*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 14th of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
I have two sons- 9 and 12. Sometimes they listen to the show. I hear from many listeners that they listen with children, too. And I strive to make this a family-friendly show. And today is no different.
But… well, today is the day on which a fascinating feast took place in Medieval France. But I can’t use the most prominent name for this feast because I might start giggling, and I’m sure my boys would too. Today the 14th of January was traditionally a feast associated with a Biblical animal- its Latin name: Festum Asinorum.
That’s right- the Feast of the Donkey. It’s a super curious event- let’s dig in.
The Feast of the Donkey took place during a time associated with the Feast of Fools. We see these occur in the post-Christmas season, tied to the feast of Circumcision and the flight to Egypt of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
These feasts would be extremely popular, then a little raucous, and eventually banned at the council of Basel by the King of France and the University of Paris.
The Feast of the Donkey and Feast of Fools would fit into pre-Lenten Mardi Gras Celebrations on account of their place on the calendar. And often, authorities would permit Mardi Gras excess and even the mocking of clerics as a kind of “permitted joke” that could reinforce the regularity of not doing this.
It was also thought that the feast of the Donkey, in particular, had classical roots, with a Christian emperor permitting this feast as a diversion from a similar pagan festival. I’ve heard this story before- not always untrue, but sometimes a lazy explanation for a Christian holiday.
Some of the most recent work on this topic has presented documents that show this feast is initially a deeply pious festival encouraged by church authorities and patrons.
The “Feast of Fools” was making a connection to the verse in 1 Corinthians 1 that proclaims God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wisdom of the world. And of course, there is no more appropriate animal in all of Scripture that encompasses God using the base and simple. Balaam’s Donkey that God moved to speak to rebuke its owner. Donkeys seem to always be in the background of the stories of the patriarchs; the Holy Family escaped to Egypt on a donkey. Of course, Jesus himself comes into Jerusalem on (what we call) Palm Sunday riding a donkey. The creator of the universe chose for himself an animal so debased we use its name as a synonym for a dumb person or what we sit on.
Into the late Medieval era, there is no doubt that clerical abuses led to anticlericalism (this is a prime mover behind the Reformation) and that stories of just how naughty the peasants began to spread. There is one record that I find dubious that proclaimed some churches would hold unique festivals on this day. In the end, instead of saying “Ita Missa est” (the typical end of the Mass), the priest would bray like a donkey, and the parishioners would hee-haw their response. This feels like an exaggeration that served the purposes of those who thought the common folk had gone too far.
The Feast might be gone, and the revelry bled into Mardi Gras, but in it, we see the development and perversion of Medieval piety and the elevation of the foolish to confound the wise. Happy Feast of the Donkey.
The last word for today comes from 1 Corinthians 1
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 14th of January 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who, whenever he sees the last words of the Latin Mass “Ita Missa Est,” has to read it in the voice of Jar Jar Binks Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by the father of two sons who prefer the Star Wars prequels and, in doing so, are wrong. I’m Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.