Vol. 5, Chapter XVI (Cont’d) – Hymns and Sacred Poetry


Latin Hymns: H. A. Daniel: Thesaurus Hymnol., 5 vols. Halle and Leipzig, 1855-1856. — F, J. Mone: Latein. Hymnen d. Mittelalters, 3 vols. Freib., 1853-1855. — R. C. Trench: Sacr. Lat. Poetry with Notes, Lond., 1849, 3d ed., 1874. — G. A. Königsfeld: Latein. Hymnen und Gesänge d. MtA., 2 vols. Bonn, 1847-1863 with transll. — J. M. Neale: Med. Hymns and Sequences, Lond., 1851, 3d ed., 1867; Hymns chiefly Med. on the Joys and Glories of Paradise, Lond., 1862, 4th ed., by S. G. Hatherley, 1882. — W. J. Loftie: Lat. Hymns, 3 vols. Lond., 1873-1877. — F. W. E. Roth: Lat. Hymnen d. MtA., Augsb., 1888. — *G. M. Dreves and C. Blume: Analecta hymnica medii aevi, Leipz., 1886-1906, 49 parts in 16 vols. — U. Chevalier: Repertorium hymnol. Cat. des chants, hymnes, proses, sequences, tropes, etc., 2 vols. Louvaine, 1892-1897; Poésie liturg. du moyen âge, Paris, 1893. — S. G. Pirmont: Les hymnes du Bréviare rom., 3 vols. Paris, 1874-1884. — Ed. Caswall: Lyra Catholica (197 transll.), Lond., 1849. — R. Mant: Anc. Hymns from the Rom. Brev., new ed., Lond., 1871. — F. A. March: Lat. Hymns with Engl. Notes, N. Y., 1874. — D. T. Morgan: Hymns and other Poems of the Lat. Ch., Oxf., 1880. — W. H. Frere: The Winchester Tropar from MSS. of the 10th and 11th centt., Lond., 1894. — H. Mills: The Hymn of Hildebert and the Ode of Xavier, with Engl. transll., Auburn, 1844. — W. C. Prime: The Seven Great Hymns of the Med. Ch., N. Y., 1865. — E. C. Benedict: The Hymn of Hildebert and other Med. Hymns, with transll., N. Y., 1867, 2d ed., 1869. — A. Coles: Dies Irae and other Lat. Poems, N. Y., 1868. — D. S. Wrangham: The Liturg. Poetry of Adam de St. Victor, with Engl. transll., 3 vols. Lond., 1881. — Ozanam: Les Poètes Franciscains en Italie au XIIIe siècle, Paris, 1852, 3d ed. 1869. — L. Gautier: Oeuvres poet. d’ Adam de St. Victor, Paris, 1858, 2d ed., 1887; Hist. de la poésie liturg. au moyen âge. Paris, 1886. — P. Schaff: Christ in Song, a Collection of Hymns, Engl. and trans. with notes, N. Y. and Lond., 1869. — Schaff and Gilman: Libr. of Rel. Poetry, N. Y., 1881. — Schaff: Lit. and Poetry, N. Y., 1890. Contains essays of St. Bernard as a Hymnist, the Dies irae, Stabat mater, etc. — S. W. Duffield: Lat. Hymn Writers and their Hymns, N. Y., 1889.

For German Hymns, etc.: C. E. P. Wackernagel: D. Deutsche Kirchenlied von d. ältesten Zeit bis zum 1600, 5 vols. Leip., 1864-1877. — Ed. E. Koch: Gesch. des Kirchenlieds und Kirchengesangs, 2 vols. 1847, 3d ed., by Lauxmann, 8 vols. 1866-1876. — Artt., Hymnus and Kirchenlied in Wetzer-Welte, VI. 519-551, VII. 600-606; Kirchenlied, in Herzog, by Drews, X. 409-419, and Lat. and Ger. Hymnody in Julian’s Dicty. of hymnology.

Note: The collection of Latin hymns by Dreves and Blume, members of the Society of Jesus, is a monument of persevering industry and scholarship. It is with few exceptions made up of hitherto unpublished poems. The collection is meant to be exhaustive and one is fairly amazed at the extent of medieval sacred poetry. There are about seven hundred pages and an average of eleven hundred poems to each volume. Monasteries and breviaries of every locality in Western Europe were searched for hymnological treasures. In cases, an entire number, or Heft (for the volumes have appeared in numbers), is given up to the poems of a single convent, as No. VII., pp. 282, to the proses of St. Martial in Limoges. No. XL. contains sequences taken from English MSS., such as the missals of Salisbury, York, Canterbury, and Winchester, and is edited by H. M. Bannister, 1902. Among the more curious parts is No. XXVII., pp. 287, containing the religious poems of the Mozarabic, or Gothic liturgy. If Dreves adds a printed edition of the medieval Latin poetry found in Mone, Daniel, and other standard collections, his collection will supersede all the collections of his predecessors.

The medieval sermon is, at best, the object of curious search by an occasional student. It is otherwise with some of the medieval hymns. They shine in the cluster of the great hymns of all the ages. They have entered into the worship of all the churches of the West and continue to exercise a sanctifying mission. They are not adapted to the adherents of one confession or age alone, but to Christian believers of every age.

The Latin sacred poems of the Middle Ages, of which thousands have been preserved, were written, for the most part, in the shadow of cloistral walls, notably St. Gall, St. Martial in Limoges, Cluny, Clairvaux, and St. Victor near Paris. Few of them passed into public use in the church service, or were rendered by the voice. They served the purpose of devotional reading. The rhyme is universal after 1150.

These poems include liturgical proses, hymns, sequences, tropes, psalteries, and rhymed prayers to the rosary, called rosaria. The psalteries, psalteria rhythmica, in imitation of the Psalms, are divided into one hundred and fifty parts, and are addressed to the Trinity, to Jesus and to Mary, the larger number of them to Mary. Sequence, a word first applied to a melody, came also to be used for a sacred poem. Notker of St. Gall was the first to adapt such poems to sequences or melodies. The tropes were verses interpolated into the offices of the liturgy, and were joined on to the Gloria, the Hosanna, and other parts. They started in France and were most popular there and in England.

The authorship of the Latin medieval poetry belongs chiefly to France and Germany. England produced only a limited number of religious poems, and no one of the first rank. The best is Archbishop Peckham’s (d. 1292) rhymed office to the Trinity, from which three hymns were taken. One verse of the poem runs: — 




Adesto, sancta trinitas Come near, O holy Trinity,   

Par splendor, una deitas, In splender equal, in deity one   

Qui exstas rerum omnium Of all things that exist   

Sine fine principium. The beginning, and without end.  


The number of medieval hymns in German is also large. The custom of blending German and Latin lines in the same hymn was also very common, especially in the next period. The number of Saxon hymns, that is hymns produced in England, was very limited.

Although the liturgical service was chanted by the priests, singing was also in vogue among the people, especially in Northern Italy and in Germany. The Flagellants sang. Gerhoh of Reichersberg (d. 1169) said that all the people poured forth praises to the Saviour in hymns. At the battle of Tusculum, 1168, the army sang,

Christ der du geboren bist.

St. Bernard, when he left Germany, spoke of missing the German songs of his companions. At popular religious services the people also to some extent joined in song. The songs were called Leisen and Berthold of Regensburg was accustomed, at the close of his sermons, to call upon the congregation to sing. He complained of heretics drawing away children by their songs. Honorius of Autun gives directions for the people to join in the singing, such as the following: “Now lift high your voices,” or “Lift up your song, Let us praise the Son of God.”

As compared with the hymns of the Ambrosian group and of Prudentius, the medieval sacred poems are lacking in their strong and triumphant tone. They are written in the minor key, and give expression to the softer feelings of the heart, and its fears and forebodings. They linger at the cross and over the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, passionately supplicate the intercession of Mary or dwell on her perfections, and also depict the awful solemnities of the judgment and the entrancing glories of paradise. Where we are unable to follow the poet in his theology, we cannot help but be moved by his soft cadences and the tenderness of his devotion.

Among the poets of the earlier part of the period are Peter Damiani, some of whose hymns were received into the Breviaries, Anselm of Canterbury, and Hildebert, archbishop of Tours (d. 1134). Some of Hildebert’s lines were used by Longfellow in his “Golden Legend.” Abaelard also wrote hymns, one of which, on the creation, was translated by Trench.

Bernard of Clairvaux, according to Abaelard’s pupil, Berengar, cultivated poetic composition from his youth. Five longer religious poems are ascribed to him. From the Rhythmic Song on the name of Christ — Jubilus rhythmicus de nomine Jesu — the Roman Breviary has drawn three hymns, which are used on the festival of the name of Christ. They are: — 




Jesus, the very thought of thee. Jesu, dulcis memoria.   

Jesus, King most wonderful. Jesu, rex admirabilis.   

O Jesus, thou the beauty art. Jesus, decus angelicum.  


The first of these hymns has been called by Dr. Philip Schaff, “the sweetest and most evangelical hymn of the Middle Ages.”

The free version of some of the verses by Ray Palmer is the most popular form of Bernard’s poem as used in the American churches.

Jesus, thou Joy of loving hearts,

Thou Fount of life, thou Light of men,

From the best bliss that earth imparts

We turn unfilled to thee again.

The poem to the Members of Christ’s body on the Cross — Rhythmica oratio ad unum quodlibet membrorum Christi patientis — is a series of devotional poems addressed to the crucified Saviour’s feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. From the poem addressed to our Lord’s face — Salve caput cruentatum — John Gerhardt, 1656, took his

O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

O sacred head, now wounded,

With grief and shame weighed down.

Much as Bernard influenced his own age in other ways, he continues to influence our own effectively and chiefly by his hymns.

Bernard of Cluny, d. about 1150, has an enduring name as the author of the most beautiful and widely sung hymn on heaven, “Jerusalem the Golden.” He was an inmate of the convent of Cluny when Peter the Venerable was its abbot, 1122-1156. From his probable place of birth, Morlaix, Brittany, he is sometimes called Bernard of Morlaix. Of his career nothing is known. He lives in his poem, “The Contempt of the World” — de contemptu mundi — from which the hymns are taken which go by his name. It contains nearly three thousand lines, and was dedicated to Peter the Venerable. At the side of its glowing descriptions of heaven, which are repetitions, it contains a satire on the follies of the age and the greed of the Roman court. It is written in dactylic hexameters, with leonine and tailed rhyme, and is difficult of translation.

The most prolific of the medieval Latin poets is Adam of St. Victor, d. about 1180. He was one of the men who made the convent of St. Victor famous. He wrote in the departments of exegesis and psychology, but it is as a poet he has enduring fame. Gautier, Neale and Trench have agreed in pronouncing him the “foremost among the sacred Latin poets of the Middle Ages”; but none of his hymns are equal to Bernard’s hymns, the Stabat mater, or Dies irae. Many of Adam’s poems are addressed to Mary and the saints, including Thomas à Becket. A deep vein of piety runs through them all.

Hymns of a high order and full of devotion we owe to the two eminent theologians, Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas. Of Bonaventura’s sacred poems the one which has gone into many collections of hymns begins, — 

Recordare sanctae crucis

qui perfectam viam ducis.

Jesus, holy Cross, and dying.

Three of Thomas Aquinas’ hymns have found a place in the Roman Breviary. For six hundred years two of these have formed a part of the ritual of Corpus Christi: namely, — 

Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis mysterium,

Sing, my tongue, the mystery telling,


Lauda, Zion, salvatorem.

Zion, to thy Saviour singing.

In both of these fine poems, the doctrine of transubstantiation finds full expression.

No other two hymns of ancient or medieval times have received so much attention as the Dies irae and the Stabat mater. They were the product of the extraordinary religious fervor which marked the Franciscan order in its earlier period, and have never been excelled, the one by its solemn grandeur, and the other by its tender and moving pathos.

Thomas of Celano, the author of Dies irae, was born about 1200, at Celano, near Naples, and became one of the earliest companions of Francis d’Assisi. In 1221 he accompanied Caesar of Spires to Germany, and a few years later was made guardian, custos of the Franciscan convents of Worms, Spires, Mainz, and Cologne. Returning to Assisi, he wrote, by commission of Gregory IX., his first Life of St. Francis, and later, by command of the general of his order, he wrote the second Life.

The Dies irae opens with the lines, — 

Dies irae, dies illa

solvet saeclum in favilla,

teste David cum sibylla.

In the most familiar of the versions, Sir Walter Scott freely reproduced the first lines thus: — 

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,

When heaven and earth shall pass away,

What power shall be the sinner’s stay?

How shall he meet that dreadful day?

This solemn poem depicts the dissolution of the world and the trembling fear of the sinner as he looks forward to the awful scene of the last day and appeals for mercy. It has been characterized by Dr. Philip Schaff, “as the acknowledged masterpiece of Latin Church poetry and the greatest judgment hymn of all ages.” The poet is the single actor. He realizes the coming judgment of the world, he hears the trumpet of the archangel through the open sepulchre, he expresses this sense of guilt and dismay, and ends with a prayer for the same mercy which the Saviour showed to Mary Magdalene and to the thief on the cross. The stanzas sound like the peals of an organ; now crashing like a clap of thunder, now stealing softly and tremulously like a whisper through the vacant cathedral spaces. The first words are taken from Zep_1:15. Like the Fathers and Michael Angelo and the painters of the Renaissance, the author unites the prediction of the heathen Sibyl with the prophecies of the Old Testament.

The hymn is used on All Souls Day, Nov. 2. Mozart introduced it into his requiem mass. It has been translated more frequently than any other Latin poem. Walter Scott introduced it into the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and Goethe made Gretchen tremble in dismay on hearing it in the cathedral.

The most tender hymn of the Middle Ages is the Stabat mater dolorosa. The first verse runs: — 




Stabat mater dolorosa At the cross her station keeping,   

juxta crucem lachrymosa Stood the mournful mother weeping,   

 dum pendebat filius; Close to Jesus to the last;   

cujus animam gementem Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,   

contristatam ac dolentem All His bitter anguish bearing,   

 pertransivit gladius. Now at length the sword had passed.  


This hymn occupies the leading place among the many medieval hymns devoted to Mary and, in spite of its mariolatry, it appeals to the deepest emotions of the human heart. Its passion has been transfused into the compositions of Palestrina, Astorga, Pergolesi, Haydn, Bellini, Rossini, and other musical composers.

The poem depicts the agony of Mary at the sight of her dying Son. The first line is taken from Joh_19:25. The poet prays to Mary to be joined with her in her sorrow and to be defended by her on the day of judgment and taken into glory. The hymn passed into all the missals and was sung by the Flagellants in Italy at the close of the fourteenth century.

Jacopone da Todi, the author of these hymns, called also Jacobus de Benedictis (d. 1306), was converted from a wild career by the sudden death of his wife through the falling of a gallery in a theatre. He gave up the law, both degrees of which he had received from Bologna, and was admitted to the Franciscan order. He abandoned himself to the extreme of ascetic austerity, appearing at one time in the public square walking on all fours and harnessed like a horse. He wrote a number of poems in the vulgar tongue, exposing the vices of his age and arraigning Boniface VIII. for avarice. He espoused the cause of the Colonna against that pope. Boniface had him thrown into prison and the story went that when the pope asked him, when he expected to get out, Jacopone replied, “when you get in.” Not until Boniface’s death, in 1303, was the poet released. He spent his last years in the convent of Collazone. His comfort in his last hours was his own hymn, Giesu nostra fidanza — Jesus our trust and confidence.


134. The Religious Drama

Literature: W. Hone: Anc. Mysteries, Lond., 1823. — W. Marriott: Col. Of Engl. Miracle Plays, Basel, 1838. — J. P. Collier: Hist. of Engl. Dram. Poetry, 2 vols. Lond. 1831; new ed., 1879. — Th. Wright: Engl. Mysteries, Lond., 1838. — F. J. Mone: Altdeutsche Schauspiele, Quedlinb., 1841; D. Schauspiel d. MtA., 2 vols., Karlsr., 1846. — *Karl Hase: D. geistliche Schauspiel, Leip. 1858, Engl. transl. by A. W. Jackson, Lond. 1880. — E. de Coussemaker: Drames liturg du moyen âge, Paris, 1861. — E. Wilken: Gesch. D. Geistl. Spiele In Deutschland, Götting., 2d ed., 1879. — A. W. Ward: Hist. of Engl. Dram. Lit., Lond., 1875. — G. Milchsack: D. Oster Und Passionsspiele, Wolfenbüttel, 1880. — *A. W. Pollard: Engl. Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes with Introd. and Notes, Lond., 1890, 4th ed., 1904. — C. Davidson: Studies in the Engl. Mystery Plays, 1892, printed for Yale Univ. — W. Creizenach: Gesch. des neueren Dramas, 3 vols. Halle, 1893-1903. — Heinzel: Beschreibung des geistl. Schauspiels im Deutschen MtA., Leip., 1898. — O’Connor: Sacred Scenes and Mysteries, Lond., 1899. — *E. K. Chambers: The Mediaeval Stage, 2 vols. Oxf., 1903. — Art. in Nineteenth Century, June, 1906, Festum stultorum by Mrs. V. Hemming. — J. S. Tunison: Dram. Traditions of the Dark Ages, Cincinnati, 1907. See the large list of works in Chambers, I. xiii-xlii.

An important aid to popular religion was furnished by the sacred drama which was fostered by the clergy and at first performed in churches, or the church precincts. It was in some measure a medieval substitute for the sermon and the Sunday-school. The old Roman drama received hard blows from the Christian Fathers, beginning with Tertullian, and from synods which condemned the vocation of the actor as inconsistent with a Christian profession. In part as a result of this opposition, and in part on account of the realistic obscenity to which it degenerated, the Roman stage was abandoned. According to the two codes of German law, the Sachsenspiegel and the Schwabenspiegel, actors had no legal rights. But the dramatic instinct was not dead and after a lapse of time it showed itself again in Western Europe.

The medieval drama was an independent growth, a product of the convent and priesthood, and was closely associated with the public religious services. Its history includes two periods, roughly divided by the latter half of the thirteenth century. In the earlier period, the representations were largely under the control of the clergy. Priests were the actors and the intent was exclusively religious. In the later period, the elements of pantomime and burlesque were freely introduced and priests ceased to be the controlling factors. The modern drama begins in the sixteenth century, the age of Shakespeare.

The names given to the medieval representations were ludi, plays, mysteries, miracle-plays, and moralities. The term “morality” is used for plays which introduced the virtues and vices, personified, and carrying on dialogues teaching wholesome lessons of daily prudence and religion. The term “mystery” comes from the word ministerium, meaning a sacred office. The earlier period of religious dramatization was also the age of itinerant singers and jesters who went about on their mission of entertainment and instruction. Such were the troubadours of Provence and Northern Italy, and the joculatores and jougleurs of France who sang descriptive songs — chansons de geste. The minnesingers of Germany and the English minstrels belong to the same general group. How far these two movements influenced each other, it is difficult to say, — the one starting from the convent and having a strictly religious intent, the other from the people and having for its purpose amusement.

The medieval drama had its first literary expression in the six short plays of Hroswitha, a nun belonging to the Saxon convent of Gandersheim, who died about 980. They were written in imitation of Terence and glorify martyrdom and celibate chastity. One of them represents a Roman governor making approaches to Christian virgins whom he had shut up in the scullery of his palace. Happily he was struck with madness and embraced the pots and kettles and covered with soot and dirt, was unceremoniously hustled about by the devil. It is not known whether these plays were acted out or not.

Hroswitha was an isolated personality and the medieval play had its origin not with her, but in the liturgical ritual for the festivals of Easter, Good Friday, and Christmas. To make the impression of the service more vivid than the reading or chanting of the text could do, dramatic features were introduced which were at first little more than the simplest tableaux vivants. They can be traced beyond the eleventh century and have their ancestry in the tropes or poetical interpolations inserted into the liturgy for popular effect.

The first dramatic action was associated with the services on Good Friday and Easter. On Good Friday the cross was hid in a cloth or in a recess in the walls, or in a wooden enclosure, specially put together. Such recesses in the walls, called “sepulchres,” are still found in Northwold, Navenby, and other English churches. On Easter day the crucifix was taken out from its place of concealment with solemn ritual. In Davis’ Ancient Rites of Durham is the following description: — 

“Within the church of Durham upon Good Friday there was a marvellous solemn service in which two of the ancient monks took a goodly large crucifix all of gold of the picture of our Saviour Christ, nailed upon the cross …. The service being ended, the said two monks carried the cross to the Sepulchre with great reverence (which Sepulchre was set up that morning on the north side of the quire, nigh unto the high altar before the service time) and there did lay it within the said Sepulchre with great devotion.”

To this simple ceremony, adapted to impress the popular imagination, were soon added other realistic elements, such as the appearance of the angels and the women at the sepulchre, the race between Peter and John, and the conversation between Mary and the gardener. Dialogues made up of biblical language were introduced, one of the earliest of which is the conversation between the women and the angels: — 

Whom seek ye in the sepulchre, worshippers of Christ?

Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly denizens.

Quam quaeritis in sepulchro, Christocolae?

Jesum Nazarenum, crucifixum, O coelicolae.

On Christmas the dramatic action included the angels, the Magi, and other actors, and a real cradle or manger. Priests in the garb of shepherds, as they approached the stable, were met with the question, — 

Whom seek ye in the stable, O shepherds, say?

Quem quaeritis in praesepe, pastores, dicite?

To which they replied,

The Saviour, Christ the Lord, the infant wound in swaddling clothes.


From such beginnings, the field was easily extended so as to include all Scriptural subjects, from Adam’s fall to the last judgment.

The first notice of a miracle play in England is the play of St. Katherine, presented by the schoolboys of Dunstable abbey, soon after the year 1100. William Fitz-Stephen, writing about 1180, contrasted the religious plays performed in his day in London with the stage of pagan Rome.

An ambitious German play of the thirteenth century represents Augustine seated in front of a church, Isaiah, Daniel, and other prophets at his right hand, and at his left the High Priest and Jews. Isaiah uttered his prophecy of the Messiah. The Sibyl pointed to the star. Aaron entered with the budding rod. Balaam and the ass then take their turn. An angel blocks the way. The ass speaks. Balaam recites his prediction of the star of Jacob. The prophetic announcements being made, the high priest appeared with much circumstance, and a discussion followed between him on the one side and the prophets and Augustine on the other. Another act followed and the angel announced the Saviour’s birth. The child was born. The three kings and the shepherds come on the scene. The journey to Egypt followed and Egypt’s king met the holy family. Herod is eaten by worms. And so the play went on till anti-Christ made his appearance. Here we have a long advance upon the simple dramatic ceremonies of the century before, and at the same time the germ of the elaborate drama which was to follow. The materials, however, are all religious.

The dramatic instinct was not satisfied with a serious treatment of biblical themes. It demanded the introduction of the burlesque and farcical. These elements were furnished by Judas, the Jews, and the devil, who were made the butts of ridicule. Judas was paid in bad coin. The devil acted a double part. He tempts Eve by his flatteries, he holds the glass before Mary Magdalene while she makes her toilet before going out to dance with every comer, wheels the unfortunate into hell on a wheelbarrow, and receives the lost with mock ceremony into his realm. But he is as frequently represented as the stupid bungler. He was the medieval clown, the dupe of devices excelling his own in shrewdness. He sallied out from the stage, frightening little boys and followed with laughter and jibes by the older onlookers. His mishaps were the subject of infinite merriment.

The association of plays with the church was not received with universal approbation. Gerhoh of Reichersperg opposed them as a desecration. Innocent III. in 1210, if he did not condemn them altogether, condemned their abuse. The synod of Treves, 1227, and other synods forbade priests holding “theatrical plays” in the church buildings. Caesar of Heisterbach represents the rigoristic feeling when, hearing from a priest of a stage that was struck by lightning and twenty men burned to death, declared the burning was a proper punishment for the friends of frivolity and that it was a wonder the priest, who was present, escaped.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the plays were no longer acted in the churches, but were transferred to the public squares and other open spaces. Gilds and companies of actors took them up and acting again began to be a recognized vocation. The religious element, however, was retained, and religious and moral subjects continued to be the basis of all the plays. Even after they began to be acted on the public squares, the plays, like a modern political gathering, were introduced with prayers and the Veni creator spiritus was chanted. Among the earlier societies, which made it their business to present them, was the confraternity of the Gonfalone. In its chapel, St. Maria della Pieta in the Colosseum, plays were given perhaps as early as 1250. In Passion week the roof of the chapel was turned into a stage and the passion was acted. The first company of play actors in Paris was called confrèrie de la passion, “the brotherhood of the passion.”


The Feasts of the Fools and the Ass. — In these strange festivals, which go back to the eleventh century, full vent was given by the clergy to the love of the burlesque. At first, they were intended to give relief to the otherwise serious occupation of the clergyman and, while they parodied religious institutions, they were not intended to be sacrilegious, but to afford innocent amusement. Later, the observance took on extravagant forms and received universal condemnation. But, already in this period, the celebration in the churches and cathedrals was accompanied with revels which called forth the severe rebuke of Bishop Grosseteste and two centuries later of John Huss. Both festivals were celebrated at Christmas tide and the early days of January. The descriptions are confusing, and it is difficult to get a perfectly clear conception of either festival.

On the Feast of the Fools, — festum stultorum, — the deacons and subdeacons elected a boy as bishop or pope and in drollery allowed him episcopal functions. Prescriptions for the boy-bishop’s dress are found in the annals of St. Paul and York and Lincoln cathedrals, and included a white mitre and a staff. The ceremony was observed at Eton. The festival, however, was most popular in France. The boy-prelate rode on an ass at the head of a procession to the church amid the ringing of bells and the jangle of musical instruments. There he dismounted, was clad in bishop’s vestments, and seated on a platform. A banquet and religious services followed, and in turn dancing and other merriment. The ceremonies differed in localities and a number of rituals have come down to us.

In the feast of the Ass, — festum asinorum, — the beast that Balaam rode was the chief dramatis persona. The skin of the original animal formed a valuable possession of a convent in Verona. The aim was to give dramatic representation to biblical truth and perhaps to do honor to the venerable and long-suffering beast which from time immemorial has carried man and other burdens. At Rouen the celebration took place on Christmas day. Moses, Aaron, John the Baptist, the Sibyl, Virgil, the children who were thrown into the furnace, and other ancient characters appeared. Balaam, wearing spurs and seated on an ass, was the centre of attraction. A fire was started in the middle of the church around which stood six Jews and Gentiles. The prophets, one by one, made addresses attempting to convert them. The ass spoke when his way was barred by the angel, and Balaam uttered his prophecy of the star. The ass was then placed near the altar and a cope thrown over him. High mass followed.

At Beauvais the festival was celebrated on the anniversary of the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, Jan. 14. The ass, bearing “a most beautiful maiden” with a child in her arms, was led into the church and stood before the altar during the performance of mass. At the close of the ritual, the priest instead of repeating the customary formula of dismissal, ite, missa est, made three sounds like the braying of an ass, — sacerdos tres hinhannabit, — and the people responded three times, hinham.

The improprieties and revels which became connected with these celebrations were adapted to bring religion into disrepute and called forth the rebukes of Innocent III. and Innocent IV., the latter mentioning a boy-bishop by name and condemning the travesty upon serious subjects. In 1444 the theological faculty of Paris spoke of grave and damnable scandals connected with the celebrations, such as the singing of comic songs the men being dressed in women’s attire and the eating of fat cakes at the altar. Councils, as late as 1584, joined in condemning them. At the close of Henry VIII.’s reign and at Cranmer’s suggestion the festivals were forbidden in England.


135. The Flagellants

Literature: The Chronicles of Salimbene, Villani, etc.: Gerson: Contra sectam flagellantium, 1417, Du Pin’s ed., Antwerp, 1706. Gerson’s letter to Ferrer and his address to the council of Constance concerning the Flagellants are given by Van der Hardt: Constant. concilium, Frankf., 1700, III. 92-104. — J. Boileau: Hist. Flagel., Paris, 1700, new ed., 1770. — *E. G. Förstemann: D. christl. Geisslergesellschaften, Halle, 1828. — W. M. Cooper: Flagellation and the Flagellants, A Hist. of the Rod in all Countries, Lond., 1877; new ed., 1896. — Fredericq, in Corpus doc. inquis., etc. gives reports of their trials in Holland, I. 190 sqq., etc. — *F. Neukirch: D. Leben d. P. Damiani, Gött., 1875. — Lea: Hist. of Inq., I. 72 sqq., II. 381 sqq. — Artt. Geissler and Geisselung in Wetzer-Welte by Knöpfler, IV. 1532 sqq. and in Herzog by Haupt, VI. 432 sqq. For the older lit., see Förstemann, pp. 291-325.

A genuine indication of popular interest in religion within orthodox circles was the strange movement represented by the Flagellants. Gregorovius has gone so far as to pronounce their appearance “one of the most striking phenomena of the Middle Ages.” Although they started within the Church and are not to be classed with the medieval sectaries, the Flagellants in a later age came to be regarded with suspicion, were formally condemned by the council of Constance, and were even the object of ecclesiastical prosecution. They appeared first in 1259, then in 1333, 1349, 1399, and last at the time the council of Constance was sitting. The most notable appearance was in 1349, at the time the Black Death was raging in Europe.

The movement had no compact organization, as is shown from its spasmodic character. It grew out of discontent with the Church and a longing for true penitence and amendment of life. The prophecies of Joachim, who set 1260 as the time for the appearance of anti-christ, probably had something to do with stirring up unrest; perhaps also the famine in Italy, of 1258, which was followed by a strange physical malady, characterized by numbness of the bodily organs. Salimbene reports that the bells were left untolled for funerals, lest the sick should be terrified. The enthusiasm took the form of processions, scourgings, and some novel and strange ceremonies. It was a species of evangelism, and attempted a campaign against physical and other sins, as the Crusades did against the Saracens of the East. It sought to make popular the discipline of flagellation, which was practised in the convent, and to secure penitential results, such as the monk was supposed to reach.

The most notable adept of this conventual flagellation was Dominicus Loricatus (d. 1060), who got his name from the iron coat he wore next to his skin. He accompanied the repetition of every psalm with a hundred strokes with a lash on his naked back. Three thousand strokes were equivalent to a year’s penance. But Loricatus beat all records and accomplished the exercise of the entire Psalter no less than twenty times in six days, the equivalent of a hundred years of penance. Peter Damiani, to whom we are indebted for our account, relates that the zealous ascetic, after saying nine Psalters in a single day, accompanying them with the required number of lashes, went to his cell to make sure the count was right. Then removing his iron jacket and taking a scourge in each hand, he kept on repeating the Psalter the whole night through till he had finished it the twelfth time and was well into the thirteenth when he stopped.

What is your body, exclaimed Damiani, who contented himself with prescribing forty psalms a day for his monks, — “what is your body? Is it not carrion, a mass of corruption, dust, and ashes, and what thanks will the worms give for taking good care of it?”

Under the appeals of preachers like Fulke of Neuilly and Anthony of Padua, there were abnormal physical manifestations, and hearers set to work flagellating themselves.

The flagellant outbreak of 1259 started at Perugia and spread like an epidemic. All classes, young and old, were seized. With bodies bared to the waist, carrying crosses and banners and singing hymns, newly composed and old, they marched to and fro in the streets, scourging themselves. Priests and monks joined the ranks of the penitents. Remarkable scenes of moral reform took place. Usurers gave up their ill-gotten gains; murderers confessed, and, with swords pointed to their throats, offered themselves up to justice; enemies were reconciled. And as the chatty chronicler, Salimbene, goes on to say, if any would not scourge himself, he was held to be a limb of Satan. And what is more, such persons were soon overtaken with sickness or premature death. Twenty thousand marched from Modena to Bologna. At Reggio, Parma, and other cities, the chief officials joined them. But all were not so favorable, and the Cremona authorities and Manfred forbade their entering their territories.

The ardor cooled off quickly in Italy, but it spread beyond the Alps. Twelve hundred Flagellants appeared in Strassburg and the impulse was felt as far as Poland and Bohemia. The German penitents continued their penance thirty-three days in memory of the number of the years of Christ’s life. They chastised themselves and also sang hymns. Here also the enthusiasm subsided as suddenly as it was enkindled. The repetitions of the movement belong to the next period.