Part I: The Fête-Dieu of Aix-en-Provence

It’s been a year since I studied abroad and I’m finally cleaning out all the paperwork I brought back with me. All my syllabi, assignments, essays, notes, journals, etc. So, in a four-but-maybe-more-part series, I’m going to post some essays from my time at IAU.

Why in the world would you want to read essays I wrote? Number 1: I’m going to reduce them to only the most interesting facts and enhance them with all sorts of photos and videos. Number 2: I only chose super-fascinating topics because I had very few guidelines to follow. Number 3: I had access to and the ability to read a library of French books, articles, and records that you will never find here in the States. Number 4: Because you will learn something and learning is always good, yes?

Without further ado, Intriguing Topics Taylor Teaches To You, Part I:

The Fête-Dieu of Aix-en-Provence

Important background information to know: Some knowledge of Biblical events and history. And the city of Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. This is what I’ve already written/photographed about it. In medieval times, France didn’t exist as it does today; Europe was made up of hundreds of different regions all with their own Kings. From the 9th century to the 15th century, Provence was a semi-independent state with its own cultural identity and its own language: Provencal, which is sort of a mix of French and Italian. I discovered the history of the Fête-Dieu while researching street names (part two, potentially) in an 1846 book by Roux-Alpheran (which is available in French online). And no, I have no idea what “bazoche” means.

Largely forgotten in the records of history, the celebration of Corpus Christi was a monumental event in Aix-en-Provence. The Catholic holiday, which occurs sometime in May or June, does not honor a specific event in Christ’s life; instead it pays homage to the Eucharist, or the Holy Communion. In medieval Europe, the day was popularly associated with the performance of “mystery plays” – theatrical performances depicting stories from the Bible. A long series of plays, collectively called the Corpus Christi cycles, could last for many days.

The calendar of events for Aix’s Fête-Dieu (the holiday’s name in French, aka “God’s Party”) included parades, plays, and grand feasts over the course of a long weekend. Almost everyone participated in the grand affair – rich and poor, young and old, male and female. The celebration was a poetic mix of ancient and modern history, juxtaposing the sacred and the profane. Unfortunately, many details have been lost over the years, which serves to make the events that much more curious and mysterious to modern day researchers.

The main record of events comes from a 1777 illustrated book by Gaspard Gregoire (1715-1795) entitled Explication des ceremonies de la Fête-Dieu d’Aix, en Provence. It describes in detail various events, players, and costumes, as well as the history and some of the symbolism behind it all. Gregoire writes that it was established in 1462 by King René, Duke of Anjou. More likely, the games had already existed but René bestowed his personal touch upon the ceremonies, adding new games, new roles, and probably a lot more money. Its main idea was simple: the triumph of Christianity over idolatry and the triumph of Christ over demons. The symbolism and meaning behind many elements has not been explained, but documentation of the event gives an entertaining look at medieval Aixois culture.

A few days before the actual day of the Fête-Dieu, leaders and officers were elected and those wishing to participate signed up for various jobs. A council decided those elected to four principle roles that represented the nobility, the clergy, and the people: the King of the Bazoche, the Abby of Youth (picked from the artisan class), the Prince of Love, and the Lieutenant of the Prince (usually a law student). The Prince of Love was chosen from amongst the young sons of the rich noble families. Sadly, in 1668, Louis XIV eliminated the role of the Prince because many wealthy townspeople had been complaining that it was too expensive – the Prince was expected to give out gifts and host huge dinners, at the expense of the city. Roux-Alpheran’s book includes a menu of an example dinner and it’s easy to understand how vastly expensive it must have been – four courses, over 20 different types of meat, and massive quantities. After banning the Prince of Love, the Saint-Sauveur church leaders took over and had to provide the dinner, though the menu stayed very similar and the guest list increased by 200; it’s hard to see how this would have saved the city any money.

On the eve of the Fête-Dieu, after the elected had been chosen, they all attended mass at the Church of Precheurs, where the King of the Bazoche was awarded the cordon bleu and a plaque. With bands playing and busy workers decorating the town with rich tapestries and diamonds (Aix was very rich during this time period), a mass of people poured onto the main road to receive their costumes for the following day.

At sundown, baton twirlers met in front of Saint-Sauveur and performed the Passado. Drummers danced suggestively towards all the young ladies in the audience, meriting raucous applause from their male counterparts.

At 10 PM, the elected and their entourage left the Hotel-de-Ville and walked the streets until midnight, mingling with the townspeople.

The actual day of the Fête-Dieu, a Thursday, began at 4 AM when a group of men, who would later be demons in one of the plays, held a race at the Place de la Metropole. Whoever lost had to pay for lunch. Shortly after an elaborate breakfast banquet at the home of King René, the procession began, complete with floats for many of the scenes.

The King of the Bazoche, the Abby, the Prince and his lieutenant marched behind a group carrying decorated banners.

Behind them, each carrying a torch, were representatives of the various workshops and organizations in Provence, such as religious brotherhoods or calisson makers.

Then there were the knights, an order instituted by King René, and trailing behind them caricatures of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, riding on donkeys. Rene included this detail to commemorate conquering Urbino in 1460 and, as the crowd jeered and laughed at them, to embarrass their honor.

A high pitched racket, imitating the cries and gnashing teeth of those in Hell, announced the arrival of the series of plays relating to Pluto. The first part was the “Lepers of the Bible,” or Leis Razcassettos in Provencal. One man wore a dirty old wig and three others jumped around him, trying to comb it and cut it with scissors. The exact meaning behind this has been lost.

Second was the Golden Calf game, though it was called Lou Juec dou Cat colloquially. This showed Moses with his divine law tablets and Aaron trying to explain them to the Israelites. However, they were too busy dancing around a golden calf icon. Meanwhile, one Israelite threw a cat, wrapped tightly in a sheet, into the air repeatedly.

Next a scene of King Herod, being attacked by demons with pitchforks and pikes, shaking their bells in his face. The demons were accompanied by a “diablesse,” sporting grotesque makeup and hair, trying to attract Herod to her.

And to finish off this series, was the Little Devil’s Game, or L’Armetto because it was symbolic of the soul (ame). A young man held a cross in his right hand while being harassed by devils. But his guardian angel, wearing fake wings, also held firmly to the cross and defended him against evil.

The most curious, but purportedly most enjoyable show followed: that of the prancing horses. Historically, men had stood on horses’ backs and did tricks but too many fell and were killed. So, real horses were replaced by fake horses made from thin wood and fabric that fitted around the person’s body and were attached at the belt.  The group of 8 or 10 men then pranced joyously around, mimicking the movements of a horse.

In the next set of plays, Queen Sheba visited King Solomon, accompanied by three finely dressed lady friends and a court dancer. The dancer did balancing tricks with a small white castle figurine sitting on top of his sword. The spectacle dazzled the ladies and King Solomon, who accepted their salutations and invited them to leave with him.

An interlude of fifes and tambourines then began. A dance troupe performed all the latest dances, and was followed by a group of younger dancers, who received joyous applause from the audience.

The chariot of the gods was the most elaborate float. Richly decorated and carpeted, it was pulled by six magnificent white horses. Each ancient god had their own throne: Jupiter with his thunderbolts at the top, Juno, sitting at his feet with an exotic peacock, and Venus and gods representing games and sweets beside her. Walking behind the chariot were the Three Fates of Greek mythology. They each held balls of yarn, rolling, spinning and cutting it to represent their control over the lives of mortals.

The final set of plays began with the scene of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Children ran in a circle on their hands and feet, frightened and crying. Suddenly they all fell to the ground as Herod, looming above them, fired a gunshot (post-1400s). The children tried to pull themselves away, which is where it got the Provencal name of Leis Tirassouns, meaning “those who drag themselves on the ground.”

A happier scene followed. First, La Belle Etoile where the three Magi of biblical lore followed a man carrying a star raised high above his head. He meandered back and forth, from left to right, and the Magi followed accordingly.

Behind this line was a line of apostles and evangelists. A small scene was acted out in which Judas betrayed Jesus. The traitor then walked in front of the line of apostles and evangelists, who hit him on the head with long batons inscribed with biblical passages.

Gregoire’s record of the events end with this, however the series of plays and characters was constantly changing. As early as 1490, many ancient plays and characters had already been removed, such as Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel. The beginning of the end came in 1645, when the archbishop wanted to remove the secular aspects of the ceremony. The townspeople were so upset they threatened to burn the town hall, forcing the bishops to give up. The final end for the Fête-Dieu came in 1789 when the French Revolution overthrew all Catholic ceremonies, including Aix’s parade. Some tried to reprise the celebration in 1852, with the visit of Louis Napoleon, but the spirit and enthusiasm was lacking and it has been abandoned ever since.

And totally unbeknownst to me at the time of writing this, there is a giant painting of the procession of the Fête-Dieu:

And it was about 200 feet away from my school, hidden in this building that turns out is actually a museum. Dammit.


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