Dec 272020

Today (Holy Innocents ) used to be the day for the boy bishop custom which was widespread in the Middle Ages across Europe. A boy was chosen, often from among the cathedral choristers, to parody the real bishop. In England the boy bishop was sometimes elected on December 6th (the feast of Saint Nicholas the patron saint of children), and his authority lasted until Holy Innocents’ day. The real bishop would, symbolically, step down at the deposuit potentes de sede of the Magnificat (“he hath put down the mighty from their seat”), and the boy would take his seat at et exaltavit humiles (“and hath exalted the humble and meek”).

After the election, the boy was dressed in full bishop’s robes with miter and crozier and, attended by other boys dressed as priests, made a circuit of the town blessing the people. The chosen boy and his comrades took possession of the cathedral and performed all the ceremonies and offices, except Mass. Originally, the custom was confined to the cathedrals because they were the seats of bishops, but over time it spread to many parishes.

Various Church authorities attempted to suppress the custom over the years because of its sacrilegious nature, but its popularity made it resilient for centuries. In England the custom was abolished by Henry VIII in 1542, revived by Mary I in 1552 and finally abolished by Elizabeth I. On the continent of Europe it survived for quite some time in Germany, in the so-called Gregoriusfest, said to have been founded by Gregory IV. It is still practiced (in revival) in some cities in Spain. The custom has given rise to some popular misconceptions, however, one of which is the traditional misidentification of a miniature episcopal tomb effigy in Salisbury Cathedral as a boy bishop: this is more likely to commemorate a secondary burial (heart or viscera) of a real bishop, possibly Richard Poore.

There have been some recent revivals both in the English-speaking world and on the continent. Most famous perhaps is that of Hereford, revived in 1973 for a special children’s service, with full and traditional ceremonies following annually since 1982. The boy bishop preaches a sermon and leads prayers at various diocesan Advent services. A single revival took place in 1959 at St George’s Parish Church, Stockport. Such ceremonies are now also found at Westminster Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, and a number of parish churches throughout England, including All Saints’ Church, Northampton, Claines, Worcestershire, and also St Christopher’s Parish Church, Bournemouth, (early 1950s), where the Boy Bishop was installed on St Christopher’s Day, (July 25), and ‘reigned’ for one year, preaching and ‘presiding’ at youth events. The market town of Alcester, Warwickshire has its very own St Nicholas night complete with the boy bishop on December 6th each year.

The custom was likewise revived in Burgos, Spain, where the boy-bishop feast had been extremely popular before the cathedral choir was closed in the 1930s. After its re-establishment, the boy bishop was revived in 1987, and has since been celebrated every year. Other Spanish cities such as Palencia also hold the ceremony, and the one celebrated in the Monastery of Montserrat by L’Escolania is especially renowned. The festival was also revived in Chavagnes International College, a Catholic boarding school in France.

The Boy Bishop custom – along with festivities such as the Lord of Misrule, Mock Mayor, and Feast of Fools – is what I have called a social safety valve in my academic writing, and what is referred to in anthropological research as a ritual of inversion.  In modern times, trick or treating in the US serves a somewhat similar function.  I’ll give you the short version of my analysis.  Rituals of inversion turn the normal social order on its head: the poor, weak, and downtrodden in the community get to have some semblance of power for a short period, and use that power to mock the system that keeps them subordinate most of the year.  As such they can “let off steam” – with impunity. During the Commonwealth in England the Puritans banned all such activities, forcing the country into a massive imbalance of the powerful over the powerless, and, in consequence, the people rebelled and brought back the monarchy under Charles II who took little time to decree that all the rituals of inversion were to be restored – immediately.  Unlike his father, he kept his head and his throne.

A Yule log (or bûche de Noël) seems like a suitably celebratory dish for today – that is, a log that is not a log – and something to be enjoyed by children. They can also help in the decorating.  I used to make one every year, but I mostly cheated.  I would buy a Swiss roll cake and then decorate it with chocolate frosting.  Making one from scratch was a bit over the top for me when I was already making gingerbread castles, plum puddings, mince pies, Christmas cakes, et al.  It made an attractive centerpiece all the same.  Here is a video on how to make the real thing: