Auxerre (561x605) (BerHam132), Canon 1

The custom of masquerading as a calf or small stag on the Kalends of January is well-attested in late antique sources and early medieval sources. Of the some sixty sources detailing Christian opposition to practices associated with the New Year, almost thirty mention animal costumes worn by revellers.[1] Two sermons by Caesarius of Arles (ca. 470- ca. 543) prove to have been the foundation of most of the condemnations.[2] As translated by Bernadette Filotas, the relevant passage in the first sermon reads, “During these days wretched men and, worse yet, some even who are baptised, don false appearances, monstrous disguises... What sensible person indeed would believe that he would find sane people who deliberately transform themselves into the state of wild beasts while playing the stag [cervulum facientes]. Some are clothed in the hide of beasts, others don animal headdresses...”[3] The second sermon refers to “mumming in the likeness of she-goats and stags”, and urges the pious, “if you do not want to share in their guilt, do not allow a little stag or a little yearling or monstrosities of any other sort to appear before your houses, but rather chastise and punish them and, if you can, even tie them up tightly...”[4] The Auxerre canon’s specification of vetolus aut cervolus (for calf or stag) became the basis for most subsequent descriptions of the rejected behaviour, but the terminological problems are noteworthy.[5] Vetolus at times mutated into vetula (old woman), as well as vitulus, vetulus, vicula, vecula (as in this transcription from Kob58), vicola, vegula, and vehicula.[6] That early medieval readers found some difficulty in comprehending the prohibition is evident in expositions added in or alongside the text, explaining that, to transform themselves into semblance of wild beasts, people dressed themselves in skins and donned beasts’ heads.[7]

The practice of masquerading as a calf or stag on the Kalends of January seems to have enjoyed widespread and enduring popularity, although the time of its cessation is debated. The earliest known reference is a lost work by Pacian, bishop of Barcelona (360-390), a work known to Jerome.[8] His near-contemporary Ambrose mentions the stag-mumming on the Kalends of January in Milan.[9] As for the historical context of the Auxerre canon, a number of nearly contemporary references suggest that Caesarius’ complaints resonated in clerical circles. Isidore (ca. 560-636) and the Council of Tours (a. 567), also protest veneration of Janus, although the latter without reference to animal disguises.[10] The Vita of Caesarius’ somewhat shadowy contemporary Hilarus, monk of Mende in southeastern France, before becoming bishop of Javols, reports Hilarus’ opposition to the New Year’s animal-mumming; the date of life is uncertain.[11] A seventh-century sermon by Eligius, bishop of Noyon (d. 660) refers to the “wicked and ridiculous” practice.[12] Later references recur in penitentials. Arbesmann notes that “well over a dozen penitentials of Frankish origin” transmit the prohibition, and affirms that these penitential canons ultimately derive from this canon of the council of Auxerre, although some show recourse to the Caesarian sermons for elaboration.[13] He also points out an error in a translation by McNeill-Gamer, who offer “seats himself on a stag” instead of “goes about in [the disguise of] a stag”.[14] Because of the extensive transmission of both the canons of the council of Auxerre and the penitentials, the prohibition continued well into the tenth century in canon law sources: it appears in Regino of Prüm’s Libri duo de synodalibus causis et disciplinis ecclesiasticis, and in the Decretum (Bk. 19, “the Corrector”) of Burchard of Worms, a work compiled around the turn of the tenth to the eleventh century.[15] In the Carolingian period, in addition to the citation of the text in various penitentials, including Halitgar’s, the practice is mentioned in a sermon by Pirmin (d. 753) and by an anonymous author believed to have been writing at about the same date.[16] Boniface of Mainz also complained about celebrations on the Kalends of January, although he does not mention animal-mumming.[17]

Taken in sum, the geographical extent of testimonies is wide, ranging from Spain and Italy to Germany. Arbesmann argues that, in contrast, there is no evidence for any practice of kalendrical animal-mumming from North Africa or Byzantium (although a sermon preached ca. 430 by the bishop of Ravenna, Peter Chrysologos, does castigate the custom), or in the Insular sources.[18] From this, Arbesmann deduces that the likely origins of the practice are continental, pre-Christian, and Celtic. To the evidence of the Christian efforts to suppress animal-mumming, he adds evidence of Celtic veneration of a stag-god, represented on a number of archaeological finds in France.[19] Whatever the origins, it is generally agreed that continuation of the animal-mumming on the Kalends of January had long shed its meaning as a pagan ritual in the early middle ages for those indulging in it, and that clerical adjurations had to explain that the practice was, indeed, a vestige of paganism, and hence merited condemnation.[20] Scholarly opinion divides, however, as to whether, by the time of the penitentials, “the tradition of the Kalends masks on Frankish soil is purely literary” (Arbesmann) or “if the initial meaning was forgotten, undoubtedly new meanings arose” (Filotas) and the practice continued. Arbesmann argues that, first, “the wording of the canon remains virtually the same during the period which saw the rise and spread of the penitentials” (indicating close textual relations) and, second, that the very variation (corruptions) in orthography and the introduction of explanatory phrases demonstrate that the tradition was not a familiar one, but rooted in textual transmission. Filotas takes the evidence of variation in the texts to reflect living traditions, which varied according to locale, noting that “not surprisingly, the feast of the Circumcision failed to capture the popular imagination”.[21]

The second custom prohibited in the canon, the giving of “devilish gifts” [strenae] can also be traced back to the Caesarian sermons.[22] The giving of such gifts was sometimes paired with the refusal to share anything, including household fire, on the Kalends of January, apparently in a calculus of safeguarding fortune. The absence of Christian charity in such practices scandalised the clergy, and there are remonstrances from Maximus of Turin, Martin of Braga, Boniface of Mainz, Atto of Vercelli, and Burchard of Worms.[23] The record thus largely parallels that for the custom of animal-mumming.

For a list of the manuscripts transmitting the canons of the council of Auxerre, and editions, as well as a concise synopsis, see Pontal, pp. 192-193, largely following the analysis of Carlo de Clercq, La législation religieuse franque de Clovis à Charlemagne (Louvain, 1936) pp. 75-78, who emphasises the importance of the council as a purely diocesan synod, attended by clergy under the jurisdiction of the presiding bishop.

[1]Bernadette Filotas, Pagan survivals, superstitions and popular cultures in early medieval pastoral literature (Toronto : Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005. Studies and Texts, 151) pp. 156, 161.

[2]ibid, p. 157.

[3]ibid., p. 157, with citation to Caesarius, Sermon 192.2; CCSL 104, p. 780, and also noting that the sermon was then replicated by Burchard of Würzburg-- not to be confused with the later Burchard of Worms-- in the eighth century.

[4]ibid., p. 158.

[5]For detailed exposition of the philological issues, see Rudolph Arbesmann, “The ‘Cervuli’ and ‘Anniculae’ in Caesarius of Arles” Traditio, 35 (1979), pp. 89-119, summarised by Filotas, p. 160.

[6]Arbesmann, pp. 93-95, et passim; Filotas, 51 and 160, with citations in note 27, who also notes “the wholly incomprehensible feclus of the Homilia de sacrilegiis”.

[7]Arbesmann, pp. 104-105.

[8]ibid, p. 91.

[9]ibid, p. 92.

[10]Isidore of Seville, De ecclesiasticis officiis, I.41; Conc. Turonense, cap. 23, ed. Carlo de Clercq, Concilia Galliae, A. 511- A. 695 (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 148A; Turnhout, 1963), p. 191-192.

[11]Hilarus subscribed to the Council of Clermont, a. 535: see De Clercq (cit. supra) p. 111. A brief biography may be found in William George Smith and Henry Wace, A dictionary of Christian biography, literature, sects and doctrines; being a continuation of "The dictionary of the Bible" (London: J. Murray, 1877) pp. 76-77.

[12] “...nefanda et ridiculosa, vetulas aut cervulos vel iotticos faciat.” Cit. Arbesmann, p. 101, who accepts the authenticity of the sermon, despite its transmission only in the vita of Eligius.

[13]Arbesmann, pp. 95-96, 105. Detailed discussion of the specific phrasing used in various penitentials is on pp. 96-101.

[14]Arbesmann, p. 97-98. John Thomas McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), p. 276 (Burgundian Penitential, cap. 34).

[15]Regino I.304 in the Wasserschleben edition (= I.300 in the Baluze edition, repr. Migne, PL); Atto Burchard 19.5. For an updated version of Wasserschleben’s edition and German translation, see now Wilfried Hartmann (ed.), Das Sendhandbuch des Regino von Prüm (Darmstadt, 2004). The text discussed here is on p. 164; cap. 304 is an ordo for the priest’s interrogation of a penitent who has come to confession. See also the condemnation of Kalends celebrations by Atto of Vercelli (ca. 925-960), in both a sermon and his canon law collection, although the animal costumes are not mentioned: Filotas, pp. 84 and 122.

[16]See Arbesmann, p. 102. The anonymous sermon is in Einsiedeln, Bibliothek der Abtei, 281.

[17]Filotas, p. 164. Boniface, Ep. 50.

[18]Arbesmann, on practices in Ravenna: pp. 111, 113. On geographical limits: pp. 95, 113-116, et passim.

[19]Arbesmann, pp. 117-119. For images of the horned figure, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cernunnos (with scholarly references).

[20]Filotas, p. 156; Arbesmann, p. 104. For a synthetic report of the Merovingian councils’ condemnation of pagan activities, see Odette Pontal, Histoire des conciles mérovingiens (Paris, 1989) pp. 292-295.

[21]Arbesmann, p. 100, 104. Filotas, pp. 155, 161-162.

[22]Sermon 192.3; see also 193.3. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, 104, pp. 781, 784. Cit. Filotas p. 165.

[23]Filotas, pp. 165-167.