The medieval period was an age of faith alright, but this does not mean that it was devoid of humour. In fact, from the 12th century onwards, satire and mockery became an ever more present feature of literary production. Bawdy, salacious, blasphemous texts proliferated in Western Europe to an extent that may leave believers in medieval purism and orthodoxy today baffled. As Latin was the language of the Church, most of the indecorous narratives and poems were written in the vernacular. The famous 13th-century fabliau ‘Du chevalier qui fist les cons parler’ (the knight who made cunts speak) circulated in at least two dialects of Old French. To stick with the famous, some poems of the Carmina Burana compilation, though not as biting as the Chevalier, were written in Middle High German and even Old Arpitan, a type of Franco-Provençal. But many still were written in Latin.
The medieval taste for satire was given huge scope for expression. As I was focussing yesterday on a group of manuscripts from the British Library’s Harley collection, I came across a brilliant parody of the medieval Latin Mass. The entire order of the liturgy was rewritten for a congregation of drunkards and a celebration of Bacchic intoxication. Titled ‘Missa de potatoribus’ (The mass of the drunkards), this script of the medieval Sunday Service was adjusted using humorous puns and witty double entendre to glorify, parodically, wine, food, sleep and carelessness. In the manuscript, the text even has the headings in red ink that one would expect to mark the various sections of the Mass.
The entire text is too long to be included here, so I’d just like to give the Pater Noster prayer (Our Father) with a twist (and a straw). The blasphemous potential of this rendering cannot be overstated for medieval sensibilities, but as Huizinga noted long ago, blasphemy needs strong faith and religiosity to exist. That we have both should not be a surprise.
The order of the service begins with an invocation to Bacchus, the god of wine, and an invitation to raise to glass to full inebriation. The customary exchange ‘The Lord be with you – And with thy spirit – Let us pray’ (Dominus vobiscum – Et cum spiritu tuo – Oremus’ becomes ‘The fraud be with you – And with thy groaning- Let us drink’ (Dolus vobiscum – Et cum gemitu tuo – Potemus), and after a series of prayers and a reading from a fake Gospel according to Bacchus, the Lord’s prayer begins (the Latin parody is followed by my own rudimentary translation):
Pater noster qui es in ciphis, sanctificetur vinum istud. Adveniat Bachi potus, fiat tempestas tua sicut in vino et in taberna, panem nostrum ad devorandum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis pocula magna sicut et nos dimittimus potatoribus nostris, et ne nos induces in vini temptationem, sed libera nos a vestimento.
Our father who art in the glass, hallowed be this wine, may Bacchus’ tipple come, thy vintage be done, in wine as it is in the pub. Give us this day our ravaged bread, and forgive us our high pints as we forgive those who booze with us; and lead us not in the grape’s temptation, but deliver us from clothing.
The Mass ends with the words ‘Ite bursa vacua. Reo gratias’ (Go, the purse is empty, Thanks be to the culprit), which is a pun on ‘Ite missa est. Deo Gratia’ (Go, the mass is over, thanks be to God). There is no evidence that the drunkards mass has ever been staged. Perhaps an idea for your next visit to the local pub or bar.