Today is the feast day of St Nicholas, and here's a post I wrote for historian and author Michèle Schindler's Facebook page about the medieval tradition of boy bishops, which took place between 6 and 28 December every year, and about the tradition of the 'King of the Bean'.In the fourteenth century (and before and after), there was a widespread custom to elect a boy from a cathedral or church choir to act as a ‘boy bishop’. He was chosen on 6 December, the feast day of the patron saint of children, St Nicholas, and remained in the role until 28 December, the feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorated Herod’s massacre of all male children under two years old in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The boy bishop was not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist, but blessed people, gave at least one sermon, led processions, handed out alms to the poor, and wore an episcopal mitre. The real bishop symbolically stepped down on 6 December and allowed the young chorister to take his place.
The medieval tradition of boy bishops should be viewed in a wider context of festive role reversal and indulging in mildly transgressive behaviour which dated back to Roman times, and another fourteenth-century custom in the same context was that of the King of the Bean. On the ‘day of the Circumcision of Our Lord’, 1 January 1317, Edward II was staying at the royal hunting-lodge of Clipstone in Nottinghamshire. Sir William de la Beche, a knight of the royal household, was the person lucky enough to find the bean that the cooks had added to the food, and therefore became Rex Fabae, King of the Bean, with the right to preside over the festivities. The length of his ‘reign’ is not clarified, but probably lasted until Twelfth Night. William also received a generous gift from Edward II: a ‘silver-gilt basin, with ewer to match’, which cost the king £7 and 13 shillings, or more than most English people alive at the time earned in a year. A year later on 1 January 1318, the royal squire Thomas de Weston found the bean and became Rex Fabae, and also received a costly silver-gilt basin with stand and cover, and a matching pitcher, from Edward II. In later centuries, the King of the Bean would be known as the Lord of Misrule.