Lord of Misrule

Lord of Misrule December 26, 2016


Before the Christian church renamed the day Christmas and tried to co-opt it with their own rituals, the winter solstice holiday was traditionally a raucous pagan festival. One of the old customs, which persisted into the medieval era, was called the Lord of Misrule. A person of low social standing, like a peasant or a servant, was chosen to be king for a day and to conscript everyone else into debauchery:

Presiding over these rowdy celebrations of Christmas-tide, held over the twelve days from 24 December to 5 January, was the Lord of Misrule. Under his command, the normal order of things was turned on its head, so that fools could become kings and vice versa…

In an atmosphere where the normal rules of society were suspended, the Lord of Misrule could command anyone to do anything and drunkenness and wild behaviour were almost encouraged, inevitably things sometimes got out-of-hand. John Strype describes the ‘Riots and great Disturbances in Finsbury’ carried out by ‘a Number of loose young Men of the Inns of Chancery’ on 2 January 1582. (source)

The Lord of Misrule tradition – also called the Abbot of Unreason or the Prince of Fools – originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a holiday of feasting, drunkenness and gift-giving, but also a time when all social expectations and customs were inverted:

During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted in public, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season… Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen, a role once occupied by a young Nero, who derisively commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing…

In the Saturnalia, Lucian has the god’s priest declare that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water — such are the functions over which I preside.” (source

Reading these accounts, it’s hard for me not to think that in 2016, America elected not a president, but a Lord of Misrule. The voters chose a candidate whose appeal was that he flouted common standards of decency, behaved clownishly, offended others indiscriminately, and upended the social order by elevating wildly unqualified bigots and conspiracy theorists to positions of power. And he’s given every sign that his running of the government will be as anarchic as his campaign.

You’ll never hear me deny that the pagans knew how to party. In a highly stratified ancient world, it doubtless served a purpose to have a custom like this: a safety valve where social constraints were relaxed, where people could blow off steam by acting as ridiculous and outrageous as they pleased. But it’s one thing to have a Lord of Misrule for a few days each year. It’s quite another to actually be governed by one for an extended period.

The next few years promise to be an era of calamity, chaos and disorder. We can look forward to outlandish incompetence, petty score-settling, shameless kleptocracy, and more. Every institution of our democracy is going to be turned upside down and ransacked. It’s going to be exactly what you’d expect from having a Lord of Misrule at the highest level of government. Just as with the original custom, it’s all going to be a grand joke – but unfortunately, this time, the joke is on us.

Image credit: Garry Knight, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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