Tag Archives: Twelve Days Of Christmas

Season of Misrule

Have we replaced the twelve days of Christmas by a long festive glut through Advent (formerly a time of fasting)? Just as our ancestors’ celebration of the festive season would have been in full swing, for many of us Christmas is already over. So, while they were still passing round the wassail bowl, we trudge wearily round supermarkets eyeing up half-price decorations. Time perhaps to consider the ancient traditions of Misrule, which drove festivities through to a riotous Twelfth Night.

Misrule in Church

The medieval custom of appointing a choirboy to lead processions on Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December) or St Nicholas’s Day (6 December) was especially popular in British cathedrals. In Winchester the chosen ‘Boy Bishop’ even celebrated Mass. What began as a special honour to commemorate a horrific event (infants slaughtered by King Herod) evolved into a gleeful reversal of the usual hierarchy. It was a parody that was both reverent and irreverent.

This sort of role reversal was rarely enjoyed by girls. Although similar practices were customary in nunneries by the 13th century, John Pec(k)ham, the Franciscan Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1292) denounced them. There were limits as to just how unruly Misrule should be.

Misrule in schools

The festive role-reversal of Misrule found its way into another social hierarchy. The custom of schoolboys arming themselves and seizing control of their schoolroom by ‘barring out’ their masters was already old in the 1550s.

Misrule at court

By the reign of King Edward III (d. 1377) the ‘Bean King’ was a courtly institution. The recipe was simple. Bake a bean into a cake and the man (it always was a man) in whose slice it fell became King for a day.

The Lord of Misrule
‘The Frolic of My Lord of Misrule’ from Cassell’s History of England (1900)

Henry VII regularly appointed a Lord of Misrule and an Abbot of Unreason, who presided over boisterous celebrations and entertainments. Henry VIII embraced the tradition of Lord of Misrule so much that he wrote it into the statutes of St John’s College, Cambridge. (The college’s founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort, had her own Lord of Misrule).

The Elizabethan commentator John Stubbs (d.1591) described the Lord of Misrule festivities in London as a glorious rabble of ‘lusty guts’ dressed in green, yellow ‘or some other wanton colour’, with:

‘hobby-horses, dragons, and other antics, together with their pipers and thundering drummers to strike up the devil’s dance withal; then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen …

An allowed foolery

All this in an era in which it was illegal for certain classes to wear a particular colour. For Misrule was not anarchy but an ‘allowed’ foolery, celebrated in many a pantomime. Its supreme expression is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which artfully sets hierarchies and identities upside down, back to front and inside out. Festivities may have sometimes got out of hand, but damages could be made good and there was never any doubt that order would be restored. In the cold light of the morning after, the trappings of artificial power went back into the coffers. Life went on as usual. The rain it raineth every day.

Acknowledgements

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996)

The Century Edition of Cassell’s History of England (1900), vol II