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Ancient And Modern Saturnalia
by [?]

Such was the Roman Saturnalia, the favourite popular recreations of Paganism; and as the sports and games of the people outlast the date of their empires, and are carried with them, however they may change their name and their place on the globe, the grosser pleasures of the Saturnalia were too well adapted to their tastes to be forgotten. The Saturnalia, therefore, long generated the most extraordinary institutions among the nations of modern Europe; and what seems more extraordinary than the unknown origin of the parent absurdity itself, the Saturnalia crept into the services and offices of the Christian church. Strange it is to observe at the altar the rites of religion burlesqued, and all its offices performed with the utmost buffoonery. It is only by tracing them to the Roman Saturnalia that we can at all account for these grotesque sports–that extraordinary mixture of libertinism and profaneness, so long continued under Christianity.

Such were the feasts of the ass, the feast of fools or madmen, fete des fous–the feast of the bull–of the Innocents–and that of the soudiacres, which, perhaps, in its original term, meant only sub-deacons, but their conduct was expressed by the conversion of a pun into saoudiacres or diacres saouls, drunken deacons. Institutions of this nature, even more numerous than the historian has usually recorded, and varied in their mode, seem to surpass each other in their utter extravagance.[130]

These profane festivals were universally practised in the middle ages, and, as I shall show, comparatively even in modern times. The ignorant and the careless clergy then imagined it was the securest means to retain the populace, who were always inclined to these pagan revelries.

These grotesque festivals have sometimes amused the pens of foreign and domestic antiquaries: for our own country has participated as keenly in these irreligious fooleries. In the feast of asses, an ass covered with sacerdotal robes was gravely conducted to the choir, where service was performed before the ass, and a hymn chanted in as discordant a manner as they could contrive; the office was a medley of all that had been sung in the course of the year; pails of water were flung at the head of the chanters; the ass was supplied with drink and provender at every division of the service; and the asinines were drinking, dancing, and braying for two days. The hymn to the ass has been preserved; each stanza ends with the burthen “Hez! Sire Ane, hez!” “Huzza! Seignior Ass, Huzza!” On other occasions, they put burnt old shoes to fume in the censers; ran about the church, leaping, singing, and dancing obscenely; scattering ordure among the audience; playing at dice upon the altar! while a boy-bishop, or a pope of fools, burlesqued the divine service. Sometimes they disguised themselves in the skins of animals, and pretending to be transformed into the animal they represented, it became dangerous, or worse, to meet these abandoned fools. There was a precentor of fools, who was shaved in public, during which he entertained the populace with all the balderdash his genius could invent. We had in Leicester, in 1415, what was called a glutton-mass, during the five days of the festival of the Virgin Mary. The people rose early to mass, during which they practised eating and drinking with the most zealous velocity, and, as in France, drew from the corners of the altar the rich puddings placed there.

So late as in 1645, a pupil of Gassendi, writing to his master, what he himself witnessed at Aix on the feast of the Innocents, says, “I have seen, in some monasteries in this province, extravagances solemnised, which the pagans would not have practised. Neither the clergy, nor the guardians, indeed, go to the choir on this day, but all is given up to the lay brethren, the cabbage-cutters, the errand-boys, the cooks and scullions, the gardeners; in a word, all the menials fill their places in the church, and insist that they perform the offices proper for the day. They dress themselves with all the sacerdotal ornaments, but torn to rags, or wear them inside out; they hold in their hands the books reversed or sideways, which they pretend to read with large spectacles without glasses, and to which they fix the shells of scooped oranges, which renders them so hideous, that one must have seen these madmen to form a notion of their appearance; particularly while dangling the censers, they keep shaking them in derision, and letting the ashes fly about their heads and faces one against the other. In this equipage they neither sing hymns, nor psalms, nor masses; but mumble a certain gibberish, as shrill and squeaking as a herd of pigs whipped on to market. The nonsense verses they chant are singularly barbarous:–