Feast of Fools

In celebration of the new year, this week's review uncovers the truth behind the notoriously wild and unruly Christian festival

Sacred folly : a new history of the Feast of Fools

Harris, Max. Cornell, 2011
322p, 9780801449567 $49.95

Harris (emer., Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) provides a meticulous study of the sources and scholarship on the Feast of Fools, one of the most famous, or infamous, examples of Christian carnival from the Middle Ages. Examining the liturgical, historical, and historiographical sources on the feast and its precursors, he carefully demolishes the narrative of the Feast accepted by generations of incautious scholars who separated the sources from their liturgical context, privileged ecclesiastical opposition as a defining force for the Feast, and overlooked significant changes over time in both Feast and official attitudes toward it. Harris’s rewriting of the Feast’s history shows that it developed in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as a complex, orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (New Year’s Day) that aimed to supplant the disorder and partying of secular society with dignified worship and thanksgiving for the incarnation of Christ. The supposed origins of the Feast in folk (i.e., pagan) customs largely alien to the Christian liturgy, its alleged constant censure from ecclesiastical officials, and that it was “always and everywhere rowdy, raucous and intrusive” are all premises shown false by Harris’s thorough and careful reading of sources.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Most levels/libraries.
D. A. Rivard, Cottey College
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – Western Europe
Choice Issue: Apr 2012