8. Once a year, a peasant was named the local ‘Lord of Misrule’ and enjoyed an escape from poverty – but just for one day
In Medieval times, peasants were the lowest of the low. But, for one lucky individual, all that might have changed for one day in December. Across England in particular, villages, towns and other settlements would select a ‘Lord of Misrule’ from the local peasant population. The chosen man – and it was almost always a man – would quite literally live like a king for the day before going back to his abject life of toil and poverty.
In most cases, the Lord of the manor would choose that year’s Lord of Misrule. The practice was also commonplace in the Royal Household in the build-up to Christmas. Plus, the Church even got in on the fun. They would name the youngest priest or, in the case of big cities, the lowliest bishop, to be in charge for the day. The chosen peasant would dress up in a colourful costume and fix bells to their arms and legs. They would then dance around their village, often making their way to the nearest church in time for mass. The Lord of Misrule could also ‘order’ a feast to be laid on for his fellow peasants. In fact, this was often the only time of year the lowest social class got to eat and drink well.
As the Middle Ages progressed, many societies became increasingly puritan. As a result, the tradition of making a peasant the king for the day either vanished naturally or was banned outright. In England, for example, King Henry VIII banned the Lord of Misrule in 1541 as he clamped down on the Church and all its traditions. Though Queen Mary I brought it back, it was banned again under Elizabeth I. The situation was the same in mainland Europe. For example, Pope Martin V banned it as part of the Council of Basle.
In the end, the tradition had died out almost completely by the time of the Enlightenment in Europe. According to some historians, the idea of the poor being treated well at Christmas was only really brought back by Charles Dickens. These days, some villages in Europe have revived the tradition, albeit they also put a positive spin on it.