most complete collection of archival data for medieval drama), Harris offers his account as a corrective, noting that faulty scholarship led the early historian to create a false impression about the Feast of Fools (namely, that it was pagan and denounced always and everywhere). Harris’s critique of Chambers is not new; scholars have often noted that Chambers elided outlying evidence while conflating disparate practices and traditions. By exploring and historically contextualizing details that Chambers ignored, Harris provides a clearer picture of both the Feast of Fools and the traditions with which it has often been confused.

Harris divides his text into five well-defined and lucidly argued parts. In the first, he establishes the feast as a distinctly liturgical tradition by separating it from pagan traditions, especially the Kalends masquerades, which have been mistakenly referenced as its origins. Importantly, Harris defines a performance history that predates the Feast of Fools and was sanctioned by the Church. In part 2, he identifies the titular “fools” of the feast, correcting the misunderstanding that the feast was based in ludic mockery of the Church. In fact, the feast honored the subdeacons, or clerics of lowest rank. Thus the feast’s name referred to the biblical “fools” whose low worldly status contrasted sinful pride. Harris goes on to explore the development of the feast in northern France beginning in the twelfth century, paying special attention to its distinct and self-consciously dramatic aspects, such as the Beauvais Play of Daniel and the Laon Office of Joseph. He attributes these dramatic interludes to ecclesiastic reform in the early thirteenth century, crediting clerical creativity for these “masterpieces of liturgical arts” (127). By detailing how these plays mixed the sacred and secular and the serious and comic into an orderly liturgical tradition, Harris provides intriguing insights into the popularity and importance of the feast.

Parts 3 and 4 document the Church’s support for, and suppression of, the feast, respectively. In part 3, Harris pieces together scattered evidence from the mid-thirteenth through the end of the fourteenth century to argue for a long period of ecclesiastical endorsement. Part 4 explores the suppression of the feast, situating documents that detail abuses against it in the context of radical Church reform from roughly 1400 through the sixteenth century. Harris notes that, as the campaigns to abolish the tradition “succeeded in curtailing the clerical Feast of Fools and expelling its more theatrical elements from the churches . . . [an] unintended result was to strengthen the season street festivities that the clerical [feast] had originally been designed to...


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