30 November 2016

The Feast of Fools

For most of the year [medieval Christianity] preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God and sexual decorum, and then on New Year's Eve it opened the locks on the collective psyche and unleashed the festum fatuorum, the Feast of Fools. For four days, the world was turned on its head: members of the clergy would play dice on top of the altar, bray like donkeys instead of saying 'Amen', engage in drinking competitions in the nave, fart in accompaniment to the Ave Maria and deliver spoof sermons based on parodies of the gospels (the Gospel according to the Chicken's Arse, the Gospel according to Luke's Toenail). After drinking tankards of ale, they would hold their holy books upside down, address prayers to vegetables and urinate out of bell towers. They 'married' donkeys, tied giant woollen penises to their tunics and endeavoured to have sex with anyone of any gender who would have them.

But none of this was considered just a joke. It was sacred, a parodia sacra, designed to ensure that all the rest of the year things would remain the right way up. In 1445, the Paris Faculty of Theology explained to the bishops of France that the Feast of Fools was a necessary event in the Christian calendar, 'in order that foolishness, which is our second nature and is inherent in man, can freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together, and this is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God'.

- Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, London, 2012, p.63-5.

See also:
France: Paris chose to be self-centred, 1 October 2016
France: The Paris correspondent starts his day, 30 April 2016
France: City of Lights, 20 April 2009

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