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The first paper, and for now, the only one, is a fun little analysis of a little known document describing a even leser known ceremony performed in the early Middle Ages, the Cornomannia. If you have any questions, contact me at

The Jester from the Sacristy

The Cornomannia

Ritual and Politics in the Lauda of the Saturday in Albis in Medieval Rome

Paper presented at the A.A.T.I. conference


May 28-June 1,  2001



Lucia Clark







In his treatise on the writings of Benedict, Canon of St Peter, (Le Polyptique du Chanoine Benoit, 1889) Paul Fabre reports on a peculiar ceremony that took place in Rome in the early Middle Ages. The ceremony continued until the time of Gregory VII, who put an end to it because of the great expense involved.

“Hoc fuit usque ad tempus papae Gregorii VII: sed, postquam

 expendium guerrae crevit, renuntiavit hoc”. (Fabre, 1889:10)

It took place until the time of Pope Gregory VII, but, as the expenses

of the war became heavy, it was discontinued.


As one will see upon reading the description of the ceremony, one can suspect that another strong reason was that it hardly fitted the dignified image that Gregory VII wanted to retain while he was intent on reforms and controversies. The “Monk Hildebrand”, as Henry IV called him, (Hall, 1998:52) was hardly the sort of Pope who could cavort (and pay handsomely for it) with horned dancers, and priest riding donkeys backwards, and escaping foxes…But let us proceed with order.The Cornomania

One of the first mentions of the “Cornomania” occurs in the Cena Cypriani:

“Hoc laudat papa Romanus in Albis Pascalibus

Quando venit coronatus scolae prior cornibus

Ut Silenus cum, Mnasylo deriso, cantatibus,

Quo sacerdotalis lusus designet misterium.                            (Fabre, op.cit, p. 10)

Thus, during the period in Albis after Easter[1], the Roman Pope

 celebrated the festival during which the choirmaster,

 crowned with horns like Silenus, came singing and frolicking with his priests

in the manner of Mnasylus[2]


Fabre takes the ceremony from a manuscript by Benedict, Canon of St Peter, dating to the 12th century. Most of the old traditions in Italy are rich in symbols and history, but this one is particularly loaded.  It is my intent to explore most of the elements that form this ritual, and to trace them to their origins, but also to discover and recognize those elements in Italian theatre and popular holidays that could possibly trace their origins to the Cornomania.

On the Saturday in Albis, the first Saturday after Easter, after prandium, in the afternoon, the bells tolled and the entire populace ran to their Church, from whence they conveyed in a joyous procession to the Basilica Laterana, welcoming the Pope with more praising songs. Then each archpriest formed a round dancing line and led a series of songs, performed in Latin and Greek, all praising the Pope and asking for alms. At this point a sacristan became the protagonist of the play: dressed in his finery and sporting a horned crown made with flowers, he danced between the circles of people, prancing like a jester, jingling his wand full of little bells and inclining his horned crown here and there. He wore a Larva mask, a mask of the underworld. At the end of the dance one of the archpriests[3] mounted a donkey backwards, i.e. facing the animal’s rear end, but balancing on the animal’s head a washbasin containing 20 coins with the help of the other parishioners. They performed some balancing tricks, a bit like today’s races holding an egg on a spoon, and at the end the winners received a crown. At this point three dioceses presented the pope with a symbolic gift: Santa Maria in Via Lata a young vixen non ligatam[4], not tied with a leash and therefore liable to escape, for which he received a one and one half bizantiums[5]. Santa Maria in Aquiro a rooster, for which it received a one and one quarter bizantiums, and Saint Eustache a young doe[6] and a crown, for which it received a one and one quarter bizantiums. At this point the pope imparted a blessing and the sacristans led the dancers away with more hymns.

The Laudes as Continuations of Ancient Rituals

Fabre himself calls the ceremony a Lauda, and in fact, so does Benedict: De Laudibus Cornomannie.  Brisset calls it “La burlesca fiesta llamada Cornomania” (2000).  De Bartholomaeis  (1918) points out the development of laic Laudes, sang in Vernacular, together with clerical Laudes, that were sang in Latin. In fact, most of the laic Laudes were a hybrid of Latin and vernacular texts.  Toschi (1995) points out that the laic Laudes were a continuation of pre-Christian propitiatory festivals, such as the Bacchanals, performed at the times of planting, beginning of the year, harvest, etc.  The text of one of the Greek hymns indicates a connection with agricultural rites, and has been transcribed by Fabre in a Restitution version. What follows is a part of it:
Συ`, ω δε’σποτα, χαιρε

Χαιρε μετα τωον παντον

Εισορω εισ το μελλον

Ο χαιροσ γαρ εισηλθε…

Καρποφοροων τα παντα

Και αγαλλιων

Τηεσ αγαλλιασεωζ

Ω Σωτηρ αθανατε

Τοιζ παρασχου

Συγγενη οντα τεκνα

Προβατα, πτεινα, πουλα

Δαμαρι τηεν αγριαν

Σου ταισ λιταισ

Φυγε, φυγε Φεβροαρι

Ο Μαρτισ σε διωκει

Υπερβα, Υπερβα


Χαιρε μετα παντον

Ο Μαρτιζ

[7] To you, o leader, greetings, gretings to all as well.

Finally the time has come

To rejoice in fruitfulness and gladness

To the Savior immortal

Of all the animals, sheep, birds, fowl, wild and domesticated animals

Be gone February, March sends you away

March comes in your place with all that it brings



The chant has the unmistakable flavor of a fertility spring ritual.

 The role of the Sacristan as the Jester

This fact brings me to my second task: the identification of the role of the Sacristan as the Jester. The sacristan, humble servant of the clergy all year long, becomes the Horned God in a reversal of roles that again is reminiscent of ancient Rome.  What follows is a chart with some of the Roman festivals and their equivalent in later times.[8]

Holiday Later equivalent Time of the year Gods honored Behavior
Strenia. Christmas.

“strenna” means “Christmas gift” in Italian January Janus Exchange of small gifts and sweets and use of masks made of  Verbena
Gesta Vinicola Later Bacchanals Octoberfest, and Carnival Probably harvest Bacchus Celebrations of the power of wine grew to be quite licentious. Participants were called Bacchantes
Lupercali None per se, but some similarity with Cornomania April Romolus, Remus and the mythical she-wolf who suckled them. The Luperchi, priests of this rite, frolicked around the street in the buff hitting matrons with whips made of goatskins. This is an old worship to the Horned God.
Lenea One of the precursor of Carnival Uncertain Bacchus, ninphs and satyrs Bacchanal dances. Licentiousness was part of the worship of the power of the god.
Saturnalia The reversal of roles brings to mind the Cornomania 8 days in December Saturn Reversal of roles: masters serve their slaves.
Matronalia Exchange of gifts at Christmas Late February Saturn, but worshipped by women Very mild exchange of gifts.  Christian authorities allowed only this feast to survive in the medieval Carnevale


It is necessary to put the festivals of the type of the Bacchanals in a medieval context: the licentiousness of what was taking the shape of Carnevale had a precise place in the medieval power structure. Poking fun at the authorities was (and still is) an ancient practice popular in Italy since Roman times (Glejeses, 1972). Toschi (pp. 9 -11) again explains that in these Laudes humor was the sacrificial offering: the laughter of the crowd brought luck.

 “anche se questa frenesia gioiosa puo` avere la funzione psicologica

…di un momentario allentamento nei vincoli di una rigida morale,

…il suo carattere fondamentale e` puralmente  ….propiziatorio (p.9) 

Even if this merry frenzy might have the psychological function

 of relaxing rigid moral codes, its fundamental character is purely  Propitiatory”.


Conversely a Jester that failed to elicit laughter brought the Evil Eye, and had to be destroyed.  The satires, the mocking of the authorities, were obligatory and essential to the ritual. The Cornomania was only one of many such ceremonies. We know of the Feast of Fools in January, and the Carnival, or Carnasciale. Those are all festivals that came from Roman holidays and had the same social role. A populace that is merry will carry on the harvest, or planting, or other work tasks knowing that their merriment is the proof that the Deity is pleased. They laughed for God, and God will exchange the gift with prosperity. (Mauss [1950] 1990)

This Jester, in fact, dances ut Silenus, and like Silenus is crowned with a horned crown.  Fabre himself ventures a connection with the Bacchanals. The sacristan is the Master of Ceremonies and the Jester as well.




 The Judgment of Judas

Another verse brings us to a different problem:
Ωζ οι παιδεζ τω Χριστω

Εβραιων κραυκαζοντεζ

Ωσαννα τω ηκοντι

Ζριστω τω νιω Δαβιδ As the Children of the Jews sing to Christ

They come to sing Hosanna to Christ son of David.


Paides Ebraion could be intended as Children of Israel. However, there is along tradition of Jews being forced in the Laudes, ands being the scapegoat, and of children being “saved” by force. (Toschi, De Bartholomaeis)

Anti-Semitism had a specific place in the political arena of medieval Rome: Perhaps the Cornomania was one of the Laudae during which a Jew from the Ghetto (conveniently located across the Tiber from the Vatican) was severely maimed or killed.  The Cornomania took place at the end of the Paschal celebration, starting with the Passion, the death of Christ at the hands of the Jews.[9]  Toschi and Brisset tell us of the role of Judas in many of the Laudes. A Jew was chased and maimed or even killed as punishment for the death of Christ.  A ritually killed Judas would properly end the ritual of Paschal.  The Jester therefore assumes the additional role of the avenging spirit. There is not direct evidence in Benedict that the Cornomania was one of the festivals in which the Judas was punished. Benedict lists a number of festivals, including Carnevale and the Ludi of January, which we know from Toschi and others did include the judgment and punishment of a Jew. Benedict however does not mention at all any rituals against Jews. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of them; perhaps he preferred not to mention them. Ritual and Symbolic Offerings of Animals

The motif of the ritual sacrifice continues in the use of the donkey and the other offerings, the doe, the rooster and the fox. The festivals of propitiation often ended with a ritual “funeral” or slaughter of an animal. Often these animals were allowed to will their body parts to everyone, in sidesplitting parodies of sacred verses. There is the delightful Testamentum Asini, the will of a dead donkey who leaves all of his body parts to whomever can use them best
Crucem do PapalibusAurea Cardinalibus

Caudamque minoribus (Novati 1883) I give the shoulders to the popeThe ears to the cardinals

And the tail to the Minor Friars


The donkey appears in many of the medieval writings. There is the story of the birth of the peasant as related by Dario Fo (1974), according to which the peasant was the result of an Immaculate Conception of sorts and was born as a result of a mighty fart. These viciously funny satires became the staple of the emerging Italian theatrical tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte.Cornomania , Carnival  and the Avenging Spirits

According to Toschi (op.cit), the end of Carnevale was marked by the Jester’s funeral, or a proper substitute, and ritual offering of several animals, including pigs and donkeys. Was the Cornomania one of the precursors of Carnevale? The presence of the Larva masks seems to indicate just that.  Fabre talks of Mazza and Larva. In a footnote he likens Mazza with Masse, mass. Another more likely possibility is Masca, (Toschi 169) from Maska, mask. In Longobard Italy Maska is a demonic spirit who devours men alive. But Masca came too signify mask, maschera in Italian. (Toschi, ibid) “Lamias, qua vulgo mascas, aut in gallica lingua striasphisici

dicunt nocturnas esse imgines”  The Lamias, also referred to

by the people as masca, and so also in the language of Gallia,

 are said to be nocturnal spirits.( Gervasio of Tilbury (in Toschi 169)

  Larva: genus malus ac noxius defuntorum (Forcellini (Toschi 170)

A maleficent spirit and nasty to the dead.


Augustine in De Civitade Dei  mentions the Larva as maleficent spirits (in Toschi, 170) For the Romans Larva was the masked person who was up to no good. (Ibid) in Medieval times Larva retained its maleficent meaning:

 “Larvatus, larva indutus vel a daemone possessus” (Ibid)

 “masked with the Larva, possessed by the demon”.




“Remembered Greek” Chants


The Greek chant of the Cornomania was in a “remembered Language”, a language that had lost its proper meaning and had assumed a ritual aspect.

Yeo despota chere mezopanto. Deo Ysoro. Orosisto mello. O chera sifilthe. Carpoforunta. Keagalliunta. Tysa galliusi


Fabre tells us that the use of Greek was an old tradition, and the relations of the Throne of Peter with Byzantium went on well after 800 AD.  The Schola Cantorum at the very least had to keep up with liturgical Greek to sing some of the hymns.  Augustine tells us in the Confessions that it was the Greek Church that it had introduced the use of songs in Rome. ([397], 1961:191) Those Hymns were chanted in their original language. But certain Greek chants were not familiar to the clergy any more, and yet, as we have seen, were included in the rituals as part of an old tradition. In fact, another chant was included, of so uncertain origin that Fabre is unable to trace it: Iaritan. Iaritan. Iarariasti. Raphayn. Iercoyn. Iarariasti

This was not a recent phenomenon.  Cato the Elder lists Etruscan incantations in the De Agri Cultura (CLX):

‘motas uaeta daries dardares astataries dissunapiter”

We must remember that the chant was sung in a remembered language, a bit like the Christians of old would recite their prayers in Latin without understanding their full meaning.  At the time of Gregory VII, these chants must have had the scope and role of an incantation. These incantations have to be seen in the context of the Laudes, and their connection with the witchcraft associated with the Evil Eye and the Jester. The sacristan, all year the servant of the church, has become the horned masked god, the maleficent spirit that has to be appeased. The Paschal Mystery is coming to its conclusion: the ritual gifts are given and exchanged, Judas is punished, the Archpriest and even the Pope have graciously accepted the mockery of the laughing crowds. Laughter in itself has been a powerful charm in exorcising the evil spirits. Ancient chants are sung in the same meaning, to exorcise the Evil Eye.  Conclusions

At this point it is becoming clear why the “Monk Hildebrand” felt that he had to do away with such a festival. He had excommunicated the king, he wanted to reform the Church to bring it to the severity he believed befitting to the majesty of the Gospel.  He was battling, however, a losing battle against centuries of popular traditions in which merriment and ritual revenge had deep roots. One has to think only of the mock “triumphs” of vanquished enemies that took place in ancient Rome. The very crowning of Christ with a crown of thorns is an example of that tradition. Looking at the revels of Carnival as they were developing even in Gregory’s time, it seems that he merely eliminated one of the many holidays in which the appeasing rituals were observed. If one believes in the power of these rituals, it should not be surprising that Gregory died, baffled, in exile. The people of Rome wanted their traditions and their holidays, in which holy and profane were one and the same, and in fact the more outrageous the profane, the more propitiatory the ritual. In the many celebrations of Carnival in Italy and elsewhere the Jester still shakes his horns, and laughs.

Papara”, ceremony still held today near Bari, Southern Italy, on the Sunday in Albis.

Each dioceses competes in the jostling of a ring held by the beak of a duck. Ritual games, ritual animals…

Photo taken from the Internet but I have been unable to find it again.


Augustine                             Confessions   Penguin Classics      1961

                                                De Civitate Dei         Penguin Classics      1961

Brisset, D.                              Image Y symbolo en el personaje ritual del Judas, Gazeta de Antropologia, n. 16, 2000

Bucher, F.                            Architector: the Lodge Books and Sketchbooks of Medieval Architects. Vol.1   Abarisbooks  New York 1979

            Cato                                        De Agri Cultura       Loeb edition 1999

Corradino, C.                        I Canti dei Goliardi  Mondadori Milan 1927

Ermini, F.                               Medio Evo Latino  STM Modena  1938

Fabre, Paul                            Le Polyptyque du Chanoin Benoit in

                                                Lille, Travaux et Memoires 1889

Fo, D. and Rame, F.                       Mistero Buffo                        Bertani Editore Verona 1974

Gleijeses, Vittorio              Il Teatro e le Maschere        Guida Editori  Napoli 1972

                                              Il Carnevale in Italia                        Marotta  Naples 1990

Hall, A.                                The History of the Papacy  Thunderbay Press San Diego         1998

Helin, M.                             Medieval Latin Literature  Snow Translator, Shallock, New York 1949

Mauss, M.                           The Gift          Halls Translation Norton [1950] 1990

Pascal, C.                             Poesia Latina Medioevale  Harvard University Press Cambridge 1907

Toschi, P.                            Le Origini del Teatro Italiano        Einaudi, Milan, 1955

Valgimigli, M                     La Poesia Satirica Medioevale       Nicotra, Messina  1902

Whicher, G.                         The Goliard Poets    No editor given, 1949



URL for Brisset:        

URL for old San Giovanni in Laterano

URL for Picture of Orpheus*.html#ref9

URL for Lorenzetti

URL for talking animals

URL for  Sculpture in St Pierre Abbey, France


[1] In Albis refers to the white robes the clergy wore after Easter. In Roman liturgy, white is the color of jubilation. N.O.A.[2] The only reference I found on Mnasylus is that it is the name of a butterfly. I suggest that it is the butterfly that was named after a minor mythical figure, perhaps a Satyr wearing the mask of a moth.[3] Benedict’s text does not specify which one of the archpriests would have the honor. Glejeses specifies that it was the youngest one.[4] It could also possibly mean not neutered.[5] The choice of coin is interesting. I looked up Byzantine coins but was unable to find one with this specific name. It was probably the name given to them by the Romans.[6] I owe the translation of “domula” to Prof. Ziolkowski. And in fact, Fabre adds in a footnote that St Eustace was converted after he received an apparition of Christ between the horns of a stag. [7] I am grateful to Rhodian author Theonie Mark for her help with the Greek translation.[8] From The origins of Carnevale, Lecture given by the author at the conference of the Association of American Teachers of Foreign Languages, November 2000, in Boston.[9] The role of Pilate and Rome was conveniently forgotten, and in fact was recognized only recently.