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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, [1912], at



English Court Masking—“The Lord of Misrule”—The Mummers’ Play, the Sword-Dance, and the Morris Dance—Origin of St. George and other Characters—Mumming in Eastern Europe—The Feast of Fools, its History and Suppression—The Boy Bishop, his Functions and Sermons—Modern Survivals of the Boy Bishop.

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From an article by Mr. T. M. Fallow in The Antiquary, May, 1895.

(By permission of Messrs. Elliot Stock.)

We have already seen a good deal of masking in connection with St. Nicholas, Knecht Ruprecht, and other figures of the German Christmas; we may next give some attention to English customs of the same sort during the Twelve Days, and then pass on to the strange burlesque ceremonies of the Feast of Fools and the Boy Bishop, ceremonies which show an intrusion of pagan mummery into the sanctuary itself.

Christmas Masking.

The custom of Christmas masking, “mumming,” or “disguising” can be traced at the English court as early as the reign of Edward III. It is in all probability connected with that wearing of beasts’ heads and skins of which we have already noted various examples—its origin in folk-custom seems to have been the coming of a band of worshippers clad in this uncouth but auspicious garb to bring good luck to a house. 14-1 The most direct English survival is found in the village mummers who still call themselves “guisers” or “geese-dancers” and claim the right to enter every house. These will be dealt with shortly, after a consideration of more courtly customs of the same kind.

p. 298 In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the English court masque reached its greatest developments; the fundamental idea was then generally overlaid with splendid trappings, the dresses and the arrangements were often extremely elaborate, and the introduction of dialogued speech made these “disguises” regular dramatic performances. A notable example is Ben Jonson's “Masque of Christmas.” 14-2 Shakespeare, however, gives us in “Henry VIII.” 14-3 an example of a simpler impromptu form: the king and a party dressed up as shepherds break in upon a banquet of Wolsey's.

In this volume we are more concerned with the popular Christmas than with the festivities of kings and courts and grandees. Mention must, however, be made of a personage who played an important part in the Christmas of the Tudor court and appeared also in colleges, Inns of Court, and the houses of the nobility—the “Lord of Misrule.” 14-4 He was annually elected to preside over the revels, had a retinue of courtiers, and was surrounded by elaborate ceremonial. He seems to be the equivalent and was probably the direct descendant of the “Abbot” or “Bishop” of the Feast of Fools, who will be noticed later in this chapter. Sometimes indeed he is actually called “Abbot of Misrule.” A parallel to him is the Twelfth Night “king,” and he appears to be a courtly example of the temporary monarch of folk-custom, though his name is sometimes extended to “kings” of quite vulgar origin elected not by court or gentry but by the common people. The “Lord of Misrule” was among the relics of paganism most violently attacked by Puritan writers like Stubbes and Prynne, and the Great Rebellion seems to have been the death of him.

Mummers’ Plays and Morris Dances.

Let us turn now to the rustic Christmas mummers, to-day fast disappearing, but common enough in the mid-nineteenth century. Their goings-on are really far more interesting, because more traditional, than the elaborate shows and dressings-up of the court. Their names vary: “mummers” and “guisers” are the commonest; in Sussex they are “tipteerers,” perhaps because of p. 299 the perquisites they collect, in Cornwall “geese-dancers” (“geese” no doubt comes from “disguise”), in Shropshire “morris”—or “merry”—“dancers.” 14-5 It is to be noted that they are unbidden guests, and enter your house as of right. 14-6 Sometimes they merely dance, sing, and feast, but commonly they perform a rude drama. 14-7

The plays acted by the mummers 14-8 vary so much that it is difficult to describe them in general terms. There is no reason to suppose that the words are of great antiquity—the earliest form may perhaps date from the seventeenth century; they appear to be the result of a crude dramatic and literary instinct working upon the remains of traditional ritual, and manipulating it for purposes of entertainment. The central figure is St. George (occasionally he is called Sir, King, or Prince George), and the main dramatic substance, after a prologue and introduction of the characters, is a fight and the arrival of a doctor to bring back the slain to life. At the close comes a quête for money. The name George is found in all the Christmas plays, but the other characters have a bewildering variety of names ranging from Hector and Alexander to Bonaparte and Nelson.

Mr. Chambers in two very interesting and elaborately documented chapters has traced a connection between these St. George players and the sword-dancers found at Christmas or other festivals in Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Sweden, and Great Britain. The sword-dance in its simplest form is described by Tacitus in his “Germania”: “they have,” he says of the Germans, “but one kind of public show: in every gathering it is the same. Naked youths, who profess this sport, fling themselves in dance among swords and levelled lances.” 14-9 In certain forms of the dance there are figures in which the swords are brought together on the heads of performers, or a pretence is made to cut at heads and feet, or the swords are put in a ring round a person's neck. This strongly suggests that an execution, probably a sacrifice, lies at the bottom of the dances. In several cases, moreover, they are accompanied by sets of verses containing the incident of a quarrel and the violent death of one of the performers. The likeness to the central feature of the p. 300 St. George play—the slaying—will be noticed. In one of the dances, too, there is even a doctor who revives the victim.

In England the sword-dance is found chiefly in the north, but with it appear to be identical the morris-dances—characterized by the wearing of jingling bells—which are commoner in the southern counties. Blackened faces are common in both, and both have the same grotesque figures, a man and a woman, often called Tommy and Bessy in the sword-dance and “the fool” and Maid Marian in the morris. Moreover the morris-dancers in England sometimes use swords, and in one case the performers of an undoubted sword-dance were called “morrice” dancers in the eighteenth century. Bells too, so characteristic of the morris, are mentioned in some Continental accounts of the sword-dance. 111

Intermediate between these dances and the fully developed St. George dramas are the plays performed on Plough Monday in Lincolnshire and the East Midlands. They all contain a good deal of dancing, a violent death and a revival, and grotesques found both in the dances and in the Christmas plays.

The sword-dance thus passes by a gradual transition, the dancing diminishing, the dramatic elements increasing, into the mummers’ plays of St. George. The central motive, death and revival, Mr. Chambers regards as a symbol of the resurrection of the year or the spirit of vegetation, 112 like the Thuringian custom of executing a “wild man” covered with leaves, whom a doctor brings to life again by bleeding. This piece of ritual has apparently been attracted to Christmas from an early feast of spring, and Plough Monday, when the East Midland plays take place, is just such an early spring feast. Again, in some places the p. 301 St. George play is performed at Easter, a date alluded to in the title, “Pace-eggers’” or “Pasque-eggers’” play. 14-13

Two grotesque figures appear with varying degrees of clearness and with various names in the dances and in the plays—the “fool” (Tommy) who wears the skin and tail of a fox or other animal, and a man dressed in woman's clothes (Bessy). In these we may recognize the skin-clad mummer and the man aping a woman whom we meet in the old Kalends denunciations. Sometimes the two are combined, while a hobby-horse also not unfrequently appears. 14-14

How exactly St. George came to be the central figure of the Christmas plays is uncertain; possibly they may be a development of a dance in which appeared the “Seven Champions,” the English national heroes—of whom Richard Johnson wrote a history in 1596—with St. George at their head. It is more probable, however, that the saint came in from the mediaeval pageants held on his day in many English towns. 14-15

Can it be that the German St. Nicholas plays are more Christianized and sophisticated forms of folk-dramas like in origin to those we have been discussing? They certainly resemble the English plays in the manner in which one actor calls in another by name; while the grotesque figures introduced have some likeness to the “fool” of the morris.

Christmas mumming, it may be added, is found in eastern as well as western Europe. In Greece, where ecclesiastical condemnations of such things can be traced with remarkable clearness from early times to the twelfth century, it takes sundry forms. “At Pharsala,” writes Mr. J. C. Lawson, “there is a sort of play at the Epiphany, in which the mummers represent bride, bridegroom, and ‘Arab’; the Arab tries to carry off the bride, and the bridegroom defends her.... Formerly also at ‘Kozane and in many other parts of Greece,’ according to a Greek writer in the early part of the nineteenth century, throughout the Twelve Days boys carrying bells used to go round the houses, singing songs and having ‘one or more of their company dressed up with masks and bells and foxes’ brushes and other such things to give them a weird and monstrous look.’” 14-16

p. 302 In Russia, too, mummers used to go about at Christmastide, visiting houses, dancing, and performing all kinds of antics. “Prominent parts were always played by human representatives of a goat and a bear. Some of the party would be disguised as ‘Lazaruses,’ that is, as blind beggars.” A certain number of the mummers were generally supposed to play the part of thieves anxious to break in. 14-17 Readers of Tolstoy's “War and Peace” may remember a description of some such maskings in the year 1810.

The Feast of Fools.

So far, in this Second Part, we have been considering customs practised chiefly in houses, streets, and fields. We must now turn to certain festivities following hard upon Christmas Day, which, though pagan in origin and sometimes even blasphemous, found their way in the Middle Ages within the walls of the church.

Shortly after Christmas a group of tripudia or revels was held by the various inferior clergy and ministrants of cathedrals and other churches. These festivals, of which the best known are the Feast of Fools and the Boy Bishop ceremonies, have been so fully described by other writers, and my space here is so limited, that I need but treat them in outline, and for detail refer the reader to such admirable accounts as are to be found in Chapters XIII., XIV., and XV. of Mr. Chamber's “The Mediaeval Stage.” 14-18

Johannes Belethus, Rector of Theology at Paris towards the end of the twelfth century, speaks of four tripudia held after Christmas:—those of the deacons on St. Stephen's Day, the priests on St. John's, the choir-boys on Holy Innocents’, and the subdeacons on the Circumcision, the Epiphany, or the Octave of the Epiphany. The feast of subdeacons, says Belethus, “we call that of fools.” It is this feast which, though not apparently the earliest in origin of the four, was the most riotous and disorderly, and shows most clearly its pagan character. Belethus’ mention of it is the first clear notice, though disorderly revels of the same kind seem to have existed at Constantinople as early as the ninth century. At first confined to the subdeacons, the Feast of Fools became in its later developments a festival not only of that order but of the p. 303 inferior clergy in general, of the vicars choral, the chaplains, and the choir-clerks, as distinguished from the canons. For this rabble of poor and low-class clergy it was no doubt a welcome relaxation, and one can hardly wonder that they let themselves go in burlesquing the sacred but often wearisome rites at which it was their business to be present through many long hours, or that they delighted to usurp for once in a way the functions ordinarily performed by their superiors. The putting down of the mighty from their seat and the exalting of them of low degree was the keynote of the festival. While “Deposuit potentes de sede: et exaltavit humiles” was being sung at the “Magnificat,” it would appear that the precentor's baculus or staff was handed over to the clerk who was to be “lord of the feast” for the year, and throughout the services of the day the inferior clergy predominated, under the leadership of this chosen “lord.” He was usually given some title of ecclesiastical dignity, “bishop,” “prelate,” “archbishop,” “cardinal,” or even “pope,” was vested in full pontificals, and in some cases sat on the real bishop's throne, gave benedictions, and issued indulgences.

These lower clergy, it must be remembered, belonged to the peasant or small bourgeois class and were probably for the most part but ill-educated. They were likely to bring with them into the Church the superstitions floating about among the people, and the Feast of Fools may be regarded as a recoil of paganism upon Christianity in its very sanctuary. “An ebullition of the natural lout beneath the cassock” it has been called by Mr. Chambers, and many of its usages may be explained by the reaction of coarse natures freed for once from restraint. It brought to light, however, not merely personal vulgarity, but a whole range of traditional customs, derived probably from a fusion of the Roman feast of the Kalends of January with Teutonic or Celtic heathen festivities.

A general account of its usages is given in a letter addressed in 1445 by the Paris Faculty of Theology to the bishops and chapters of France:—

“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as p. 304 women, panders or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gesture and verses scurrilous and unchaste.” 14-19

The letter also speaks of “bishops” or “archbishops” of Fools, who wore mitres and held pastoral staffs. We here see clearly, besides mere irreverence, an outcrop of pagan practices. Topsy-turvydom, the temporary exaltation of inferiors, was itself a characteristic of the Kalends celebrations, and a still more remarkable feature of them was, as we have seen, the wearing of beast-masks and the dressing up of men in women's clothes. And what is the “bishop” or “archbishop” but a parallel to, and, we may well believe, an example of, the mock king whom Dr. Frazer has traced in so many a folk-festival, and who is found at the Saturnalia?

One more feature of the Feast of Fools must be considered, the Ass who gave to it the not uncommon title of asinaria festa. At Bourges, Sens, and Beauvais, a curious half-comic hymn was sung in church, the so-called “Prose of the Ass.” It begins as follows:—

“Orientis partibus
Adventavit Asinus,
Pulcher et fortissimus,
Sarcinis aptissimus.
Hez, Sir Asnes, car chantez,
Belle bouche rechignez,
Vous aurez du foin assez
Et de l'avoine a plantez.”

And after eight verses in praise of the beast, with some mention of his connection with Bethlehem and the Wise Men, it closes thus:—

“Amen dicas, Asine,
Iam satur de gramine,p. 305 
Amen, Amen, itera,
Aspernare vetera.
Hez va, hez va! hez va, hez!
Bialx Sire Asnes, car allez:
Belle bouche, car chantez.” 14-20

An ass, it would seem, was actually brought into church, at Beauvais at all events, during the singing of this song on the feast of the Circumcision. On January 14 an extraordinary ceremony took place there. A girl with a child in her arms rode upon an ass into St. Stephen's church, to represent the Flight into Egypt. The Introit, “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” and “Credo” at Mass ended in a bray, and at the close of the service the priest instead of saying “Ite, missa est,” had to bray three times, and the people to respond in like manner. Mr. Chambers's theory is that the ass was a descendant of the cervulus or hobby-buck who figures so largely in ecclesiastical condemnations of Kalends customs.

The country par excellence of the Feast of the Fools was France. It can also be traced in Germany and Bohemia, while in England too there are notices of it, though far fewer than in France. Its abuses were the subject of frequent denunciations by Church reformers from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. The feast was prohibited at various times, and notably by the Council of Basle in 1435, but it was too popular to be quickly suppressed, and it took a century and a half to die out after this condemnation by a general council of the Church. In one cathedral, Amiens, it even lingered until 1721.

When in the fifteenth century and later the Feast of Fools was expelled from the churches of France, associations of laymen sprang up to carry on its traditions outside. It was indeed a form of entertainment which the townsfolk as well as the lower clergy thoroughly appreciated, and they were by no means willing to let it die. A Prince des Sots took the place of the “bishop,” and was chosen by sociétés joyeuses organized by the youth of the cities for New Year merrymaking. Gradually their activities grew, and their celebrations came to take place at other festive times beside the Christmas season. The sots had a distinctive dress, its p. 306 most characteristic feature being a hood with asses’ ears, probably a relic of the primitive days when the heads of sacrificed animals were worn by festal worshippers. 14-21

The Boy Bishop.

Of older standing than the Feast of Fools were the Christmas revels of the deacons, the priests, and the choir-boys. They can be traced back to the early tenth century, and may have originated at the great song-school of St. Gall near Constance. The most important of the three feasts was that of the boys on Holy Innocents’ Day, a theoretically appropriate date. Corresponding to the “lord” of the Feast of Fools was the famous “Boy Bishop,” a choir-boy chosen by the lads themselves, who was vested in cope and mitre, held a pastoral staff, and gave the benediction. Other boys too usurped the dignities of their elders, and were attired as dean, archdeacons, and canons. Offices for the festival, in which the Boy Bishop figures largely, are to be found in English, French, and German service-books, the best known in this country being those in the Sarum Processional and Breviary. In England these ceremonies were far more popular and lasting than the Feast of Fools, and, unlike it, they were recognized and approved by authority, probably because boys were more amenable to discipline than men, and objectionable features could be pruned away with comparative ease. The festivities must have formed a delightful break in the year of the mediaeval schoolboy, for whom holidays, as distinguished from holy-days for church-going, scarcely existed. The feast, as we shall see, was by no means confined within the church walls; there was plenty of merrymaking and money-making outside.

Minute details have been preserved of the Boy Bishop customs at St. Paul's Cathedral in the thirteenth century. It had apparently been usual for the “bishop” to make the cathedral dignitaries act as taper- and incense-bearers, thus reversing matters so that the great performed the functions of the lowly. In 1263 this was forbidden, and only clerks of lower rank might be chosen for these offices. But the “bishop” had the right to demand p. 307 after Compline on the Eve of the Innocents a supper for himself and his train from the Dean or one of his canons. The number of his following must, however, be limited; if he went to the Dean's he might take with him a train of fifteen: two chaplains, two taper-bearers, five clerks, two vergers, and four residentiary canons; if to a lesser dignitary his attendants were to be fewer.

On Innocents’ Day he was given a dinner, after which came a cavalcade through the city, that the “bishop” might bless the people. He had also to preach a sermon—no doubt written for him.

Examples of such discourses are still extant, 14-22 and are not without quaint touches. For instance the bidding prayer before one of them alludes to “the ryghte reverende fader and worshypfull lorde my broder Bysshopp of London, your dyoceasan,” and “my worshypfull broder [the] Deane of this cathedrall chirche,” 14-23 while in another the preacher remarks, speaking of the choristers and children of the song-school, “Yt is not so long sens I was one of them myself.” 14-24

In some places it appears, though this is by no means certain, that the boy actually sang Mass. The “bishop's” office was a very desirable one not merely because of the feasting, but because he had usually the right to levy contributions on the faithful, and the amounts collected were often very large. At York, for instance, in 1396 the “bishop” pocketed about £77, all expenses paid.

The general parallelism of the Boy Bishop customs and the Feast of Fools is obvious, and no doubt they had much the same folk-origin. One point, already mentioned, should specially be noticed: the election of the Boy Bishop generally took place on December 5, the Eve of St. Nicholas, patron of children; he was often called “Nicholas bishop”; and sometimes, as at Eton and Mayence, he exercised episcopal functions at divine service on the eve and the feast itself. It is possible, as Mr. Chambers suggests, that St. Nicholas's Day was an older date for the boys’ festival than Holy Innocents’, and that from the connection with St. Nicholas, the bishop saint par excellence (he was said to have been consecrated by divine command when still a mere layman), sprang p. 308 the custom of giving the title “bishop” to the “lord” first of the boys’ feast and later of the Feast of Fools.

In the late Middle Ages the Boy Bishop was found not merely in cathedral, monastic, and collegiate churches but in many parish churches throughout England and Scotland. Various inventories of the vestments and ornaments provided for him still exist. With the beginnings of the Reformation came his suppression: a proclamation of Henry VIII., dated July 22, 1541, commands “that from henceforth all suche superstitions be loste and clyerlye extinguisshed throughowte all this his realmes and dominions, forasmoche as the same doo resemble rather the unlawfull superstition of gentilitie [paganism], than the pure and sincere religion of Christe.” 14-25 In Mary's reign the Boy Bishop reappeared, along with other “Popish” usages, but after Elizabeth's accession he naturally fell into oblivion. A few traces of him lingered in the seventeenth century. “The Schoole-boies in the west,” says Aubrey, “still religiously observe St. Nicholas day (Decemb. 6th), he was the Patron of the Schoole-boies. At Curry-Yeovill in Somersetshire, where there is a Howschole (or schole) in the Church, they have annually at that time a Barrell of good Ale brought into the church; and that night they have the priviledge to breake open their Masters Cellar-dore.” 14-26

In France he seems to have gradually vanished, as, after the Reformation, the Catholic Church grew more and more “respectable,” but traces of him are to be found in the eighteenth century at Lyons and Rheims; and at Sens, even in the nineteenth, the choir-boys used to play at being bishops on Innocents’ Day and call their “archbishop” âne—a memory this of the old asinaria festa. 14-27 In Denmark a vague trace of him was retained in the nineteenth century in a children's game. A boy was dressed up in a white shirt, and seated on a chair, and the children sang a verse beginning, “Here we consecrate a Yule-bishop,” and offered him nuts and apples. 14-28

p. 309 p. 310 p. 311 

Next: Chapter XIV. St. Stephen's, St. Johns, and Holy Innocents' Days