Feast of the Ass, 14 January

Introduction to the liturgical context

I have written about the Feast of the Ass before on equusasinus.net – including a link to the medieval hymn for the feast “Orientis Partibus” (see https://equusasinus.net/2018/01/14/feast-of-the-ass/ from 2018.) Today I am simply using this blog page to replicate the social media thread I am posting on Mastodon, so the content of the thread can be all in once place here. I first encountered the Feast of the Ass while doing my MA work at the Central School of Art in London in the 1980s and went to Amsterdam for the Feast of Fools, which was a street theatre event capturing some of the popular appeal of the old feast.

The Feast of the Ass took place in the context of the ancient European Catholic tradition of the Feast of Fools, to which it’s ethos and its timing in the calendar is very close. The Feast of Fools was celebrated all over northern Europe (France, Germany, the Low Countries, and in England) from Holy Innocents on the 28th December until some date in early January, usually coinciding with Epiphany.

The custom held that a young girl, representing Mary, would ride a donkey through the town where it would be led into the church. A priest would then hold mass, with the donkey stood beside the altar throughout.

These feasts were suppressed after the Counter-reformation – as the Church saw them as undermining doctrinal rigour and occasionally leading to social behaviour that was morally questionable! The Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass only continued in some select towns and cities (e.g. Tournai) into the 18th century, and the records show this was against the instruction of the Church and continued only in the streets by popular demand, though frowned upon by the clergy who had once promoted it!

The critical theological work of Erasmus, In Praise of Folly with its woodcuts of ass-eared fools, was certainly inspired by these popular events and the paintings of Breughel and others carry many references to these winter celebrations. The Feast of the Ass had its own hymn, “Orientis Partibus” celebrating the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt a week after Epiphany, and the hymn includes braying in the chorus – an opportunity for a non-Latin speaking congregation to join in with donkey noises: their only contribution to the Mass apart from “Amen”! Even “Amen was changed to braying for this feast, with the priest ending the service with “Hee-haw” and the congregation responding “Hee-haw.”

Feast of the Ass on Mastodon 14/01/2023: copies of posts and thread

Let’s start our chaotic feast of the Ass with music! The feast took place all over northern Europe and was most strongly represented in France: medieval music from René Clemencic – La Fête de L’ Âne : Procession. Link to YouTube: https://youtu.be/vlnRKrrt8fs (the video owner does not allow embeds on other websites, so follow the link to YouTube.)

Our 14 January #donkeyoftheday for the #FeastoftheAss is a medieval musical donk! A marginal manuscript illuminated letter “O”

Stephen Harding, Bishop of Sherborne and later Abbot of Citeaux (1060 – 1134) encouraged his monk scribes to portray fantastic animal miniatures in manuscripts. Ref. Jean Leclercq O.S.B., ‘The Love of Learning and the Desire for God’ (1961).

The Christian depiction of the musical donkey borrows its playful imagery from pagan tradition.

This Romanesque carving in Aulnay church is one of many depictions of a donkey playing a harp or lyre inspired by a fable from the 6th century Boethius and also the earlier Aesop.

Remarkably the tradition goes even further back! A Sumerian tomb from 3000 BC contained a sacred harp with the image of the ass playing the harp carved into it.

The hymn for the Feast of the Ass, “Orientis Partibus” (with braying chorus)

An Italian troubadour version of ‘Orientis Partibus’ with braying chorus. Hard to believe that this song was once used in a liturgical setting, with the congregation braying the chorus in church!

The flight into Egypt

For all its gaiety and public singing of braying choruses, the Feast of the Ass was designed to commemorate a biblical event: the Holy Family’s ‘flight into Egypt’ escaping Herod, as told by the evangelist (Matthew 2:13–23); also embellished in some New Testament apocrypha.

The 13th century Franciscan depiction of the Christmas crib and flowering of Italian art centralised the role of the donkey, as shown here in Giotto’s fresco.

The Holy Family’s ‘flight into Egypt’ was a popular subject for the Romanesque stone masons of France, always with a central role for the donkey, as shown here in an example from a pillar capital in Autun cathedral.

The symbolism of the journey became an obvious theme in medieval pilgrimage and such depictions of the flight into Egypt can be seen all along the pilgrim roads to Santiago de Compostela.

The words of the Feast of the Ass hymn:

From the country of the East,
Came this strong and handsome beast:
This able ass, beyond compare,
Heavy loads and packs to bear.
     Now, seignor ass, a noble bray,
     Thy beauteous mouth at large display;
     Abundant food our hay-lofts yield,
     And oats abundant load the field.
     Hee-haw! He-haw! He-haw!

True it is, his pace is slow,
Till he feels the quickening blow;
Till he feel the urging goad,
On his hinder part bestowed.
     Now, seignor ass, &c.

He was born on Shechem’s hill;
In Reuben’s vales he fed his fill;
He drank of Jordan’s sacred stream,
And gambolled in Bethlehem.
     Now, seignor ass, &c.

See that broad majestic ear!
Born he is the yoke to wear:
All his fellows he surpasses!
He’s the very lord of asses!
     Now, seignor ass, &c.

In leaping he excels the fawn,
The deer, the colts upon the lawn;
Less swift the dromedaries ran,
Boasted of in Midian.
     Now, seignor ass, &c.

Gold from Araby the blest,
Seba myrrh, of myrrh the best,
To the church this ass did bring;
We his sturdy labours sing.
     Now, seignor ass, &c.

While he draws the loaded wain,
Or many a pack, he don’t complain.
With his jaws, a noble pair,
He doth craunch his homely fare.
     Now, seignor ass, &c.’

The bearded barley and its stem,
And thistles, yield his fill of them:
He assists to separate,
When it ‘s threshed, the chaff from wheat.
     Now, seignor ass, &c.

‘With your belly full of grain,
Bray, most honoured ass, Amen!
Bray out loudly, bray again,
Never mind the old Amen;
Without ceasing, bray again,
Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen!
     Hee-haw! He-haw! He-haw!’

So, that’s the #FeastoftheAss folks! Now I must get outside and do some sweeping up after donkeys and give them more carrots for the feast!

You will all be pleased to know that the Feast of the Ass (or Fêtes de l’Âne in French) is still a thing! The feast is celebrated next Friday and Saturday in the northern town of Sens in France. https://www.ville-sens.fr/agenda/fetes-de-