New Years with the Canons of Sens (1): A Feast of Fools?

Urge recristianizar las fiestas y costumbres populares. Urge evitar que los espectáculos públicos se vean en esta disyuntiva: o ñoños o paganos. Pide al Señor que haya quien trabaje en esa labor de urgencia, que podemos llamar «apostolado de la diversión».

Fr Josemaría Escrivá, Camino

We have previously written about a remarkable MS. that seems to record the steps for a festive dance performed by the precentor of the Cathedral Chapter of Sens two days a year. The Cathedral of St Étienne de Sens was indeed renowned during the Middle Ages as a centre of liturgical excellence, both for the perfection of its ceremonies and, especially, of its chant. By the 13th century, the sobriquet li chanteor de Sens (“the cantors of Sens”) had become the proverbial byname for the city, such was the fame of its ecclesiastical singing.[1]

Thus in one of the first printed chant-books published by the church of Sens for the use of its entire ecclesiastical province, the Precentor did not hesitate to boast in the preface:

“Throughout all Gaul, the most holy Metropolitan Church of Sens shines with such dignity and excels with such grand majesty in the symphony of its divine offices, that none could deem them anywhere else more beautiful, more holy, more admirable, and (insofar as it pertains to the divine mystery) closer to the example of antiquity.”

During the High Middle Ages, the splendor of the Senonese cathedral liturgy was at full display on the Feast of the Circumcision, which Henri Villetard, a 19th-century canon of Sens, called “the seal of the musical glory of this ancient Metropolis.” It has been preserved in MS. 46 of the Bibliothèque Municipale de Sens, an extravagantly bound tome with two antique ivories, which has since the 16th century been known under the misnomer Missel or Office des Fous.


Throughout all mediæval France, the joys of the Christmas season elicited particularly playful liturgies, especially on the kalends of January. The ensemble of these sprawling festivities became known as the Feast of Fools. The excesses that unsurprisingly tarnished such celebrations often drew the condemnation of censorious ecclesiarchs, but one looks in vain for such infelicities in Sens, MS. 46. The book simply contains the music for the entire Office and Mass for the Feast of the Circumcision, albeit heavily troped, with paraliturgical songs pertaining to the same, all under the straightforward heading Circumcisio Domini. The picture it paints is certainly one of exuberant merry-making, but all of it conveyed through ritual, and what better medium of expression for the legitimate rejoicing of the plebs sancta Dei?

The MS. in question has been traditionally attributed to Peter of Corbeil, who ruled the see of Sens from 1200 to 1221. This cultivated prelate was a master of theology, who, while canon of Paris, counted among his pupils one Lothair of Segni, who in 1198 was exalted to the Petrine dignity under the name Innocent III. He duly promoted Peter to various posts, culminating in his appointment to govern Sens[2].

Peter was not only a noted theologian and philosopher but also a poet and musician. As archbishop he wrote an Office for the Assumption which was used in Sens as late as the 17th century. Some of its responsories have been published by Solesmes in Variae preces and the Processionale monasticum.

When he lent his talents to the Feast of the Circumcision, Peter was likely aiming to curb the immoderation that often marred the celebration of the Feast of Fools, providing both a decorous liturgical ritual and thereby a means of enticing the faithful away from the purely secular revels attached to the kalends of January. A similar approach to the issue had been taken in 1198 by Odo of Sully, bishop of Paris, and, as canon, Peter affixed his name to Odo’s decrees.


In his Office, Peter generally transcribed musical pieces that were already in use and are attested elsewhere, but he also appears to have taken the chance to incorporate songs of his own composition. These are, withal, of para-liturgical character; Sens would have scarcely tolerated innovations in the liturgical offices themselves.

Conductus ad Tabulam

The MS. opens with one of Peter’s compositions, to be sung in ianuis ecclesie (at the doors of the church) by the clerics as they entered before for Vespers on the evening of 31 December. The song is an exhortation to joy, inviting all to delight in the upcoming asinaria festa (Feast of the Ass). This forms the introduction to the song Orientis partibus, a veritable proto-Christmas carol. The clerics intoned this conductus—a paraliturgical processional hymn—as they made their way to the tabula, a tablet showing the ordo for the day, that everyone might know his role.


Orientis partibus is a jocular hymn addressed to an ass. It was sung in numerous mediæval Christmastide pageants which featured the ass who bore Our Lady to Egypt, but in Peter’s version, an additional stanza makes it clear it is addressed to the ass who bore the magi to Bethlehem. In the cathedral of Beauvais, a pageant was performed before Mass, as a maiden holding a child and riding an ass was escorted to the church, but in Sens there is no evidence of any visual representation of the animal. It was merely a well-known seasonal tune, with a ludic melody to which the layfolk sang the refrain, Hez, sir Asne, hez!—the only words in the vernacular in Peter’s Office.[3]

First Vespers


After reading the tabula, the celebrant began the Deus in adiutorium meum intende, farced so as to become a hymn with three rhyming quatrains. It was not uncommon for the Benedicamus Domino at the conclusion of the Office to be troped into a hymn, as we shall discuss hereafter, but this is one of the two instances where the introduction to the Office undergoes this treatment.

Commentators have noted the rich musical variety in Peter’s Office. The two introductory songs are of “markedly un-Gregorian”[4] character, but the Deus in adiutorium hymn is set to a more typically Gregorian melody.

The alleluya of the invocation is troped as well in the form of a prose (prosa, in the MS.), i.e. a sequence: the word itself is split in half, so that the seven verses of the prose are inserted between alle and luya. The playful structure thus imitates the gay verses which call for the entire church to resound with sweet harmonies in praise of the son of Mary, that the Holy Ghost might fill all the faithful with gifts and glory. Other instances exist of such proses inserted into the alleluia, which drew especial rebuke from grim later liturgists[5]. This particular prose also appears in a 13th century Ordo pontificalis from Sens (B. M., MS. 12) inserted as a trope into the Marian antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater. The melody, although somewhat reminiscent of the merry introductory songs in its rhythm, is based on that for the termination of 6th-mode responsories once used in Sens, and is hence firmly Gregorian. 

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A musical interlude postpones the commencement of the psalmody and invites the faithful to consider the intimate connection between the incarnation and birth of Our Lord and His death and resurrection. According to the rubric, “four or five” clerics begin the versus Hec est clara dies singing in falso, retro altare. In order words it was sung in fauxbourdon, using a three-part harmony with two or three tenors, a countertenor, and a descant, which was sung an octave higher than written in falsetto.[6] The Verse is borrowed from a chant sung in the procession back from the baptismal fonts during the special Vespers of Easter Day and its octave.

Then two or three clerics in front of the altar respond, in unison, singing the verse Salue festa dies, a pastiche of Venantius Fortunatus’s famous Paschal hymn adapting it to the Christmas season. Then all join in singing the sequence Letemur gaudiis.[7]


Finally, the clerics sing in organum the versus Christus manens quod erat, set to the melody of one of the stock melismas added to the end of responsories on the most solemn feasts.

Only now does the usual psalmody begin, with no tropes or special melodies. The antiphons, though ancient, are not those preserved in the Tridentine breviary for this feast, and the five psalms are those of Christmas Vespers rather than Vespers of Our Lady.[8] The chapter (Isaias 9:2) again differs from the Tridentine one, and is sung to a special solemn melody:


Many mediæval uses sang a prolix responsory after the chapter on first Vespers of major feasts, a custom that has not been preserved in the Tridentine books, but is kept in uses such as the monastic, Dominican, and Carthusian. Here the responsory is particularly long, with several verses, the last of which is farced with three different proses.

It is interesting that Peter’s office does not indicate that a hymn is sung at this point. It might be an archaic feature, since hymns were introduced into the Roman office at a fairly late period. But since the other offices of this feast do include a hymn, one cannot help but wonder whether Peter here made a singular concession to brevity. Indeed, although the next piece is oddly dubbed a versiculus, it is it fact it is a long, hymn-like sequence originally sung as a trope to the Hosanna of the Sanctus at Mass.


The Magnificat is sung as usual, with an ancient antiphon that differs from the Tridentine one. The Benedicamus Domino is the occasion for a final hymn produced by troping both the verse and response. Several such Benedicamus tropes in the form of hymns survive, which were sung on the greatest feasts as a last outburst of gaiety before the conclusion of an office. In Laon, in fact, the feast of Epiphany was the occasion for a completorium infinitum, so-called on account of a rubric at the end of Compline that indicates tot Benedicamus quot novit quisque canamus, “let as sung as many Benedicamus [songs] as we know!” Puer natus in Bethlehem and O filiæ et filiæ are two such Benedicamus tropes still sung to-day.


See the other posts in this series:

2. Compline
3. Mattins, Lauds, and the Little Hours
4. Mass and Second Vespers
5. Why the Office of Peter of Corbeil was Suppressed
6. A New Years’ Apéritif with the Canons of Sens


[1] According to the 13th-century chronicler Galvaneus Flamma, the cultivation of Gregorian chant in Sens dates back to the reign of Charlemagne who, intent on promoting the use of the chant of the city of Rome throughout his empire, founded three schools of chant, one in Metz, the other in Sens, and the third in Orléans. Although some have cast doubt on the accuracy of this late source, the musical traditions of Sens were surely ancient, and jealously guarded, for, as another saying went, Ecclesia Senonensis nescit novitates (The Church of Sens knows no novelty). The Archdiocese of Sens, moreover, numbered amongst its suffragans the dioceses of Paris (until 1622), Chartres, Orléans, Nevers, and Auxerre, and amongst its abbeys St-Denys, Ferrières, Fleury, St-Germain d’Auxerre, and St-Pierre-le-Vif, all of which looked to their metropolitan see for liturgical direction.

[2] The Lord Peter was also close to King Philip Augustus, and when Pope and King came to be at odds, Peter tended to favour the latter, prompting Innocent to complain, Ego te episcopavi, which prompted Peter to retort, Et ego te papavi.

[3] Although in some places, the vernacular was sometimes used during Christmastide offices such as the Feast of St Stephen.

[4] David Hiley, Western Plainchant, p. 42

[5] E.g. Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, who, in his Voyages liturgiques de France, wrote with respect to sequences, “One must not regret their loss too much, for most were nothing more than pitiful rhapsodies, such us the use that begins Alle necnon et perenne cœleste luia” (p. 168).

[6] The indication that the music was sung behind the altar may allude to the representation of a crib placed there on Christmas Day, as was done in Rouen for the performance of a liturgical drama featuring the shepherds. The rubrics of this MS., however, offers no evidence for this supposition.

[7] Originally a trope on the concluding melisma of the second verse of the Offertory Deus enim firmavit of the second Mass of Christmas composed by Bl. Notker the Stammerer. The piece proved popular and was sung outside its original context. In Paris, bishop Odo also appointed it to Vespers of the Circumcision.

[8] I.e. psalms 109, 110, 111, 129, and 131 rather than 109, 112, 121, and 126 as in the Tridentine office.

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