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Sacred FollyA New History of the Feast of Fools$

Max Harris

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449567

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449567.001.0001

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The Holy City of Byzantium

The Holy City of Byzantium

(p.25) Chapter 2 The Holy City of Byzantium
Sacred Folly

Max Harris

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how those at the top of the prevailing civil and ecclesiastical hierarchies participated in the Kalends masquerades under the Byzantine Empire. It begins with the story of Michael III (842–867), a young emperor who led his friends in public mockeries of the liturgy. The patriarch of Constantinople during the early part of Michael's reign was an austere monk named Ignatios. The emperor mocked the patriarch by pretending to appoint in his place an officer of the imperial guard nicknamed Gryllos. After discussing Michael's misappropriation of sacred vestments, mockery of the Eucharist, and humiliation of Ignatios, this chapter turns to another patriarch who introduced scandalous songs and dances to the divine office: Theodore Balsamon (ca. 1105–ca. 1195), who wrote a commentary on the canons of the Council in Trullo (691). It suggests that the Feast of Fools was embedded in the divine office of the church and that the masquerades in Hagia Sophia were not the Feast of Fools.

Keywords:   liturgy, Kalends masquerades, Byzantine Empire, Michael III, Ignatios, mockery, Eucharist, Theodore Balsamon, Council in Trullo, Feast of Fools

Not all Kalends activities were subject to the disapproval of those in power. In a few cases, if the historical records can be trusted, those at the top of the prevailing civil and ecclesiastical hierarchies took part themselves. The Byzantine Empire provides us with two possible examples. The first concerns a young emperor who led his friends in public mockeries of the liturgy. The second involves an even younger patriarch who introduced scandalous songs and dances to the divine office. Faced with these reports, some scholars have erroneously suggested that the Feast of Fools began in Constantinople.1

Tenth-century Byzantine historians tell a story from the reign of the emperor Michael III (842–867). The patriarch of Constantinople during the early part of Michael’s reign was an austere monk named Ignatios. The emperor mocked the patriarch by pretending to appoint in his place an officer of the imperial guard nicknamed Gryllos.2 Gryllos, who was something (p.26) of a jester and a mime, was ceremonially invested in patriarchal robes. The distinctive patriarchal stole, or omophorion, was draped around his shoulders. Twelve companions, including Michael himself, donned ecclesiastical vestments and sat on episcopal thrones to represent the patriarch’s twelve metropolitan bishops. Together they staged a mock Eucharist, accompanying the patriarch’s prayers and their own singing with the music of citharas. From a jeweled golden vessel, which had often been used in the consecrated celebration of the mass, they dispensed an unsavory mixture of vinegar and mustard. All this was done with laughter and foul language.

On the day of a solemn church festival, the group took to the streets. Gryllos, in clerical dress, rode a white ass. His metropolitans danced and sang around him like satyrs, effectively making Gryllos both a mock patriarch and a figure of Silenus. The latter was often represented riding an ass in the company of Dionysos and his satyrs. Accosting Ignatios in procession with a full retinue of clergy, the revelers launched into an obscene song, which they chanted to a sacred melody and accompanied with citharas, cymbals, and loud laughter. With tears in his eyes, Ignatios prayed that God would end the blasphemy and send the perpetrators to hell.3

On another occasion, we are told, Michael and Gryllos went to the Chrysotriklinos, a domed octagonal ceremonial hall in the heart of the imperial palace. Side by side in an apse, beneath a mosaic representing Christ enthroned in majesty, were two thrones. Michael sat on the emperor’s throne. Gryllos, robed in patriarchal vestments, sat on the patriarch’s throne. Michael sent a message inviting his mother, the empress Theodora, who was then under house arrest in the palace, to come and receive a blessing from the patriarch Ignatios. As a regent during Michael’s childhood, Theodora had been a powerful supporter of Ignatios. Theodora hurried into the presence of the “patriarch.” Failing to notice the substitution of Gryllos for Ignatios, she fell at his feet. The mock patriarch rose a little from his throne, turned his back on the empress, and farted.4

(p.27) Parts of this narrative may be no more than the historical fiction of a later generation. But there is a measure of confirmation, from closer to the time, of Michael’s misappropriation of sacred vestments, mockery of the Eucharist, and humiliation of the patriarch. In 869–70, two years after Michael’s death, Ignatios presided over a council of Constantinople. Among the decrees issued by the council was an anathema directed against anyone, “be he emperor or prince,” who remained impenitent after doing such things as were reported by many faithful witnesses “during the reign of the recent emperor.” High-ranking laymen, it was charged, had twisted their hair around the crown of their heads to mimic clerical tonsure, dressed themselves in priestly vestments, elected bishops, appropriated episcopal insignia, chosen a patriarch, and provoked laughter by imitating and insulting divine mysteries and episcopal pronouncements.5 The accusation was clearly aimed at Michael and his friends.

Even so, there is more to this than at first meets the eye. Michael was born in 840. After his father’s death in 842, Theodora served as regent. She is best known for restoring the use of icons in the Eastern Church after the prolonged Iconoclastic Controversy. To this end she appointed Ignatios, an extremist iconophile, as patriarch in 847. In 856, with the help of his maternal uncle Bardas, the sixteen-year-old Michael dethroned his mother, confining her to the palace until 858, when she was sent to a convent. In the same year, Ignatios was pressured into resignation, exiled, and replaced by a moderate scholar, Photios. After Michael’s death in 867, Photios was in turn deposed, and Ignatios resumed his interrupted patriarchate, only to be replaced again by Photios at his own death in 877 or 878. The episodes of the mock patriarch must therefore have taken place between Michael’s assumption of power in 856 and the resignation of Ignatios in 858. Michael was then between sixteen and eighteen years of age. Perhaps the mockery of Ignatios was no more than a form of mean-spirited youthful exuberance, encouraged by Bardas as a way of diminishing the stature of the troublesome Ignatios before forcing his resignation.6

Even this is not the whole story. As an adult, Michael proved to be a competent emperor and an active supporter of Christian missions. But in 865, influenced by his chamberlain Basil the Macedonian, Michael acquiesced in the murder of Bardas. The following year, Michael appointed Basil co-emperor. (p.28) This was a serious mistake: Basil had Michael assassinated and succeeded him as emperor in 867. The council of Constantinople of 869–70, which anathematized Michael’s misuse of sacred vestments, was convened by Basil I and presided over by the restored patriarch Ignatios. Biased in the extreme, it was annulled in 879 by a council of Constantinople under the leadership of Photios. The earlier council’s decree suggests the intensity of Ignatios’s resentment over a real humiliation, but to what degree the details are accurate is impossible to tell.

As for the tenth-century chronicles of Michael’s reign, we can be confident that their accounts of imperial dissipation were at best grossly exaggerated and at worst fictitious. The most influential of these chronicles, the Life of Basil, was written in praise of Basil I by his grandson, the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. Genesios’s History of the Emperors was composed by order of Constantine. Niketas Paphlagon’s Life of Ignatios was a vindication of the patriarch whom Michael deposed. Symeon Logothete’s Chronicles were similarly biased.7 The vilifying accounts of Michael’s life and character contained in these works are “now seen to be a tissue of slanders or half-truths, compiled without regard to historical fact and with the sole object of justifying to posterity Basil’s brutal murder of a benefactor and consequent elevation to the supreme power.”8

Moreover, the details of Constantine’s account of Michael seem to have been drawn less from any verifiable history than from Plutarch’s life of Antony and his now missing life of Nero. The fictitious Michael’s vulgarity, reckless extravagance, drunkenness, impiety, love of chariot racing, and cruelty can all be traced to similar character traits in Plutarch’s Antony or in what we know of Nero from other sources. Particularly relevant to the episode of the mock patriarch is Antony’s “delight in undignified practical joking and revelry.”9 Plutarch’s Antony loved “mimes and jesters” (mimoi kai gelōtopoioi), precisely the terms used by Niketas Paphlagon to describe Gryllos.10 Entering Ephesus in 41 BCE, Antony was preceded by “women arrayed like Bacchanals, and men and boys like Satyrs and Pans.” Antony himself was hailed as Dionysos. In these frivolous imitations of pagan rites, Plutarch’s Antony likely served as the model for the mock Eucharist and Dionysiac pageantry of Constantine’s Michael.11 On another occasion Antony tricked his wife (p.29) into thinking him dead by disguising himself as a slave bearing a letter to that effect. Although Antony quickly revealed himself and kissed his distressed wife, the incident may have served as the literary model for the narrative of Michael’s much coarser hoax on his mother.12

There is thus very little in the tenth-century historians’ portraits of Michael III that can be confidently accepted as historical fact. The vehement condemnation issued by the council of Constantinople in 869–70 makes it likely that some ritual mockery of the patriarch Ignatios took place, but since neither the conciliar anathema nor the tenth-century chronicles specify a time of year, we cannot assume that the mockery was related to Kalends masquerades. One recent scholar has suggested that Michael’s high jinks were part of a long-standing tradition of mimicry with its roots in classical New Year traditions and its future in the Feast of Fools,13 but this is a mistake. Michael and his friends may have appropriated for immediate political and ecclesiastical purposes traditions of mockery ordinarily associated with Kalends masquerades, but the figure of the mock patriarch is unrelated to the temporary popes and bishops of the Feast of Fools. Whereas Michael and his friends mocked the rites of the church from without, the Feast of Fools elected its festive dignitaries to preside over approved liturgies within the church.

Sometime around the middle of the twelfth century, the future patriarch Theodore Balsamon (ca. 1105–ca. 1195) wrote a lengthy commentary on the canons of the Council in Trullo (691). In one of its canons, as I have already noted, the council had prohibited public dances by women, cross-dressing, the use of comic, satyric, and tragic masks, and the invocation of Bacchus during the January Kalends and other festivals. This canon, Balsamon commented, “censures … things that are done by clerics at the feast of the Nativity of Christ and at the feast of the Epiphany [festo Luminarium], … especially in the most holy Great Church [Hagia Sophia].”14

The Council in Trullo, of course, had said nothing of activities inside Hagia Sophia or any other church at Christian festivals. Balsamon was freely applying the council’s edict to perceived abuses of his own day. Following the historian John Scylitzes (fl. 1080), Balsamon believed that these abuses had been introduced into the church by the patriarch Theophylactos (933–956).15 “It is to him,” Scylitzes had written, “that we owe the custom that (p.30) at public feasts God and the memory of the saints are blasphemed by the performance of the early morning offices with indecent howling, bursts of laughter and wild cries. … He gathered a band of disreputable men, set over them a fellow named Euthumios Kasnēs (whom he promoted Domestic of the Church) and taught them satanic dances, scandalous cries and songs gathered at crossroads and in brothels.”16

Steven Runciman describes Theophylactos, who had been appointed patriarch by his father, the emperor Romanus Lecapenus, at the age of only fourteen, as “a good-natured youth who could not learn to take his position seriously. … He made one brave attempt to reconcile pleasure with piety by brightening up divine service on the lines of a pantomime; but it met with disapproval, though some of the turns lasted to shock the righteous more than a century later.”17 Balsamon took a less charitable view. He understood Scylitzes to mean that something akin to the Kalends activities forbidden by the Council in Trullo at the end of the seventh century had been introduced into the divine office by Theophylactos in the middle of the tenth century. By the middle of the twelfth century, Balsamon reckoned, similarly inappropriate activities had become a staple of clerical misbehavior in Hagia Sophia at Christmas and Epiphany: “Disguising themselves for various roles [pros diaphora metaskēmatizontai prosōpeia], certain clerics step into the center of the church, wearing swords and dressed as soldiers. They go forth disguised as monks or four-footed animals. The superintendents snap their fingers like charioteers, or paint their faces and mimic women, or do other shameful things in order to provoke the spectators to laughter. The rustics are moved to laughter by the pouring of wine into pitchers and are allowed to chant ‘Kyrie eleison’ in ludicrous iteration at every verse.”18

Balsamon’s commentary requires careful handling. It provides no evidence that seasonal clerical masquerades took place in Hagia Sophia in the tenth century under Theophylactos, let alone as early as the seventh-century Council of Trullo. Scylitzes testifies from his own experience only to a late-eleventh-century custom of disrupting “the early morning offices” at certain “public feasts” with howling, laughter, and disreputable songs and dances. He claims that the custom was introduced by Theophylactos, but—as (p.31) we have learned—the hostile testimony of Byzantine historians is not always trustworthy. Balsamon himself supplies firsthand testimony only to the invasion of Hagia Sophia by clerical Kalends masqueraders at Christmas and Epiphany in the middle of the twelfth century. Moreover, the twelfth-century clerics, who entered the church publicly and in full daylight with painted faces and in various disguises, were engaged in a very different kind of activity from that of the apparently undisguised eleventh-century clerics, whose questionable songs and dances were introduced only to the “early morning” offices sung at or before daybreak.

Early morning offices in Hagia Sophia may well have been disrupted or enlivened under Theophylactos (or at least by the time of Scylitzes), just as the Eucharist may well have been mocked and patriarchal processions interrupted under Michael III, but there is no evidence that the custom of clerical masqueraders invading Hagia Sophia at Christmas and Epiphany began before the time of Balsamon. As far as one can tell, the seasonal custom of costumed clerics provoking laughter in churches in Constantinople surfaced at about the same time that secular Kalends activities invaded the churches in Paris. The former disturbed Balsamon. The latter provoked Richard of St.-Victor.

The masquerades of Balsamon’s day were closer kin to the Feast of Fools than anything else we have come across in Constantinople. They took place inside the church. Clergy not only participated but also, unlike their counterparts in Richard of St.-Victor’s Paris, appear to have taken the lead. The “pouring of wine into pitchers,” if the Council of Trullo was correct, recalled Bacchus rather than the Eucharist. But another genuinely liturgical element did find a place in the day’s events: the “rustics” repeatedly chanted the Kyrie. Nevertheless, like the Kalends masquerades in Paris, the masquerades in Hagia Sophia were not the Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools was embedded in the divine office of the church. The clerical activities of Balsamon’s day were not.


(1.) Du Cange, s.v. kalendae (4:481); Tilliot, 6–7; Freund, Dramatis, 88. Chambers, 1:327–29, discounts the “attempt … to find an oriental origin for the Feast of Fools.”

(2.) Nicetas Paphlago, Vita S. Ignatii, in PG 105:487–574 (col. 527), calls him Theophilos; other historians call him Gryllos. The latter was a “joking name,” derived from gryllus = comic figure, caricature (Pliny the Elder, Natural 35.37.114 [9:344–45]; Binsfeld, “Grylloi”; L&S, s.v. γρύλλος). In the margins of medieval art, gryllos or gryllus denotes a grotesque face set on two legs or in the belly of a monster (Baltrušatis, Moyen, 11–53; Camille, Image, 37–40).

(3.) The primary source for this story is Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos, Vita Basilii 21–23 = Theophanes continuatus 5.21–23, in CSHB 33:211–353 (243–47). For a German translation, see Breyer, Bauernhof, 64–67. Largely dependent on Constantine are Joseph Genesios, Basileia 4.49B, in CSHB 22 (102–3); Nicetas Paphlago, Vita S. Ignatii (see note 2); and Symeon Magister [= Symeon Logothete], Annales 18–21, in PG 109:663–822 (cols. 723–26) or CSHB 33:603–760 (661–64). Similarly dependent is the late-eleventh-century Scylitzes, Synopsis, ed. Thurn, 109–10; trans. Wortley, 64. The story is repeated, in English summary, in Gibbon, Decline, chap. 48 (8:255). For further discussion of the episode, see Ljubarskij, “Kaiser,” 44–45; Ludwig, Sonderformen, 372–74. For the historical background of the period, see Jenkins, Byzantium, 153–97, and the pertinent entries in Kazhdan, Oxford.

(4.) Constantine VII, in CSHB 33:247; Symeon Magister, in PG 109:726 or CSHB 33:664; Scylitzes, Synopsis, ed. Thurn, 110; trans. Wortley, 64.

(6.) Ivanov, Holy, 134–38, reads these episodes, together with another in which Michael accosts a woman on her way home from the bathhouse and insists on preparing supper for her, as a form of “‘secular’ holy foolery.” Attractive as this reading may be, it seems to me that Michael’s biography lacks the hidden sanctity characteristic of the Byzantine holy fool.

(7.) For bibliographical details of these works, see notes 2 and 3.

(9.) Ibid., 74.

(13.) Ljubarskij, “Kaiser,” 44–48. Ljubarskij mistakenly grounds the tradition of seasonal mimicry in the late December Saturnalia rather than in the January Kalends.

(14.) Balsamon, Canones … in Trullo, in PG 137:501–874 (cols. 727–28).

(16.) Scylitzes, Synopsis, ed. Thurn, 243–44; trans. Wortley, 133; cf. Georgius Cedrenus (fl. 1100), Historiarum Compendium, 2 vols., CSHB 34–35, 2:333, who incorporates whole sections of Scylitzes’ text into his own. The domestikos was “in charge of the chants … and the singers… On certain occasions he introduced the acclamations for the patriarch or celebrant” (Moran, Singers, 16).

(18.) PG 137:729–30; abbreviated translation adapted from Chambers, 1:328. Although prosōpeia often signifies “masks,” as Chambers renders it, it can also mean “characters” or “roles.”