In adopting that name the society was referencing an earlier group of men who, like themselves, had hidden behind “masks” to protect themselves. Gay men in the 1940s and 50s concealed their sexuality or be discrimination against. The earlier Mattachine group were men who wore real masks to protect their identities while they openly satirised and ridiculed the Church of medieval France. This earlier group was called the Société Mattachine.
The Société Mattachine was just one of many French troupes given the generic name of Sociétés Joyeuse. They originated in the 15th century and consisted of people from towns, villages and cities who formed for one specific event, the annual Feast of Fools.
There’s a lot of misinformation circulating on the internet about this Feast of Fools. The claim that it originated in a Roman or pagan religious festival is wrong (why are people obsessed with giving pagan origins to everything based on nothing but date? You can claim Pride marches have pagan originals because the ancient religions had communal processions near the summer solstice as well). Most ancient pagan festivals that were banned in the Roman Empire from 389 AD were forgotten during the long centuries that followed in the so-called Dark Ages (5th to 11th centuries).
The spring-time Feast of Fools was also not the same as the topsy-turvy Feast of the Bean and other role-reversal winter celebrations. They are different celebrations that existed before, during and after the Feast of Fools existed. Harry Hay, the co-founder of the Mattachine Society who chose the name, fell into the trap of believing the Victorian-era fabricated history of the Feast of Fools.
The Feast of Fools originated in 12th century France as a celebration held by junior clergy. Its name was inspired by the Bible verse – “You are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ!” (1 Corinthians 4:10). These clergy indulged in comic role-play as bishops and generally had a jolly good time. People have always dressed up to celebrate events, look at Pride. There was no act of worship or church service to go with. The Feast was an early form of the satirical sketches seen on television today.
Because the Feast of Fools was not a religious festival public participation increased until in the 15th century they also began to produce little satirical plays. The performers were called Sociétés Joyeuse and their plays were called Sermon Joyeux. The performers, both men and women, were often masked not only to hide their identity but to add to the satire with distorted masks. The Société Mattachine were just one of these groups.
The subjects of the Sermon Joyeux, as the name suggests, was religious. They were also comically vulgar and full of sexual symbolism. Generally the Sermon told the story of a fictional “saint” or religious character and his or her life and martyrdom. Along the way the “saint” has various adventures, all of which were thinly disguised parodies of religious practices.
Sadly, most of the Sermons were not written down. We are lucky to have a handful that were printed, and one features two of the most popular characters in the Sermon Joyeux. The “Le devot de sainct sermon de monseigneur Sainct Jambon et de madame saincte Andouille” was printed in Paris in 1521 by Jean Jehannot. The names Sainct Jambon and Saincte Andouille translate as Brother Ham and Sister Sausage. The Sermon Joyeux often had food-named characters with sexual connotations. Brother Ham refers to the back of a pig, i.e. the anus, and Sister Sausage is an obvious sexual reference still used in comedy today.
It is in “Le devot de sainct sermon de monseigneur Sainct Jambon et de madame saincte Andouille” that we encounter one of the rare instances of a hint of homosexual activity. In this Sermon a character “steals” Andouille in order to transport Jambon to another place. The allusion to anal sex would be apparent to the medieval audience, and may be a reference to the common accusations that male clergy often had illicit gay sex (also encountered in both Chaucer and Dante, contemporary authors to the time of the Feast of Fools).
|The title page of “Le devot de sainct sermon de monseigneur Sainct Jambon et de madame saincte Andouille” (Image source Bibliothèque Nationale de France).|
The Société Mattachine may well have known and performed a version of the Sermon Joyeux of Brother Ham and Sister Sausage. They would also have known and used other well-known characters with names that had sexual connotations, such as Sainct Boude (Brother Sausage), Saincte Fente (Sister Crack) and Sainct Pilzan (Brother Foal’s-First-Tooth, referring to the first sexual awakenings of puberty and alluding to the belief that toothache was a punishment for sexual guilt; they did have strange ideas in those days!).
Even though the Sermon Joyeux were very clear in their satirical message and sexual imagery the reason they got away with it, apart from many of them being anonymous behind masks, was that the plays didn’t name specific real clergy. The clergy realised the plays were satirical and gave the Société Joyeuse some leeway. However, as the next century progressed the Sermon Joyeux became more outrageous and verging on heretical and so the church authorities cracked down on them and they were eventually banned. (The alleged Feast of Fools shown in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is NOT the same one.)
And so, the Sermon Joyeux and the Société Joyeuse of medieval France satirised the Church authorities with food and sex-related characters. The Société Mattachine were just one of many groups of local groups who performed during the annual French Feast of Fools. Many centuries later a student of Medieval French literature and drama, Harry Hay, used the Mattachine name for a gay rights movement. The masked medieval Mattachine pointed out the weaknesses and contradictions within the Church and were a role model for the Mattachine Society in the 1950s to point out the weaknesses and contradictions within society about the criminalisation of homosexuals.
In October, for LGBT History Month USA, I’ll look at the origins of the first major lesbian rights organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis.