The Lord of Misrule

It’s Twelfth Night, the day the decorations traditionally come down, and when the festivities are supposed to end. The twelve days of Christmas, culminating in Twelfth Night as a time of revelry and mayhem, have a long tradition, and with seasonal associations of Saturnalia, it is tempting to see this as a Pagan throwback. Maybe it is.

Mediaeval life was in many ways quite regulated. Most people lived very close to the land and so the shapes of their lives were governed a lot by seasons, light levels and weather. The church of those times held a lot of political and practical power, we were in a feudal system where arms and fealty ruled, there were some very well defined social structures and the more ordinary people had little say over their lives. It’s a broad generalisation of a big swathe of time, but enough to put carnival and misrule into context. For a few days, the poorest man may be King. The Boy Bishop may preach, there can be nonsense in the services, lewdness, mirth and misbehaviour. As far as anyone can tell the effect of this was to make it easier to hold up the rules and status quo the rest of the year. I believe the Romans did something similar. I can’t help but think that if a hierarchical society likes a short period of misrule, that rather suggests that the brief letting off of steam serves to facilitate the existence of power structures the rest of the time.

Mayhem, it turns out, may not be as anarchic as we might like to think. Mayhem might be all about getting us to play nicely most of the time. I find myself thinking of the young binge drinkers, out misbehaving at the weekends, but back on the treadmills come Monday morning. The promise of a bit of carnival keeps us all behaving. In Alice through the Looking Glass, one of the Queens mentions that there will be jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today. Now, you can, as one of my favourite philosophers, Terry Pratchett observes, get people to do rather a lot on the basis of jam tomorrow. You can’t do that forever though. Just now and then the jam has to show up for a little while, to keep the promise of jam real for the rest of the time. Welcome to Twelfth Night.
In terms of modern partying, New Year and Christmas itself have replaced Twelfth Night as the party season, because we’ve largely abandoned the religious aspect. But like the Romans of old, we need our bread and circuses to keep us passive.

We need a balance of order and chaos. Life depends on it. Sanity also. Too much safe stasis leads to stagnation and boredom. Too much chaos is exhausting and disorientating. We need the wild times and the times of peace. As a Druid I feel that need for balance keenly. Give me a staid and suffocating thing and I will try and break it open. Give me an excess of disorder and I will tidy it up a bit. I’m also a touch perverse, so give me a prevailing current and I’ll tend to swim against it anyway, but it doing that I create balances and restore harmonies. A bit of perverseness is an essential part of the mix.

What troubles me enormously, is the idea that officially sanctioned mayhem has probably always existed as a way of upholding the status quo. That’s not real chaos, real rule breaking, real wildness, it’s a stage managed and carefully ring-fenced bit of allowed messing about with a side order of pretending this is the real thing. The Boy bishop and the hooting priest are not manifestations of chaos if every year you get the same routine for a couple of days. The Lord of Misrule is not an expression of liberation if paying for his brief rein sends you back to a soul destroying job making someone else rich.

Chaos should not just be for Christmas, and if you’re doing it to uphold the system, you’re doing it wrong.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “The Lord of Misrule

  • Reg Amor

    Excellent post! Religion being the ‘opium of the people’, we would do well to kick over the traces more often and have some rebellion in our normally staid lives. A pity that the twelfth night time of misrule, is itself part of the system of control.
    But alas, we are controlled from cradle to grave. Even the ‘alternatives’ have their clubs, that we are expected to conform to. Otherwise we are not ‘in’ or ‘acceptable’.
    I like your idea that our lords and masters allowed us time off to run riot for a while, before imposing their iron will on us once again. I think that ‘Decimation’ had a similar effect, without the necessity of allowing us to run wild! The Romans certainly had some effective methods of controlling the populace!

  • Robin

    Chaos isn’t just for Christmas… a new bumper sticker is born! In Morocco I believe that have a “misrule night” for women to run about the streets making a racket and letting off steam. I wonder what the world would be like if a few more of us had meaningful working lives?

  • gina

    interesting. My family, on mom’s side was Jewish, quite hidden, of course, during dangerus times, and outwardly catholic. My uncle brought it out into the open, and through him I learned that in judaism, there is the yearly Purim festival. A day the kids get to drink, smoke (yuck) whatever, adults put on costumes and everyone parties. Thank you. looks like many cultures have a time for chaos.

  • Alex Jones

    Science supports your stance with its Theory of Chaos and Theory of Complexity.

  • Jennifer Tavernier

    Hear Hear! Meaningful working lives? I have had that, and was very successful at maintaining it, because of the freedom to ‘be as I was or wanted, fully’ at any given moment. so there was a splendid blending of chaos and get the job done. The cake was always in sight, and it was even easier to discipline oneself to finish whatever, the more to fully enjoy the silly. However, the bumper sticker makes me laugh! One year (decades ago), I gave everyone a bottle of misrule Vitamins. Some were candy, and some were little wrapped up fortunes, or silly pictures. One didn’t know what was coming out of the bottle. What scares me suddenly, was realizing I just said “DECADES ago.” Time to fix THAT! TIme again to to put “this” time, in a bottle again, as it were. Good for all year round. Take as needed, or for pure whimsey…

    Thanks for the memory reminder, Nimue and Robin! Geez – I keep finding sticky bits of seriousness I have succumbed to – stuck like old gum under the doormat – yech!

  • Craig

    It is probably important to remember the origins of the 12 days in the first place. In what is now Germany, the pagans recognized that the lunar months and the solar year didn’t line up properly, and this was long before the Julian calendar attempted to fix that.

    So, in order to get things straight again, they identified 12 days…the darkest days of the year, as a period belonging to no month. They were sometimes called the twelve Rauhnächte – hairy nights, so called due to the furry forms of the deep winter demons – or Rauchnächte – smoky nights, due to the practice of smoking the spirits out of one’s house on January 5. Bringing very little sun to the northern regions, the twelve Rauhnächte were considered days outside of time, when the solar and lunar years were allowed to re-synchronise.

    So, the “Twelfth Night” was actually the night when noise and anarchy was expected, conducted as a part of the process of driving out the demons and encouraging the sun to return. As you observed, it was mayhem, but organized mayhem, officially sanctioned to achieve a specific purpose. They typically began on Yule, and then carried through Silvester – aka New Years – so named because St Silvester’s day fell at that date. Even today in Germany, New Year’s Eve is celebrated as “Silvester” and it’s one of the few days when fireworks are legal, a carryover from the banging and smoke associated with the evil demons.

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