Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sacred Folly Coming in March

Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max Harris (Cornell University Press), is scheduled for publication in March of this year. Previously I have written on the significance of the concept of sacred follow for the church:
This book will update and correct remarks Harris has made previously about the Feast of Fools in his book Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (University of Texas Press, 2003). As I have argued previously in my masters thesis on Burning Man, and in several posts on this blog, western evangelicalism would do well to reflect on the importance of festival and play in connection with ecclesiology and worship and how the historical Feast of Fools, properly understood in its historical and ecclesiological contexts in the past, might be recontextualized in certain subcultural contexts for the present.
The publisher's website describes the book as follows:

For centuries, the Feast of Fools has been condemned and occasionally celebrated as a disorderly, even transgressive Christian festival, in which reveling clergy elected a burlesque Lord of Misrule, presided over the divine office wearing animal masks or women’s clothes, sang obscene songs, swung censers that gave off foul-smelling smoke, played dice at the altar, and otherwise parodied the liturgy of the church. Afterward, they would take to the streets, howling, issuing mock indulgences, hurling manure at bystanders, and staging scurrilous plays. The problem with this popular account—intriguing as it may be— is that it is wrong.

In Sacred Folly Max Harris rewrites the history of the Feast of Fools, showing that it developed in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (1 January)—serving as a dignified alternative to rowdy secular New Year festivities. The intent of the feast was not mockery but thanksgiving for the incarnation of Christ. Prescribed role reversals, in which the lower clergy presided over divine office, recalled Mary’s joyous affirmation that God “has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble.” The “fools” represented those chosen by God for their lowly status.

The feast, never widespread, was largely confined to cathedrals and collegiate churches in northern France. In the fifteenth century, high-ranking clergy who relied on rumor rather than firsthand knowledge attacked and eventually suppressed the feast. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians repeatedly misread records of the feast; their erroneous accounts formed a shaky foundation for subsequent understanding of the medieval ritual. By returning to the primary documents, Harris reconstructs a Feast of Fools that is all the more remarkable for being sanctified rather than sacrilegious.


"Sacred Folly is a major achievement; it is a book that we have needed, and Max Harris is preeminently the person to have written it. It reads gracefully, and the author is an attractive presence throughout."—David Bevington, Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities, University of Chicago

"In this bracingly revisionist book, Max Harris overturns long-held assumptions about the nature and functions of the Feast of Fools. Denounced by fifteenth-century French theologians as a wanton and ungodly rite, the Feast of Fools was in reality, as Harris shows, a reverential, not a rowdy, holiday. With incisive analysis and meticulous scholarship, Sacred Folly sets the record straight. In doing so, it unearths the fascinating history of one of the most misunderstood liturgical festivities."—Claire Sponsler, University of Iowa

"Max Harris has written an important and necessary book, offering for the first time an accurate history of a subject that has been persistently and consistently misrepresented in scholarship. No other book has even remotely approached the thorough revision of the history of the Feast of Fools successfully undertaken here. Harris takes on the daunting tasks of sorting accurate from biased interpretation, tracing the passing down of error from scholar to scholar, and identifying the deliberate introduction and transmission of misinformation. Harris not only demolishes an inaccurate history but also constructs a new and durable one to replace it."—Pamela Sheingorn, Bernard M. Baruch College and Graduate Center, CUNY

"The modern history of medieval ritual has long been a history of misinformation and misunderstanding. This engaging book is a crucial intervention that should recalibrate the methods for studying early liturgy, drama, and popular culture; it also suggests the need for a reevaluation of larger historical narratives. By gathering, disentangling, and contextualizing primary and secondary sources produced over two millennia, Max Harris proves that the Feast of Fools was a legitimate liturgical celebration shaped by specific historical developments in the twelfth century and in certain areas of northern France. In so doing, he not only reconstructs the circumstances in which clergy conceptualized, crafted, performed, and defended a particular festive liturgy; he also exposes the ways that changing notions of propriety distorted secondhand accounts of it, leading to its suppression in the fifteenth century and the metastasizing of these erroneous reports down to the present day. This is an exemplary work of scholarship: careful but wide-ranging, lucid, and humane."—Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

About the Author

Max Harris is Executive Director Emeritus of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has also taught at Yale University and the University of Virginia. He is the author of four previous books, including Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance and Aztecs, Moors, and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain.

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