Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max HarrisSacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max Harris

Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools

byMax Harris

Paperback | March 27, 2014

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For centuries, the Feast of Fools has been condemned and occasionally celebrated as a disorderly, even transgressive Christian festival, in which reveling clergy elected a burlesque Lord of Misrule, presided over the divine office wearing animal masks or women's clothes, sang obscene songs, swung censers that gave off foul-smelling smoke, played dice at the altar, and otherwise parodied the liturgy of the church. Afterward, they would take to the streets, howling, issuing mock indulgences, hurling manure at bystanders, and staging scurrilous plays. The problem with this popular account—intriguing as it may be— is that it is wrong.

In Sacred Folly, Max Harris rewrites the history of the Feast of Fools, showing that it developed in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (1 January)—serving as a dignified alternative to rowdy secular New Year festivities. The intent of the feast was not mockery but thanksgiving for the incarnation of Christ. Prescribed role reversals, in which the lower clergy presided over divine office, recalled Mary's joyous affirmation that God "has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble." The "fools" represented those chosen by God for their lowly status.

The feast, never widespread, was largely confined to cathedrals and collegiate churches in northern France. In the fifteenth century, high-ranking clergy who relied on rumor rather than firsthand knowledge attacked and eventually suppressed the feast. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians repeatedly misread records of the feast; their erroneous accounts formed a shaky foundation for subsequent understanding of the medieval ritual. By returning to the primary documents, Harris reconstructs a Feast of Fools that is all the more remarkable for being sanctified rather than sacrilegious.

Max Harris is Executive Director Emeritus of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has also taught at Yale University and the University of Virginia. He is the author of four previous books, including Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance and Aztecs, Moors, and Chris...
Title:Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of FoolsFormat:PaperbackDimensions:9.25 × 6.13 × 0.27 inPublished:March 27, 2014Publisher:CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESSLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0801479495

ISBN - 13:9780801479496

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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Letter from Paris

Part I. Before the Feast of Fools
1. The Kalends of January
2. The Holy City of Byzantium
3. Roman Games
4. Herod in Germany
5. Tossing a Ball in a French Cathedral

Part II. Shaping the Feast of Fools
6. The Feast of the Subdeacons
7. The Feast of the Ass
8. The Complaints of Innocent III
9. The Office of the Circumcision
10. The Plays of Daniel and Joseph

Part III. Supporting the Feast of Fools
11. Chapter Support
12. Rumors of Disorder
13. A Spirited Defense
14. Youth Groups, Coal Dust, and Cow Dung
15. Outside France

Part IV. Suppressing the Feast of Fools
16. Jean Gerson and the Auxerre Affair
17. Trouble in St.-Omer and Noyon
18. Troyes, Sens, and the Council of Basel
19. Rereading the Letter from Paris
20. A Durable Feast

Part V. Beyond the Feast of Fools
21. Festive Societies
22. Innocents and Fools
23. King of the Breeches
24. Our Lady of the Trellis
25. Mother Fool

Epilogue: Orange Peel in Antibes


Editorial Reviews

"The modern history of medieval ritual has long been a history of misinformation and misunderstanding. This engaging book is a crucial intervention that should recalibrate the methods for studying early liturgy, drama, and popular culture; it also suggests the need for a reevaluation of larger historical narratives. By gathering, disentangling, and contextualizing primary and secondary sources produced over two millennia, Max Harris proves that the Feast of Fools was a legitimate liturgical celebration shaped by specific historical developments in the twelfth century and in certain areas of northern France. In so doing, he not only reconstructs the circumstances in which clergy conceptualized, crafted, performed, and defended a particular festive liturgy; he also exposes the ways that changing notions of propriety distorted secondhand accounts of it, leading to its suppression in the fifteenth century and the metastasizing of these erroneous reports down to the present day. This is an exemplary work of scholarship: careful but wide-ranging, lucid, and humane."—Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign