“The World was Turned Upside Down”: Feasts of Fools, Lords of Misrule

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (2007, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)

I am a great fan of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (born 1931). Having studied at Oxford under the supervision of Isaiah Berlin and G. E. M. Anscombe, he is now professor emeritus at McGill University in Montréal. He is the recipient of several prestigious awards: the Kyoto Prize, the Templeton Prize, the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and the John W. Kluge Prize.

I read Taylor’s almost 900-page long A Secular Age (2007) back in the summer of 2014. The volume grew out of the scholar’s Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1998-1999. Academic books are generally pretty boring but this one was terrific, un-put-down-able – specially because of Taylor’s very friendly, cool and conversational tone. I would highly recommend it to anybody who is seriously interested in the past five hundred years of Western history and culture – whatever their belief system and persuasion. If you can’t afford to buy it, try locating it in a library.

The central story and question of the book goes something like this: “how did man go from purposefully living in an enchanted cosmos” to “being merely included in an disenchanted universe”? This main strand branches into several sub-themes and the author makes use of a variety of disciplines as he puts forward his ideas – philosophy, theology, sociology, science and technology, art and aesthetics.

There’s a lot in A Secular Age that I find interesting, for example, the porous v/s buffered self distinction – more on that sometime later perhaps. For now, I want to concentrate on one particular topic in the book that I keep thinking of again and again and from which, I believe, we can learn something for our time – Taylor’s discussion of a set of medieval European feasts of “misrule” during which “the world was turned upside down”, that is, strict social hierarchies were subverted in some way or another, the ordinary order of things was inverted, and a temporary sense of equilibrium was achieved. These events were certainly Carnival-like in their theatrical display of mockery and mayhem but not necessarily celebrated immediately before Lent. Many were observed around December or January. Among these festivities were the Feast of Fools (rooted in the Roman Saturnalia), the Feast of the Ass, the customs of the Boy Bishop, the Lord of Misrule or the Abbot of Unreason and, to an extent, Charivari. The primary logic was this – parodying the religious and political authorities and/or catapulting into limelight for just a day those who lived in subordinate positions, flipping the high and low ranks.

 

The Festival of Fools by Pieter Brueghel via Pinterest

A 14th-century miniature on the Charivari, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

A 19th century depiction of a medieval boy bishop, attended by his canons, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

This was not a matter of rebellion or revolution by the oppressed masses (as some moderns/post-moderns who have a poor opinion of the European Middle Ages might want to instantly conclude) – why, those in power would willingly and happily abdicate their seats. The tragic part is that many of these festivities eventually died out because they would lead to violence, wild drunkenness and sexual license. This resultant immorality shouldn’t be condoned or ignored but I feel it is worthwhile we spent some time dwelling upon why these feasts were instituted in the first place. There is something very important and meaningful about them. Why were fools made kings? Boys wear the mitre? In his book, Charles Taylor offers his views along with theories proposed by Natalie Davis (Canadian-American historian of the early modern period), Mikhail Bakhtin (Russian philosopher, literary critic and semiotician), Victor Turner (British cultural anthropologist) and others.

Taylor writes – first, Davis:

These festivals are fascinating, because their human meaning was at once powerfully felt in them–people threw themselves into these feasts with gusto–and yet also enigmatic. The enigma is particularly strong for us moderns, in that the festivals were not putting forward an alternative to the established order, in anything like the sense we understand in modern politics, that is, presenting an antithetical order of things which might displace the prevailing dispensation. The mockery was enframed by an understanding that betters, superiors, virtue, ecclesial charisma, etc. ought to rule; the humour was in that sense not ultimately serious…As she [Natalie Davis] points out, this mockery was exercised very much in support of the ruling moral values.

“The mockery was enframed by an understanding that betters, superiors, virtue, ecclesial charisma, etc. ought to rule…” (Photo: Archibishop Arundel in Canterbury Cathedral, 1399 by User “Kim Støvring”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr)

Then, Bakhtin:

Then, of course, there is Bakhtin, who brings out the utopian strain in laughter. Laughter as the solvent of all boundaries; the body which connects us to everyone and everything; these are celebrated in Carnival. A kind of carnal Parousia is adumbrated.

“Laughter as the solvent of all boundaries; the body which connects us to everyone and everything…” [Painting: Laughing Fool (c.1500) by possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, Wikipedia]

Next, Turner (I loved this one):

Victor Turner proposes another theory. The order we are mocking is important but not ultimate; what is ultimate is the community it serves; and this community is fundamentally egalitarian; it includes everyone. Yet we cannot do away with the order. So we periodically renew it, rededicate it, return it to its original meaning, by suspending it in the name of the community, which is fundamentally, ultimately of equals, and which underlies it.

“…in the name of the community, which is fundamentally, ultimately of equals…” [Painting: Danse Macabre in St. Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn, Estonia by Bernt Notke (1435-1509), Wikipedia]

There are two other theories: One, these festivals as periodic blow-outs, “a safety valve” in the face of the weight of virtue and good order. A French cleric wrote: “We do these in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels…” Two, these festivals as occasions where the forces of some primitive chaotic energy can be unleashed. This energy is the source of order itself, and it gets drained with routine. So if order has to survive it must be renewed by an opening up of the primal substance. The second theory is more in line with the convictions and customs of ancient religions – of the Mesopotamians, the Aztecs, the Romans of course – than with medieval Christian theology.

Later, Taylor goes into a discussion of “structure” and “anti-structure”. The prevailing code, order, hierarchies was “structure”. The presence of feasts that turned the world upside down “anti-structure”. The rationale behind anti-structure was essentially democratic, it said that the prevailing code (no matter how great it might seem) needn’t/shouldn’t be enforced without limitation, that society must contain space for a principle that could contradict it. Basically, it could be said that the facility of anti-structure is that mechanism which prevents or keeps tyrannical tendencies in check.

How did anti-structure go into eclipse in Europe? The author says during the epoch of the French Revolution. Here’s when “the project of applying a code without moral boundaries is seriously contemplated”. Taylor explains further:

Certainly one consequence of the eclipse of anti-structure was this propensity to believe that the perfect code wouldn’t need to be limited, that one could and should enforce it without restriction. This has been one of the driving ideas behind the various totalitarian movements and regimes of our time. Society had to be totally made over, and none of the traditional restraints on action should be allowed to hamper this enterprise. In a less dramatic way, it encourages the tunnel vision with which the various “speech codes” of political correctness are applied on certain campuses, and lends the positive ring to such slogans as “zero tolerance”.

“Certainly one consequence of the eclipse of anti-structure was this propensity to believe that the perfect code wouldn’t need to be limited, that one could and should enforce it without restriction. This has been one of the driving ideas behind the various totalitarian movements and regimes of our time.” (Photo: Nazi party rally grounds, 1934, Wikipedia, Public Domain)

So what is our position today when compared to or contrasted with the medieval feasts of misrule? Going through news feeds – I notice two contradictory and simultaneous trends (at least in the English-speaking media) – a culture of political correctness where you are not supposed to offend anybody, another that encourages constant ridicule of almost everybody. In such a situation of never-ending and unrestrained “structure” and “anti-structure”, neither can perform its function well. For mockery to actually make a positive impact on the prevailing code perhaps it needs to be more concentrated – like allowed only at certain times and places, and with great punch at that?

 

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Further Reading:

Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (2011) by Max Harris – gives an unusual account of the festivities discussed above.

 


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