Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Topsy-Turvy Tradition of the Boy Bishops



                       There was an old tradition in the old church in England and Europe, that is before the Reformation, which was akin to the Lord of Misrule in spirit but performed in a spirit of an all-together different sort. On the feast day of St Nicholas (December 6th), the patron saint of children and scholars (and who was himself  Bishop of Myra), the choristers of the Cathedrals would elect one of their number to become Episcopus Puerorum, the Boy Bishop, also called the Bearn, or Bairn, Bishop, (‘bairn’ is an old word for a child, still widely used in Scotland and the north of England). 

St Nicholas of Myra

The true Bishop would come down from his chair (Greek καθέδρα from which we derive the word ‘Cathedral’), and his place was taken by the Boy Bishop, who was dressed in specially made, boy-sized, vestments, every bit as opulent as those of the regular Bishops, and with mitre, rings, crozier and other episcopal regalia. The Boy Bishop was accorded the powers and respect due to his adult counterpart, and was served by his own juvenile retinue of prebendaries, and his duties varied from place to place. Some went on visitations in the city and collected offerings, in some places the reign of the Boy Bishop descended into blasphemous burlesque, in other places the offices were carried out with all the dignity and reverence of an actual bishop. 

A Grown-up Bishop bishoping

The first traces of the Boy Bishop date back to the Constantinopolitan synod of 867, the first mention in England was made in 1279, when Archbishop Peckham of Canterbury limited the length of time the Boy Bishop could serve, and in 1299, as he was making his way to Scotland, King Edward I permitted a Boy Bishop to sing vespers in the chapel at Heton, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for which service he made a present of forty shillings. 

A Boy Bishop

During the Magnificat of the vespers performed on the eve of Childermas (The Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28th), at the words, “Deposuit potentes” (‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat’) the Bishop would leave his chair and the Boy Bishop would take his place for a day, during which he would preach a sermon, two of which have been preserved (the text was carefully prepared for them by an adult, for fear of what a child might say). The first, from about 1496, begins, 
Prayse ye childerne almyghty God, as the Phylosophre sayth in dyverse places,” 
the second, preached at Gloucester in 1558, begins, 
Except yow will be convertyd, and made lyke unto lytill childern, yow shall not entre in to the kingdom of heaven.” 
If the practice began in the cathedrals, it eventually spread to the parish churches and into the grammar schools, with boys taking over the duties of their elders for a day. 

A Boy Bishop's sermon

King Henry VIII put an end to the Boy Bishops in 1541, with an edict that, amongst other things, said, 
Whereas heretofore dyvers and many superstitions and chyldysh observances have been used, and yet to this day are observed and kept, and in many and sundry parts of this realm, as upon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Clement, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be stranglie decked and apparayled to counterfeit priestes, bishoppes, and women, and so be ledde with songes and daunces from house to house, blessing the people and gatheryng of money; and boyes do singe masse and preache in the pulpitt, with suche other unfittinge and inconvenient usages, rather to the deryson than any true glory of God, or honor of his sayntes.” 

Boy Bishop stamp - 1986

Queen Mary Tudor restored the old Catholic practices on her accession in 1552 and she commanded that the Feast of St Nicholas be celebrated in the former fashion in 1554, but Queen Elizabeth finally ended it when she came to the throne, although the custom has been revived, particularly at Hereford Cathedral, where a contemporary Boy Bishop gives a sermon and leads prayers at the St Nicholas’s Day service.


Statue from Salisbury Cathedral, often (erroneously) said to be of a Boy Bishop

1 comment:

  1. There is no evidence that the Boy Bishop ceremonies ever descended into "blasphemous burlesque". This is a common misconception, because it is assumed without evidence that the Boy Bishop ceremonies were as riotous as those of the Feast of Fools are often thought to be. (For a comprehensive study of the Boy Bishop see "The Medieval Boy Bishops" - Neil Mackenzie.)


    In fact, in "Sacred Folly" (the best study available of the Feast of Fools) Max Harris argues persuasively that even the Feast of Fools, as celebrated in churches, has gained a wholly undeserved reputation for riotous an blasphemous behaviour.

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