Lord of Misrule
In England, the Lord of Misrule — known in Scotland as the Abbot of Unreason and in France as the Prince des Sots — was an officer appointed by lot at Christmas to preside over the Feast of Fools. The Lord of Misrule was generally a peasant or sub-deacon appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, which often included drunkenness and wild partying, in the pagan tradition of Saturnalia.
The Church held a similar festival involving a Boy Bishop. This custom was abolished by Henry VIII in 1541, restored by the Catholic Queen Mary I and again abolished by Protestant Elizabeth I, though here and there it lingered on for some time longer. On the Continent it was suppressed by the Council of Basle in 1431, but was revived in some places from time to time, even as late as the eighteenth century.
While mostly known as a British holiday custom, the appointment of a Lord of Misrule comes from antiquity. In ancient Rome, from the 17th to the 23rd of December, a Lord of Misrule was appointed for the feast of Saturnalia, in the guise of the good god Saturn. During this time the ordinary rules of life were subverted as masters served their slaves, and the offices of state were held by slaves. The Lord of Misrule presided over all of this, and had the power to command anyone to do anything during the holiday period. This holiday seems to be the precursor to the more modern holiday, and it carried over into the Christian era.
On January 1, A.D. 400, the bishop Asterius of Amasea in Pontus (Amasya, Turkey) preached a sermon against the Feast of Calends ("this foolish and harmful delight") that describes the role of the Lord of Misrule in Late Antiquity. The New Years feast included children arriving at each doorstep, exchanging their gifts for reward:
"This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy, and accustoms them to go from house to house and to offer novel gifts, fruits covered with silver tinsel. For these they receive, in return, gifts double their value, and thus the tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid."
- --Asterius, in "Oratio 4: Adversus Kalendarum Festum" 
It contrasted with the Christian celebration held, not by chance, on the adjoining day:
"We celebrate the birth of Christ, since at this time God manifested himself in the flesh. We celebrate the Feast of Lights (Epiphany), since by the forgiveness of our sins we are led forth from the dark prison of our former life into a life of light and uprightness." --Asterius, "Oratio 4"
Significantly, for Asterius the Christian feast was explicitly an entry from darkness into light, and although no conscious solar nature could have been expressed, it is certainly the renewed light at midwinter, which was celebrated among Roman pagans, officially from the time of Aurelian, as the "festival of the birth of the Unconquered Sun". Meanwhile, throughout the city of Amasea, although entry into the temples and holy places had been forbidden by the decree of Theodosius I (391), the festival of gift-giving when "all is noise and tumult" in "a rejoicing over the new year" with a kiss and the gift of a coin, went on all around, to the intense disgust and scorn of the bishop:
This is misnamed a feast, being full of annoyance; since going out-of-doors is burdensome, and staying within doors is not undisturbed. For the common vagrants and the jugglers of the stage, dividing themselves into squads and hordes, hang about every house. The gates of public officials they besiege with especial persistence, actually shouting and clapping their hands until he that is beleaguered within, exhausted, throws out to them whatever money he has and even what is not his own. And these mendicants going from door to door follow one after another, and, until late in the evening, there is no relief from this nuisance. For crowd succeeds crowd, and shout, shout, and loss, loss." --Asterius, "Oratio 4" 
Honest farmers coming into the city were likely to be jeered at, spanked and robbed. Worse,
"Even our most excellent and guileless prophets, the unmistakable representatives of God, who when unhindered in their work are our faithful ministers, are treated with insolence." For the soldiers, they spend all their wages in riot and loose women, see plays perhaps, "for they learn vulgarity and the practices of actors".
Their military discipline is relaxed and slackened. They make sport of the laws and the government of which they have been appointed guardians. For they ridicule and insult the august government. They mount a chariot as though upon a stage; they appoint pretended lictors and publicly act like buffoons. This is the nobler part of their ribaldry. But their other doings, how can one mention them? Does not the champion, the lion-hearted man, the man who when armed is the admiration of his friends and the terror of his foes, loose his tunic to his ankles, twine a girdle about his breast, use a woman's sandal, put a roll of hair on his head in feminine fashion, and ply the distaff full of wool, and with that right hand which once bore the trophy, draw out the thread, and changing the tone of his voice utter his words in the sharper feminine treble?
However, according to the anthropologist James Frazer, there was a darker side to the Saturnalia festival. In Durostorum on the Danube (modern Silistra), Roman soldiers would choose a man from among them to be the Lord of Misrule for thirty days. At the end of that thirty days, his throat was cut on the altar of Saturn. Similar origins of the British Lord of Misrule, as a sacrificial king (a temporary king, as Frazer puts it) who was later put to death for the benefit of all, have also been recorded (Frazer, The New Golden Bough, Ed. Theodor H. Gaster, part 7 "Between Old and New: Periods of License," New York: Criterion Books, 1959; rpt. New York: New American Library, 1964. pp. 643–44; 645-50).
References to Frazer's view of this ancient sacrifice were made in the 1973 film The Wicker Man.
While the medieval and later Roman custom of a Lord of Misrule as a master of revels, a figure of fun and no more than that, is most familiar, there does seem to be some indication of an earlier and more unpleasant aspect to this figure. Frazer recounts:
We are justified in assuming that in an earlier and more barbarous age it was the universal practice in ancient Italy, wherever the worship of Saturn prevailed, to choose a man who played the part and enjoyed all the traditionary privileges of Saturn for a season, and then died, whether by his own or another's hand, whether by the knife or the fire or on the gallows-tree, in the character of the good god who gave his life for the world.
In the Tudor period John Stow in his Survey of London, published in 1603, gives a description of the Lord of Misrule:
in the feaste of Christmas, there was in the kinges house, wheresoeuer hee was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Maister of merry disports, and the like had yee in the house of euery noble man, of honor, or good worshippe, were he spirituall or temporall. Amongst the which the Mayor of London, and eyther of the shiriffes had their seuerall Lordes of Misrule, euer contending without quarrell or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the Beholders. These Lordes beginning their rule on Alhollon Eue [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonlie called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisinges, Maskes and Mummeries, with playing at Cardes for Counters, Nayles and pointes in euery house, more for pastimes then for gaine.
The Lord of Misrule is also referred to by Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses (1585) where he states that "the wilde heades of the parishe conventynge together, chuse them a grand Capitaine (of mischeefe) whom they ennobel with the title Lorde of Misrule". He then gives a description of the way they dress colourfully, tie bells onto their legs and "go to the churche (though the minister be at praier or preachyng) dauncying and swingyng their handercheefes"
- Tudor Christmas, The Anne Boleyn Files
- John, Stow. "A Survey of London (1603)". British History Online. Retrieved 16 October 2013.
- Hadfield, Miles & John (1961). The Twelve Days of Christmas. London: Cassell. pp. 134–135.
- Higginbotham, Susan. "The Lord of Misrule Comes to Court: 1551/52". Retrieved 16 October 2013.
- "Asterius of Amasia, Sermons (1904). Preface to the online edition", Roger Pearse (translator), Ipswich, UK, December 2003, webpage: ECWritings-Aste.
- "On the Festival of the Calends", Asterius, AD 400.
- "Flogged" is the bishop's unlikely remark.
- Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1922, p.586
- Asterius of Amasia, AD 400, Asterius of Amasea: Sermons (1904 edition) pp. 111–129, "Sermon 4: On the Festival of the Calends" from Latin "Oratio 4: Adversus Kalendarum Festum" transcribed by Roger Pearse, Ipswich, UK, 2003.