The boys in the loft raised their pure and unearthly voices to the arches above, resounding throughout the vast Cathedral.
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Semen ejus in aeterno manebit: et series ejus sicut sol in conspectu meo, et sicut luna perfecta in aeternum: et testis in caelo fidelis. It was a simple and solemn melody, at most only four or five notes on a syllable, and the boys had sung it on many another saint's day. The choirmaster had told them what it meant, though a few of the older boys had learned enough Latin to know it by themselves. The evening was cold and their breath rose visibly in the air. But for all that they were cheerful, and could hardly keep from whispering mischievously one to another before Mass was ended.
It was Saint Nicholas' Day, in Salisbury, England — or it could have been Bruges, in Belgium, or Burgos, in Spain, or many another cathedral town all over Europe.
"Who will it be?"
"I want it to be Hodge."
"Hodge is your brother!"
"Wooden head, that's why I want it to be Hodge."
"I'm going to say Perkin."
"Perkin is too little."
"What do you mean I'm too little?"
"You have to step on somebody's back just to climb up on the chair."
'Well, you're so fat, your" — and the little boy used a hearty Middle English word to denote that part of the body fashioned by the creator for embarrassment — "would split the sides of it."
"Or he'd get stuck!"
"We'd have to get Jack the smith to bring his crow to work him loose."
"Boys!" snapped the choirmaster, with as severe a look as he could muster, which was not so severe either. For this was a merry feast.
After Mass, three hundred worshipers, men and women and children, gathered outside of the cathedral door, while Bishop Simon, with his French accent, called out "Alors, whom do we choose for my successeur?" The people laughed as the boys cried out, "Perkin Watkins!" "Hodge the Fletchers son!" "Nicholas of the Ford!" and so on.
Bishop Simon noted the names and then repeated them one by one, asking the boys to cheer the one whom they approved. When they had gone through them all, he paused, and intoned in his most solemn way:
"Episcopus innocentium Petrus Valtoconsis sit!"
A moment's thought — then, its Perkin, "It's Perkin Watkins! Hurrah for Perkin, for Bishop Perkin!" And the small boy with the tart tongue, grinning and blushing, strode up to Bishop Simon, who took the miter from his head and placed it on the boy's, where it sank to the bridge of his nose, and handed him his crozier which was twice as tall as the child.
"Wear it well, little Peter," said the bishop.
That evening at vespers, during the Magnificat when they came to the he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly, Bishop Simon descended from his seat, and the season's boy-bishop ascended it.
In the bishop's rooms
It was a few days later, and Simon had summoned Boy-bishop Perkin to his study. The boy had never seen so many books in his life; there must have been forty or fifty, bound in leather, many with gilt edging, and illuminated by the precise and prayerful hands of monk-artists whose names we will never know.
"Pierre-ken," said Simon. "you have led matins and vespers most impressively. Your voice rings like a bell. How is it" he said, trying to size up the boy-bishop, "that you know the part of the priest so well?"
"I've heard it many times, Lord, since I was small."
"Since" said Simon, smiling, "How many years do you have, Pierre-ken?"
"I am eleven," said the boy.
"Almost too late," said Simon, "but perhaps not. I'm thinking you can read. Is it true?"
"I can read a little, Lord," and the boy glanced toward the books.
"You can read the English words?"
"Who taught you to do so?"
"Would you like to learn to read the rest, Perkin? Would you like to learn the wisdom that is in all these books?"
The boy hesitated. "No one, Lord. I mean, I sometimes asked people who knew, and they told me what the word said, and from there I figured it out myself. My father reads a little."
"And you can read the French words?"
"If I know what they mean, Lord."
Simon's eyes shone with merriment. "Ah, but we say not prayers in the English or the French. Can you read the Lateen?"
"I think so. A little."
"Bring me that book on my table," said Simon. He opened it to a page embellished with red and blue and gold figures, and a large initial l, made into the form of Christ, ruler of all, with his hand extended in blessing. Perkin had seen such a book before, but never this way — facing it, touching it, peering into it. "Read the first words on this page, if it please you," said Simon.
The boy stared hard, then suddenly brightened. He knew what it said. He had heard it many times before. "In principio erat verbum" he called out, beaming.
"In principio erat Verbum," said Simon. "Would you like to learn to read the rest, Perkin? Would you like to learn the wisdom that is in all these books?"
It was like asking the boy if he would like to sail the seas, or search an endless cave for gold. "Yes, Lord," he said.
"We will see to it" said Simon.
"My father is not a rich man, Lord," said Perkin.
"That is no matter."
Learning to wield the crozier
So for the twenty-two days between Saint Nicholas' Day and Holy Innocents, Peter Watkins, called Perkin, was the boy-bishop of Salisbury. He led the cathedral choir in lauds and matins and vespers. He intoned the bishop's part in the Angelus. He did not confer the sacraments, of course, but he was granted the authority to correct his fellow choristers informally, and when he walked about the streets with the miter and crozier, the people of Salisbury smiled and greeted him, asking how his Lordship was, and offering him some sweetmeat if he were hungry, which, as he was a growing lad, he always was.
So for the twenty-two days between Saint Nicholas' Day and Holy Innocents, Peter Watkins, called Perkin, was the boy-bishop of Salisbury.
One time Boy-bishop Perkin came upon a couple of boys shouting and pounding one another in the street. He strode into their midst with the crozier and used it as a fence to keep them apart. "What's this foolishness?" he said, in the most imperious voice he could assume. When one of the boys dared to reply with a word that is best not to repeat, his Lordship, with two hands, slammed the base of the crozier down on the malefactor's foot, much to the momentary delight of his opponent — who was soon checked in his mirth by a straight look from Perkin.
"Bishop Pierre-ken" said Simon to him later that day, "I have something to say to you. "Do you know what that crozier is for?"
"It's a shepherd's staff, my Lord,'' said Perkin. "It's like what our shepherds bring with them out in the fields."
"And why do they do that?" Pierre-ken said Simon. "Do they bring their staves so that they may quarrel with one another, like
Perkin blushed. "No, Lord. They bring them in case of wolves."
"Then why, my son, do I carry a crozier?"
Perkin was silent.
"Is it because I wish to use it like a club, against my children?"
"Then why do I carry a crozier?"
Perkin cocked his head. The truth came to him in a flash. "In case of wolves."
"Yes, in case of wolves. Come, Pierreken, and let me tell you about the wolves, and how the shepherd keeps them from the flock."
Solemn and merry
On the feast of the Innocents, Perkin resigned his office and gave the miter and crozier back to Bishop Simon. So it was each year, with each boy-bishop.
For God has chosen the weak of the world to confound the strong, and the foolish to confound the wise: for the foolishness of God is wiser than men. Father, creator of heaven and earth, said Jesus, I give you thanks and praise, because you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent of this world, and have revealed them to babes.
It's good for us to feast and to be merry, because all mankind was dead and has now been brought again to life; we were lost, and now we are found. A babe in a manger struck terror into the heart of Herod the Great, and justly so; and one itinerant preacher in Galilee would overcome the massive might of the Roman Empire.
So there is always something of the carnival near to Christian worship: something of mirth, that boisterous country-cousin of joy. The Church paints in bold and bright colors. Her very solemnity is near to a paradise of song. We have no idea how many of the boy-bishops became bishops indeed, or priests, or monks, or solid men of faith in their villages. I'd wager it was quite a few.
We might ask why our medieval forebears could do so bold a thing, which for us moderns would seem unthinkable. Perhaps we might recover some of that spirit of mirth? A gift not to be spurned!
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To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit www.magnificat.com to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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