Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The feast of the Circumcision, which the church celebrates on the first of January, has taken the place of another called the Feast of the Calends, of Asses, of Fools, or of Innocents, according to the different places where, and the different days on which, it was held. It was most commonly at Christmas, the Circumcision, or the Epiphany.

In the cathedral of Rouen there was on Christmas day a procession, in which ecclesiastics, chosen for the purpose, represented the prophets of the Old Testament, who foretold the birth of the Messiah, and — which may have given the feast its name — Balaam appeared, mounted on a she-ass; but as Lactantius’ poem, and the “Book of Promises,” under the name of St. Prosper, say that Jesus in the manger was recognized by the ox and the ass, according to the passage Isaiah: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib” (a circumstance, however, which neither the gospel nor the ancient fathers have remarked), it is more likely that, from this opinion, the Feast of the Ass took its name.

Indeed, the Jesuit, Theophilus Raynaud, testifies that on St. Stephen’s day there was sung a hymn of the ass, which was also called the Prose of Fools; and that on St. John’s day another was sung, called the Prose of the Ox. In the library of the chapter of Sens there is preserved a manuscript of vellum with miniature figures representing the ceremonies of the Feast of Fools. The text contains a description of it, including this Prose of the Ass; it was sung by two choirs, who imitated at intervals and as the burden of the song, the braying of that animal.

There was elected in the cathedral churches a bishop or archbishop of the Fools, which election was confirmed by all sorts of buffooneries, played off by way of consecration. This bishop officiated pontifically and gave his blessing to the people, before whom he appeared bearing the mitre, the crosier, and even the archiepiscopal cross. In those churches which held immediately from the Holy See, a pope of the Fools was elected, who officiated in all the decorations of papacy. All the clergy assisted in the mass, some dressed in women’s apparel, others as buffoons, or masked in a grotesque and ridiculous manner. Not content with singing licentious songs in the choir, they sat and played at dice on the altar, at the side of the officiator. When the mass was over they ran, leaped, and danced about the church, uttering obscene words, singing immodest songs, and putting themselves in a thousand indecent postures, sometimes exposing themselves almost naked. They then had themselves drawn about the streets in tumbrels full of filth, that they might throw it at the mob which gathered round them. The looser part of the seculars would mix among the clergy, that they might play some fool’s part in the ecclesiastical habit.

This feast was held in the same manner in the convents of monks and nuns, as Naudé testifies in his complaint to Gassendi, in 1645, in which he relates that at Antibes, in the Franciscan monastery, neither the officiating monks nor the guardian went to the choir on the day of the Innocents. The lay brethren occupied their places on that day, and, clothed in sacerdotal decorations, torn and turned inside out, made a sort of office. They held books turned upside down, which they seemed to be reading through spectacles, the glasses of which were made of orange peel; and muttered confused words, or uttered strange cries, accompanied by extravagant contortions.

The second register of the church of Autun, by the secretary Rotarii, which ends with 1416, says, without specifying the day, that at the Feast of Fools an ass was led along with a clergyman’s cape on his back, the attendants singing: “He haw! Mr. Ass, he haw!”

Ducange relates a sentence of the officialty of Viviers, upon one William, who having been elected fool-bishop in 1400, had refused to perform the solemnities and to defray the expenses customary on such occasions.

And, to conclude, the registers of St. Stephen, at Dijon, in 1521, without mentioning the day, that the vicars ran about the streets with drums, fifes, and other instruments, and carried lamps before the préchantre of the Fools, to whom the honor of the feast principally belonged. But the parliament of that city, by a decree of January 19, 1552, forbade the celebration of this feast, which had already been condemned by several councils, and especially by a circular of March 11, 1444, sent to all the clergy in the kingdom by the Paris university. This letter, which we find at the end of the works of Peter of Blois, says that this feast was, in the eyes of the clergy, so well imagined and so Christian, that those who sought to suppress it were looked on as excommunicated; and the Sorbonne doctor, John des Lyons, in his discourse against the paganism of the Roiboit, informs us that a doctor of divinity publicly maintained at Auxerre, about the close of the fifteenth century, that “the feast of Fools was no less pleasing to God than the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin; besides, that it was of much higher antiquity in the church.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01