Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Madman's Day




In turning over the pages of some illuminated missals in the Paris Bibliothêque Impériale, on the margins may be observed what are technically called by French artists babouinées. In the manuscripts referred to, these margins are, like the text, illuminated and covered with rich arabesques, through and about which apes and monkeys run, jump, drag struggling geese by the necks, rattle tambourines, fling chestnuts at each other and huge acorns at lazy-looking swine, or plunge, kick, and cut a thousand capers with apparently as much zest as children just let loose from school play leap-frog or twirl themselves round a swinging-pole. These curious and very antique developments of art may be regarded as an inadvertent record of a striking feature of mediæval life, which few chroniclers thought worthy their attention. The childhood of Christendom had, by virtue of its own irresistible tendencies and the high authority of the Church, its “Fêtes Babouinées.” During the middle ages the populace were permitted by the ecclesiastical powers to ape in the most apish manner the mysteries of religion, or, after long periods of sustained devotion, to run into all the excesses produced by ignorance and a violent but natural re-action. The old streets of the coronation town of Rheims, could they be called on to bear out this assertion, would tell that two centuries before the battle of Herrings, and as many after, they saw every Easter Monday parading through them a file of canons, each dragging after him, by a hay-rope fastened to its tail, a salt-fish, such as they all dined on during Lent. Drummers accompanied this procession, as well as choristers and the most wealthy of the burghers, all of whom sacrificed to Bacchus and the god of gluttony in the town-hall an hour before noon. At Metz the clergy, on St. George’s Day, sallied forth en masse from the convents or confraternity houses, pulling after them a huge dragon, into the mouth of which all the pastrycooks desirous of doing a good deed stuffed their best cakes and sweetmeats made of honey; for this happened before beet-root sugar was invented, or Columbus had discovered the West Indies. All their dainties passed into a capacious sack beneath the monster’s throat, and at twelve o’clock the fathers despatched them in their refectory, served as a dessert.

At Evreux there was on Rogation Sunday the “Fête des Cornards.” On that occasion the priests turned their surplices inside out, and then both they and the townspeople took to squirting water at each other from various utensils made expressly for the occasion. Leap-frog and divers other sports of a similar nature succeeded, as well as fencing with the feet, an accomplishment in which the French excel every other nation as much as they do in making ragouts, millinery, false jewellery, and artificial flowers.

The traditions of the ancient bourgs as well as the illuminated missals are all unanimous in saying that no festival was more delightful, because of its buffooneries, than Christmas. The most austere churchmen of the middle ages to be found between the English Channel and the Pyrennean mountains were in the habit of saying,—“Sous la minorité du Dauphin du Ciel on pouvait tout permettre.” In those days of strong nerves and coarse tastes and habits, “permitting everything” implied a state of things that would greatly shock the more delicately organised nerves of the present generation. The “Christmas of the Olden Time,” no matter how much poets may rave about it, or painters strive to idealise it, could not be now revived without finding itself an unwelcome visitor, even though it should make its appearance but once in the twelvemonths.

In the French towns we are pretty certain, from authentic sources, that half the women who chattered round the cradle exhibited in the churches were in a state of furious excitement when they did so. Monsieur Lahure, in his “Antiquities of Picardy,” declares that on one Christmas Day the Amiens women tore each other’s caps, and exchanged words that modern fishwomen might blush to hear, being severally desirous for a baby of their own to be placed in the cradle and adored by the angels, shepherds, and wise men. At Beaugency, about the Christmas of 1603, the village maidens did not display greater amiability when, after quarrelling with each other, they united to revile some of their compeers whom the abbé had selected to personify the angels of the Nativity. At Rouen, in the year 1568, a riot broke out because one of the magi seized an angel by the throat, for the purpose of giving her a kiss, and when doing so crumpled a starched and elaborately-worked ruff which she wore, called a gorgette. This drew down not only the beauty’s wrath, but also the anger of fully half-a-dozen lovers, which made the “Road to Bethlehem” the scene of a faction-fight.

But of all the festivals of the Middle Ages, the Festival of Madmen was the most curious. In England and Scotland it was called the “Feast of Misrule and Unreason;” in France, where it was most celebrated, as “La Fête des Fous.” Antiquarians have failed to trace its origin. They say, however, that it was widely observed so early as the ninth century, and that, at its annual return, Charlemagne allowed his priests and courtiers to give themselves up to every folly that entered their heads. It was, in all probability a continuation of some pagan saturnalia; possibly the one during which the slaves exchanged places with their masters. On Madman’s-day the inferior clergy usurped the honours, privileges, and authority of the episcopacy. The curate donned the jewelled mitre—or at least a sham one; the deacon carried the pastoral crook; the verger wore the dean’s vestments; and the dean bore the train of the incense swinger, who was paraded about under a gorgeous canopy. Each had bells stitched to his clothes, in honour of the day, which the illuminated margins already mentioned called, with all due honour and solemnity, “Festum Fatuorum.”

The festival commenced at an early hour of the morning by the abdication of the archbishop, bishop, dean, or archdeacon, who resigned his honours for the space of twenty-four hours. The election of a successor or successors then took place; after which succeeded a serio-comic installation in the church or cathedral. Certain sees had a right to elect a pope from among the lowest in the scale of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, who was called Papa Fatuorum, and was bound, as such, to give the most striking example of buffoonery and coarse jollity. He drank in every tavern in the town, and, followed by a train of newly-made cardinals, snapped kisses from all the girls whom he met. To make amends for his vow of perpetual celibacy, he was allowed to make love to pretty girls, and go to whatever lengths he pleased in the way of courtship, or seeking love adventures. The only limit was, that none should attempt to pass off as a married man, or get married, which in those days did not require the formalities that are now gone through. Sometimes the French Pope or Abbot of Unreason wore a pasteboard tiara, adorned with tinsel, and vestments of stuff less costly than was worn by the churchman who had abdicated in his favour. After being installed in the episcopal chair, he was borne in it through the town. The populace cheered him tumultuously, and made ironical genuflexions as he passed along to the palace or chapter-house, which the real proprietor also abdicated to his mock successor. When the latter entered it, the former came forward and made a low obeisance to the lord of the day, for whom, as well as for his train, a sumptuous repast had been prepared. His sham Holiness or Lordship, attended by the other dignitaries, on partaking of the true bishop’s viands, proceeded to show himself on a balcony. There he got into a bottomless wine-barrel, and bestowed a suitable benediction upon the people who had assembled beneath. The whole of them then formed, as well as they were able, into a procession, and returned to the cathedral, where the sham pontiff seated himself upon a throne, which was the signal for the “Madmen’s office” to be intoned. Buffoonery then reached its highest pitch. Masked churchmen danced wildly round the pillars in the nave; false canons in vestments turned inside out, and wearing fools’ caps and bells, jerked their heads about as they chanted with their missals turned upside down. The Thurifers burned pitch, sulphur, and ducks’ feathers in the censers, in obedience to the ancient rubrics, which said: “Isto die Papa fatuorum incensabitur cum boudino;” and others blew ashes through long pipes at those who celebrated the office. When this was over, the Pope or Bishop stood up, and his chaplain, carrying on his head a square cushion, which was flanked with rows of bells, went through a burlesque of proclaiming indulgences.

All this was not very edifying. But no doubt it acted as a kind of moral safety valve, by allowing a re-action against a life of clerical restraint to show itself occasionally. The indulgences were next proclaimed, and all the clergy rushed pell-mell out of the cathedral and packed themselves into carts, which galloped through the streets, the occupants mobbing the mob, and the mob returning the compliment with full lungs and throat.

Cardinal Richelieu, when a young man, was remarkable for the comical way in which he acted on the Feast of Unreason. So was Rabelais; but the curé of Meudon, who was a radical in his way, always managed to throw ridicule upon the ecclesiastical power whenever he appeared among the “clerical madmen.” Catherine de Medicis laughed as heartily as a murderess can laugh when she was present at a benediction pronounced by him in Notre de Dame, where he always performed the part of bishop’s chaplain till within a year before his death. At Rouen, Beauvais, and Autun, the abuses of the Madmen’s Festival became so great, that contemporaneously with the Reformation it was transformed into the Festival of Asses, or Festum Asinorum. It has been told a thousand times how a young girl, with a child in her arms, seated on a richly caparisoned ass, was led to the high altar of the cathedral, conducted by bishop, dean, and chapter. The military or militia of the province lined the streets as she passed along, beating drums and blowing fanfares with all their might, and with the best possible will. The governor and all the seigneurs of the province and local authorities were present, and the ass bearing the representative of the Virgin was often lead to its place by no less a personage than the king’s constable. The pre-chanter ceremoniously saluted the animal, and intoned the famous “Prose of the Ass,” which was composed by Pierre de Corbeil:

Orientis partibus,
Adventavit asinus,
Pulchrer et fortissimus,
Salcinis aptissimus.

This ended, the object of these poetic effusions was led to a manger filled with thistles, and the canons proclaimed, amidst loud acclamations, the names of his commensaux. Mass was then chanted, and at the responses of the Gloria, Credo, and Kyrie, the choristers brayed. An old rubric says that “at the Fête of the Ass, the priest turns towards the people, and instead of chanting Ite missa est, brays three times, ‘ter hin—hannibit;’ and the people, instead of replying Deo Gratiais, &c., reply, ‘Hin han, hin han, hin han.

We give this as the illuminators drew the apes and monkeys on the borders of the curious missal in the “Bibliothêque Imperiale,” but as a simple record of mediæval practices, and with no more aim at proving the church a very guilty thing, than to proving from it the infallibility which it no less assumed in the middle ages than it does this moment. It is doubtful if those who took part in the apotheosis of the ass, and celebrated it by organ, fife, and drum, could be called irreverent or impious, whatever may be laid to the charge of those who celebrated the “Madman’s Day.” It was in the very nature of things that the festivals of the gloomy middle ages should take this frightful form of triviality; and the Church, when regarded in the light of a human institution, had no alternative but to join in them to a greater or lesser extent, when regarded from their own point of view. The people who got them up were by no means impious. They built in the very midst of their buffooneries those grand cathedrals which overpower the soul with a sense of the sublime. And no sooner had they gone through the orgies of “unreason,” than they were clad in hair-cloth, and upon their knees, beating their breasts, and exclaiming “Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” with a depth of contrition that none of us can understand. There was nothing sacrilegious in the laughter which re-echoed so wildly through the solemn naves of the churches which they alone knew how to build. An old manuscript sees only piety in it. This manuscript was written a short time previous to “The Scandalous Chronicle,” and says, in speaking of the Festival of the Ass, then celebrated annually with great pomp at Blois and Orleans, “The devout burghers made buffoons of themselves to amuse the Child-God; their gaiety was but a touching homage to Him, for in the Asses’ Feast they only strove to glorify the animal who lent his manger to the Virgin-Mother, or in the frosty nights of Christmas warmed with his breath the Holy Family, and a little later carried the Lord in triumph to Jerusalem.”

Such were the ideas of the middle ages about what will doubtless shock many who read about them. Owing to them the ox was almost deified in very many cities and provinces of Europe, because he was the humble witness of the Lord’s nativity.

The Church sometimes countenanced these follies, sometimes tolerated them, and occasionally lifted up her voice against them. Bishops, councils, and synods, expostulated about the terrible excesses which a “Christmas of the olden time” brought along with it. But whether the faithful, like the friar already cited, thought or not that the Holy Family wanted the society of brutes instead of saints, they went on as riotously as ever, till, with the aid of printing, the gradual transformation of ages did its work. The Parliament of Paris and the Sorbonne stood up gravely against what they thought the prudery of the bishops. “Our predecessors,” said a circular issued by the latter, “who were wise and prudent men, permitted this fête (the Madmen’s). Let us live as they have lived, and do as they have done. We don’t do these things seriously, but for mirth, and to divert ourselves, so that the folly that is natural to us, and which was born in us, may find vent and disgorge itself at least once a year. The wine-barrel would burst, were the plugs not taken out from time to time. We are old wine-barrels, badly hooped, which the fermenting wine of too much wisdom would break to fragments, if we were to allow it always to be kept boiling by a continual devotion at Divine service. We must therefore give vent to it and let in air, for fear that it may run about the ground, to the profit of none and the loss of many. The fathers teach us that our guardian angels never leave us so long as we are laughing; and even though it be for fear the Devil should then take possession of us, no harm can befall us so long as we are under their immediate protection—a reason for believing that buffooneries do not endanger our salvation.”

The Parliament of Paris long defended its favourite festival, which few are aware was, about the tenth century, to introduce into Europe the licensed fool or jester. That prominent personage in mediæval pageants at first made his appearance in the Church to bandy jests with the Pope of Unreason. It was the council of the Sorbonne that first banished him from the Church. Driven from it by that grave and learned body, he became a laic. But he did not so well succeed among the French as among the English in a lay capacity, and finally disappeared in the stiff but gallant century of Louis Quatorze, who was the last King of France that ever had a licensed jester to amuse him.

E. J.