I’ve been reading from Alan Mould’s book The English Chorister, a History and he has some fascinating stories.
In the middle ages the boys of the choir were called upon to act in certain church plays. Boys took the place of monks as the women and the angel in the Easter play where the Maries come to Christ’s tomb. There are records of choirboys acting in the play Zaccheus and in the Play of Saint Nicholas but the really funny one was this one.
“Perhaps the most comic example comes from Lincoln where, in the Drama of the Prophets, a boy was tied beneath a real donkey, from which unbecoming position he was required to speak (or perhaps sing) the words uttered by Balaam’s ass.”
I always hear it referred to as Balaam’s ass, but couldn’t they just say Balaam’s donkey? Fewer people would giggle.
An interesting role that I’ve never heard of was the Boy Bishop, part of what was widely known as the Feast of Fools. That was a medieval custom that took place during the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day and was derived largely from of the pre-Christian revels from those times. A day was giver over to different groups in the church but the day given to the sub-deacons saw the most outrageous misuse of the liberties given to them. There is a report from 1445 that Gould cites.
“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, pandars and minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gesture and verses scurrilous and unchaste.”
These things were eventually banned except for the festivities on Holy Innocent’s Day which was the choristers’ day when the choristers elected a Boy Bishop. He was later enthroned and feasted and presided over the offices for twenty-four hours. In January he would make a visitation which delighted the populace and garnered the boy a considerable amount of money.
It was all a serious ceremony and sounds like it would have been fun to see. Too bad it isn’t practiced today, but maybe someone could petition for it to be returned.