Customs and Traditions: The Boy Bishop

The colorful medieval tradition of the boy bishop was once popular all over Europe and even in the Americas. Over the centuries, it was progressively abandoned until its revival in recent years. It's interpretation and symbolism are varied, but the best accepted theory today is as a representation of the triumph of the child's innocence over the adult's tainted view of the world, with the boy bishop commonly delivering a sermon giving his audience a different perspective of things.

The first documented instance of the boy bishop is found in the Casus Sancti Galli in the year 911, though it is very likely that it was an already established custom. Written testimony becomes more abundant during the 13th to 15th centuries, mainly in the form or regulations on the way in which the ceremonies should be conducted or attempts to curtail the mischief these occasions usually gave way to.

Several authors, among them Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, attribute the origin of the boy bishop to vestiges of the pagan saturnalia such as the Feast of Fools. These carnivalesque celebrations inverted the social order for a few days and gave way to all sorts of debauchery. Curiously, Spain, Spanish-America and Belgium continue to celebrate Fool’s day on December 28 rather than April 1st.

The boy bishop of Bamberg, 16th century.
Index omnium festorum et sanctorum secundum ordinem Stephaninae ecclesiae Bambergae...
Staatsbibliothek Bamberg HV.Msc.476

With time the general outlines of the tradition became quite homogeneous. On December 6th, the feast of St Nicholas, the election would take place. The boy would be vested in episcopal costume, including a miter and crozier, and preside over a chapter of children instead of Canons. The tenure of the boy bishop would end on the feast of The Holy Innocents, but not before he made a progress through town receiving homage and gifts from children and adults alike. It is likely that the tradition of the boy bishop was started by children themselves within Cathedral or Monastic schools and would later be adopter in country parishes.

2018 Bisbetó at Montserrat Abbey. Pictures by Oscar Bayona.
Note the detailed vesting ceremony, the very accurate canons with fur-trimmed mozzetta and green-pom bonete, and the familiar wearing a soprana. You may even spot the ceremonial mace-bearer.

The custom was found all over Europe, in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, England, France, Venice and Spain, from which it travelled to the Americas (as attested by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas). The nature of this tradition is particularly susceptible to irreverence or attitudes edging on the sacrilegious, so it unsurprising that its history is mired with continuous attempts to suppress or contain it. The reformation in England and other protestant countries meant the abolition of the boy bishop in those areas, and eventually it would be discontinued all over the world during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Interestingly, Spain, perhaps for its deep affection to theatricals, preserved the custom well into the 19th and 20th centuries, and in fact it was never abolished in the Abbey of Montserrat and among some country parishes in the Basque region, such as Segura or Burgui. 

The Bisbetó of Montserrat Abbey late 19th century.
Note the pontifical sandals and the attending choir boys donning the teja, the Spanish version of the saturno with its wings curled up.

The Bisbetó of Montserrat Abbey, Early 20th century. 
Note the very accurate summer choir dress on the boy-canons.

Segura, on horseback.

During the 20th century we see an increasing revival of the custom within cathedrals, monasteries and schools, among Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians and even Lutherans. It is fascinating, and somewhat ironic, that the costume of the boy bishop and his attending canons still preserves many elements of clerical dress that have since been abolished or fallen out of use, such as the pontifical gloves, sandals, choir dress etc. It is a strong argument for the importance of the visual catechesis of sacred vestments and clerical dress.

Burgos, vespers at the Cathedral.
Note the use of gloves, pectoral cross and ring.

Burgos, the cavalcade.



Palencia, receiving the mitre from the bishop.

Palencia, the cavalcade. 
Note the pontifical sandals.

Abbey of the Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos, Madrid

Note the ermine mozzetta on the boy canons.




Hamburg, where they come in threes.

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