When the last became first: the feast of the Holy Innocents

Four groups made up the dramatis personae of the medieval cathedral: aside from the bishop himself, there were priests, deacons, subdeacons, and members of the choir. During the Christmas season, each group claimed its day: deacons of course celebrated specially on the feast of St. Stephen, priests celebrated on the feast of St. John, the boys of the choir had their day of glory on the feast of the Holy Innocents, and the subdeacons claimed the feast of the circumcision. The choir boys’ special day led to one of the most beautiful and yet surprising customs of the middle ages, the boy bishop.

This Advent I treated myself to Neil Mackenzie’s delightful book, The Medieval Boy Bishop. Mackenzie offers a panoramic view, explaining from source texts how the “boy bishop” custom operated in England and in countries all across Europe. The essential idea was expressed by an official at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1263:

On the feast of the Holy Innocents, on which they shed their blood for the innocent Christ, an innocent Boy Bishop should perform the office, so that in this way a boy would be in charge of boys and an innocence command the innocent, preserving his image in the Church, whom the innocent follow wherever he goes.

In other words, on this feast a boy from the choir took the bishop’s role in singing the Liturgy of the Hours so as to serve as an image of Christ, the innocent child who led the Holy Innocents to heavenly worship.

The election of the Boy Bishop generally took place on St. Nicholas’ Day. Besides “bishop of boys” (episcopus puerorum), he was also called the “Nicholas bishop” (episcopus nicolatensis), or sometimes simply “the Nicholas.” In a ceremony that varied from region to region, he would swap places with the bishop of the cathedral and put on special child-sized episcopal regalia. From that day through the feast of the Innocents—sometimes called “Childermas”—he and his boy companions would enjoy trips through the country side, gifts from local nobility, dinners around the town, and the general fun of processing through the streets in fancy clothes.

The texts of the evening office are striking when one imagines them on the lips of young boys. The boy bishop would intone:

The one hundred and forty-four thousand which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women, for they remained virgins. Thus they reign with God and the Lamb and the Lamb of God is with them.

And his companions would respond:

These were redeemed from among all men, the first fruits to God and to the Lamb, and in their mouth was found no guile. Thus they reign with God and the Lamb and the Lamb of God is with them.

And of course, when they sang about the death of the children, their pure voices could draw tears from their hearers.

Although the boy bishop oversaw even the Mass of the day, the rubrics carefully prevented him from doing anything that would have required sacramental ordination. For example, he did not begin the reading with the customary greeting, “The Lord be with you,” because that was seen as a blessing given by an ordained priest to the people.

And yet the fact was that a little kid had ascended the episcopal throne and the bishop had stepped down to take the role of a servant. So the secondary theme of the day was inevitably that “the first shall be last and the last first,” that everything must be turned upside down. In some schools, the school masters and the students swapped places for a day; in some monasteries, the abbot changed places with a little boy; in general, the spirit of the Roman Saturnalia found an outlet in the Boy Bishop’s rule. This sometimes led to excesses, as can be seen in repeated ecclesial laws like the ordinance of the Council of Cognac in 1260 banning dancing in the Church on Holy Innocents’ Day.

The general spirit of the time was more dramatic than our modern sensibility. In one cathedral in Spain, the reader of the epistle dressed in a plain tunic to represent Herod. Acting angry that the epistle had elevated his victims to the level of martyrs, he threw a wooden spear at the congregation (!). Armed men then entered who followed the spear around the cathedral, seeking the infant Christ with his mother. More people joined the drama, with a donkey. Finally, an actor representing St. Joseph led the donkey out of the cathedral as the Holy Family fled away to Egypt.

In England, Henry VIII killed the Boy Bishop ceremonies with the stroke of a pen in 1541, but the custom held on in other places much longer. Over the next several centuries a change in the spirit of the age, given the excuse of the festive excesses associated with the Boy Bishop’s rule, led to the general extinction of the topsy-turvy little bishop—and to the elimination of the image of the innocent Christ child leading worship in the midst of the Church.

In the end, asking a little boy to sit on the bishop’s throne may have been asking for trouble. Still and all, it seems a beautiful thing to hear a soaring child’s voice celebrate the innocence of the Innocents, so I would advocate for a small revival in the domestic church. In the Holmes house, we’ll have a child lead our meal prayers and our night prayers today.

And maybe we can think up some reason to throw a spear.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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