Feasting Foolishly

Anonymous, serious, busy modern society got you down? Well, the Middle Ages has just the remedy on hand.

In the Notebook section of this month’s Harper’s, Alain de Botton has one of his quaint, pleasurable, and perhaps otherwise close to useless essays, this time on the subject of how we could learn a thing or two from the totalitarian religious communities of yesteryear. I think it’s just available online for subscribers, but fair use should grant me the right to repeat a few choice graphs:

At least, medieval Christianity understood. For most of the year it preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God, and sexual decorum—and then, at New Year’s, it unleashed the festum fatuorum, the feast of fools, and for several days the world was upside down. Clergy played dice on the altar, brayed like donkeys instead of saying “Amen,” had drinking competitions in the nave, farted to the Ave Maria, and delivered spoof sermons based on parodies of the Gospels (The Gospel According to the Chicken’s Arse, perhaps, or The Gospel According to Luke’s Toenail). After drinking tankards of ale, they held their holy books upside down, burned excrement instead of incense, and urinated out of bell towers. They tried to marry donkeys, tied giant woolen penises to their vestments, and held boozy orgies on the altar.

But none of this was just a joke. It was sacred, a parodia sacra, designed to make sure that for the rest of the year things would be the right way up. In 1444, the Paris Faculty of Theology explained to the bishops of France that the feast of fools must remain an indispensable part of Christianity,

in order that foolishness, which is our second nature and is inherent in man, can freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together.… This is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God.

Our trouble is that we do it all the time. Close the strip clubs, shutter the discos, send everyone to confession, and maybe we’ll talk.

Another classic (Eternal Bookshelf caliber, to be sure) that recommends the feast of fools to us today is of course theologian Harvey Cox’s sequel to The Secular City, aptly called The Feast of Fools—at a dusty used bookshop near you.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.