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The Feast of Fools: A Pageant of Medieval Music

The Feast of Fools: A Pageant of Medieval Music

The Feast of Fools: A Pageant of Medieval Music and Dance for the Midwinter Solstice.
Wellington Town Hall, Saturday 24th June 2006, from 7:00pm.

Tickets $35, only available in advance from Ticketek - (booking fee applies).

Proceeds will go towards the restoration of the Maxwell Fernie Organ, at St Mary of the Angel.

The evening will take the form of a Medieval Ball, with dancing for all, accompanied by a medieval dance band. The dancing will be interspersed with floor-shows including a play, musical numbers, and dance demonstrations. Food and drink will be available from ‘taverns’ around the perimeter of the hall.

The audience will have the opportunity to try their hands (or rather feet) at medieval dance steps as well as see them expertly performed by students of Historic Dance from the Theatre School at Victoria University, led by Jennifer Shennan. Free dance workshops will be held before the Feast, for those who would like to practise the dances ahead of time. In medieval times dance was associated with the most elevated spiritual expressions. For example, the Nativity painting of Fra Angelico shows the angels dancing to celebrate the Birth of Christ. It was with the Reformation and the growth of the Puritan movement that attitudes changed, and dancing was regarded by some religious movements as being profane, wanton, and generally wicked.

The medieval Mystery Plays were another opportunity for combining spiritual education with fun. The Medieval English students of Victoria University, under the direction of Professor Kathryn Walls, will present a play about the Annunciation: ‘Joseph's Doubt’.

Professional musicians specialising in medieval music, including Pepe Becker, Gregory Squire, and Robert Oliver will provide music for voice, rebec, vielle, and other instruments of the time. The Marist Community will sing a medieval song or two, and the Choir of St Mary of the Angels will contribute items for the full choir and for small groups.

The dance band will include members of Wellington's REMU - – a society which includes many excellent amateur experts on medieval instruments. They will play medieval music for dancing continuously throughout the evening, on bagpipes, percussion, lutes, and recorders, sounding the merry notes of the estampies, the danse royales, the laments, the salterellos, and other lively dances of the time.

We hope that everyone, including the audience, will be in medieval costume (suggestions and tips can be found in the ‘Costume’ section of this website), and the hall will be decorated in theme. Food and drink will be sold from ‘taverns’ around the perimeter of the hall. The audience will be informed by the Crier, who will announce what is happening through the sound system. Seating will be available upstairs for those who wish to watch, while the main floor will be cleared for dancing. The special musical items and plays will take place on the stage. The climax of the evening will be the line dance of the Feast of Fools, led by a donkey, jugglers, acrobats, and burlesque characters (political satire is welcomed), then followed by everyone present.


The medieval Feast of Fools seems to have developed out of various midwinter celebrations, both Pagan and Christian. One of its components was the Church’s Feast of the Holy Innocents, which combined traditions of a Children’s Festival, with the burlesque element of children taking over the roles of senior clergy; and the Play of the Ass, derived from the story of Mary’s flight into Egypt on a donkey to escape Herod's massacre. Eventually the possibilities for indecorous and inappropriate behaviour in this Feast became too much for the authorities to ignore, and they repeatedly tried to abolish it right up until the seventeenth century. Here are two contemporary descriptions of the Feast of Fools:

Medieval France: At Sens the Feast of the Ass was associated with the Feast of Fools, celebrated at Vespers on the Feast of Circumcision. The clergy went in procession to the west door of the church, where two canons received the ass, amid joyous chants, and led it to the Precentor's table. Bizarre vespers followed, sung falsetto and consisting of a medley of extracts from all the vespers of the year. Between the lessons the ass was solemnly fed, and at the conclusion of the service was led by the Precentor out into the square before the church; water was poured on the Precentor's head, and the ass became the centre of burlesque ceremonies, dancing and buffoonery being carried on far into the night, while the clergy and the serious-minded retired to matins and bed.

Seventeenth-Century France: The lay-brothers, the cabbage-cutters, those who work in the kitchen ... occupy the places of the clergy in the church. They don the sacerdotal garments, reverse side out. They hold in their hands books turned upside down, and pretend to read through spectacles in which for glass have been substituted bits of orange-peel.


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