Boy Bishops and Christmas Abbesses

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In many medieval churches it was the custom on December 6, St. Nicholas’s Day, to elect a choir boy as a mock bishop. During his tenure (which lasted until Holy Innocents’ Day, December 28) he would wear a bishop’s robes, go about in procession, take offerings, preach, and give his blessing.

The earliest example of this custom comes from 961 when German King Conrad spent Christmas with the Bishop of Constance and visited the monastery at St Gall. The king entertained himself during the service by rolling apples into the aisles in an attempt to distract the boy bishop and his attendants from their solemn duties but they did not take the bait.

This practice grew partly out of Jesus’s teachings on the special relationship of children to the Kingdom of Heaven and partly out of the spirit of social inversion that marked Christmas-time celebrations in the Middle Ages. This custom was not restricted to boys — in the thirteenth century English nunneries allowed prayers and ceremonies to be performed by girls on Innocents’ Day. At Carrow Abbey the female equivalent of the Nicholas Bishop was the Christmas Abbess.

 Like those other examples of misrule and social inversion, the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass, the Boy Bishop was eventually suppressed. Henry VII of England had his own St. Nicholas Bishop, chosen from the choristers of the Chapel Royal, but his son Henry VIII forbade the custom in 1541, complaining that “children be strangely decked and appareled to counterfeit priests, bishops and women, and so be led with songs and dances from house to house, blessing the people and gathering of money and boys do sing mass and preach in the pulpit, with such other unfitting and inconvenient usages”. The Boy Bishop was briefly resurrected by Bloody Mary in 1555 but disappeared on her death in 1558. Vestiges remain in the Italian custom of children preaching before the Bambino and in some English churches and schools which began to revive the custom in the twentieth century.

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