Medieval Christians were known for their parties – at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church, which condemned one particularly rowdy get-together for obscenity, drunkenness, and blasphemy. Arising in northern France in the 12th century, it was called the Feast of Fools, and it took place on January 1st every year. During the party, one lucky young boy was crowned bishop for the day, and he was allowed to boss everyone around and demand "donations." After all, even if you were poor, you could still celebrate Christmas like a medieval king.
Even though the Catholic Church tried to stop the Feast of Fools, it was incredibly popular for centuries. It even makes an appearance in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, when Quasimodo gets swept up in the festival and crowned King of Fools.
Medieval peasants knew how to have fun in their free time, and holiday parties were no exception. During the Feast of Fools, the Lord of Misrule could break any rule. Men dressed like women; people gambled in church; and everyone joined in for a rousing round of the "song of the ass." And that was just the beginning.
The concept of inversion was at the core of the Feast of Fools. The people at the bottom of the social hierarchy had a single day to act like the most powerful in society. For example, students hid their identity and parodied their social betters: clergy, teachers, and rulers. Sometimes, the students rubbed mud on their faces – or even animal dung – or simply wore a mask. Men dressed as women and women as men, to invert the traditional gender hierarchy. And everyone sang, danced, and drank.
Because the Feast of Fools was all about breaking rules, the wildest partiers were often the people who lived by the strictest commandments the rest of the year: monks and nuns. As French theologian Jean Gerson ranted in 1402, the Feast of Fools was full of, "abominable disorders" and, "great, detestable abuses done in the kingdom of France, in diverse churches and abbeys of monks and nuns." And Gerson was correct that many of the festivities took place in churches.
Maybe it isn't surprising that the Feast of Fools began at the same time the Catholic Church officially said all priests had to be celibate. During an era when monks, nuns, and priests were expected to live up to even higher standards, they wanted one day to break all the rules and celebrate.
Even though the Feast of Fools was a wild party with no rules, people still wanted to hide their identities. After all, they were throwing dice in church and singing obscene songs. So, many medieval partiers showed up for the Feast of Fools wearing masks.
The authorities knew that the masks only made people more wild, so they tried to ban masks. In 2017, Pope Innocent III complained about "masked shows" that took place in church during Christmas season. In Lille in 1398, the church declared that masks were banned at New Year's celebrations. Another church complained in 1404 that the clergy were wearing "masks in the shape of devils."
According to the Catholic Church, the Feast of Fools was extravagant to the point of blasphemy. It's no surprise that a celebration of disorder didn't find favor with the church, especially when the parties often took place inside churches. But the church had a hard time stamping out the tradition, which was incredibly popular.
In 1445, the theologians at the University of Paris wrote a letter condemning the practice. They described the events in horrified terms:
Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office... They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings... while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice... They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame.
After this condemnation, the Catholic Church officially banned the Feast of Fools in the 1400s. But the parties continued for at least another century.