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  • Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max Harris
  • Katherine L. French
Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. By Max Harris (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. v plus 322 pp. $49.95).

The historical reputation of the Feast of Fools is less than savory. Perhaps best known from the scene in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Feast of [End Page 1079] Fools has come to be understood as a bawdy and violent celebration of human excess. In Sacred Folly, Harris argues that the Feast of Fools was a clerical innovation separate and distinct from the riotous New Year's celebrations that had continued from pagan to Christian times. Rather than being a pagan holdover, the Feast of Fools developed with gothic cathedrals in the twelfth century and declined with the violence, plague, and economic stresses of the fifteenth century. By identifying the Feast of Fools as a liturgical celebration and nothing else, Harris seeks to detangle the various strands of accusation and hyperbole that have surrounded the festival.

Harris argues that confusion over the nature of the Feast of Fools stems from the feast's proximity to the New Year and a misunderstanding of what the fool signifies. In Roman times, the Kalends was a major festival that by the rise of Christianity had come to include masks, rituals of inversion, and community dancing. The first actual mention of the Feast of Fools, however, comes from John Beleth, the Parisian liturgist, who between 1160 and 1164 described it as part of the Church's seasonal liturgy. Beleth explains that the feast was one of four that fell during the week after Christmas and honored members of the clergy; the Feast of Fools, celebrated on the Feast of the Circumcision, specifically honored the subdeacons. A liturgy for the subdeacons survives from 1151 for the cathedral of Châlons-en-Champagne. By 1169 celebrations included an outdoor procession, choral dancing, with the precentor or cantor carrying a ceremonial staff. By the fifteenth century an inventory referred to the staff as the "staff of the Feast of Fools." Celebrations of the Feast of Fools involved the temporary elevation of young choristers to positions of liturgical authority, dancing, and special vestments, but Harris argues that it was still a solemn ritual that invoked the holy fool, a person of lowly status, who was loved by God. According to Paul, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise" (1 Corinthians 27). The Feast of Fools thus celebrated those of lowly status; it was not a bawdy event that celebrated rebellion.

The Feast of Fools was essentially a French observance. Although there were attempts by Anglo-Norman cathedrals to introduce it into England, it was never widespread. Yet even as the feast spread to other French cathedrals, clergy as prominent as Pope Innocent III leveled complaints against it. Denunciations culminated in the fifteenth century with one by Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris. Finally in 1431, the Council of Basil banned the feast from cathedrals altogether, although its actual disappearance took much longer. Contained in many of these denunciations are the vivid descriptions of bawdy and violent behavior that has come to be associated with the Feast of Fools. Harris' analysis shows that these descriptions were not eye-witness accounts and were usually copied from denunciations of other suspect activities; thus they should not be considered accurate descriptions of the feast's activities. Harris contends that many of the criticisms of the Feast of Fools came from clerical participation in extra-cathedral or lay New Year's celebrations.

Harris' argument is convincing in its specifics, but he is working only from antiquarian sources, which by his own admission may have inaccurately reproduced or even fabricated their findings. While Harris is always careful to qualify what he is willing to believe from these accounts, he might have added to his arguments had he also looked at the original manuscripts. Moreover, his [End Page 1080] analysis raises larger questions about the relationship between lay and clerical culture, and the relationships between cathedrals and the towns, which surrounded them...


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