Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Vicki K. Janik; Emmanuel S. Nelson | Go to book overview
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The Bishop of Fools

( France and England: 1180s- 1600s)

Simonette Cochis

The Bishop of Fools is the principal character in a most extraordinary religious celebration known as the Feast of Fools, held throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance in churches and cathedrals on or about New Year's Day. The Bishop of Fools headed the role reversal and irreverent parody that was the Feast of Fools: a multifaceted mockery of the liturgy of the Mass where sacred song was replaced by obscenities or gibberish; regal priestly garb was derided by masks; clothes were worn inside out; women's garments were worn by men; nudity replaced robes; the holiness of the altar was desecrated by the presence of an ass, by scurrilous gestures, and by unholy games; and the rituals of censing and of the Eucharist gave way to censing with old shoes and consuming pudding instead of the Host. Yet in its origins and in this very irreverence and sacrilege, "never, upon close observation, did the Feast of Fools depart from the domain of the sacred" ( Lever20).1The script for the feast was molded on the liturgy of the Mass, its costumes were a takeoff of priestly garb, its lyrics mimicked sacred song, and its actions followed the rites of the holy offices.


BACKGROUND

The Bishop of Fools was popular particularly in France from the late twelfth century well into the Renaissance, though England also had a Boy Bishop who enjoyed great popularity until the Reformation. Though the most common title for this figure is the Bishop of Fools, there were also archbishops, popes, abbots, abbesses, and even patriarchs of fools. The Feast of Fools turned the church hierarchy upside down: the lower clerics elected their own "bishop" to officiate

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