Folk-Lore/Volume 4/The Cow-Mass

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Folk-Lore/Volume 4
Number 3 (September)

The Cow-Mass. Edward Peacock.

THE COW-MASS.




THE scenic processions, half religious, half secular, which were so common in the Middle Ages, have been abolished, or if in a few cases they still exist, are now but a faint shadow of what they once were. They almost all perished during the storms of the sixteenth century in those countries which accepted the teaching of the Reformers; for a time they survived in Catholic lands, but during the latter years of the seventeenth, and the greater part of the eighteenth century, they had to encounter an adversary, in the then prevalent Jansenistic opinions, which were as inimical to these traditional festivals as the Reformers themselves had been. The persistent dislike of those things which gave pleasure to the populace was exhibited in many forms. In proof of what we say we may refer to the warfare which, in the last century, a large and powerful section of the French clergy waged on the representations of Saint Christopher. As one example of this, out of the many that might be quoted, we will mention the fate of the sculptured figure of this saint, which once ornamented the Cathedral Church of St. Etienne of Auxerre. It was destroyed in 1768 by the Chapter, because "it was found that it only served as an object of entertainment to the common people".[1]

That many of the popular processions had been abolished before the great changes which took place in consequence of the wars following on the French Revolution does not admit of doubt. The few that had vigorous life in them up to that time seem for the most part to have been swept away by those fierce storms. When, after the fall of the first French Empire, an endeavour was made to restore the old form of things in Church and State, the popular festivals were for the most part forgotten, or past by unheeded. Old laws, whether ecclesiastical or civil, may be re-enacted, but when a popular rite has been suspended for years, the spirit that animated it has died out, and revival is impossible. Such things exist by living tradition. When the cord that binds the present with the past has once been snapped, no reunion is possible.

Of the Cow-Mass formerly held at Dunkirk we had never heard until we came upon the following account of it in the October number of The Sporting Magazine for 1799. We have no idea who was the writer. That he had himself witnessed the festivity seems highly probable, if not certain, from the way in which he describes it. As he speaks of it as "being continued till lately", it is probable that it went on till the Revolution. Why it was called the Cow-Mass the writer does not inform us, and we, of course, cannot make a reasonable guess as to the origin of the name. Most likely it arose from some local reason, which nobody but one intimately acquainted with the social history of the place can be in a position to explain.

It is difficult to believe that a rite of this kind can have been instituted by Charles the Fifth. Its whole character points to an earlier origin; it may well be, however, that the Emperor patronised it and added to its splendour.

The writer makes a slight slip in speaking of June the 24th as St. John's Day; it is really the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Has not he made two other errors? Have not ideas become inverted in his mind, when he tells us of the Devil "leading St. Michael the Archangel in chains"? We apprehend that the saint was represented as the captor and Lucifer as the prisoner. We think, too, that the flight of Our Blessed Lady and Saint Joseph into Egypt was what was intended to be represented, not the return of the Holy Family therefrom. Both these subjects have been represented in works of art, but the former occurs much the more frequently.

Edward Peacock.


"To the Editor of the Sporting Magazine.


"Sir,—The Cow-Mass, a show at Dunkirk, scarce exceeded by any in the known world, being continued till lately, may not be unamusing to your readers. It was first instituted by Charles V to amuse the turbulent and seditious inhabitants of that place.

"This very extraordinary show is on St. John's Day, the 24th of June. The morning is ushered in by the merry peals of the corillons (or bell-pulling). The streets are very early lined with soldiers; and by eight o'clock every house-top and window is filled with spectators, at least forty thousand, exclusive of inhabitants; and about ten o'clock, after High-Mass at the great church, the show begins by the townsmen being classed according to the different trades, walking two-and-two, each holding a burning wax candle, at least a yard long, and each dressed, not in their best apparel, but in the oldest and oddest fashion of their ancestors. After the several companies comes a pageant, containing an emblematical representation of its trade, and this pageant is followed by patron saints, most of which are of solid silver adorned with jewels. Bands of music, vocal and instrumental, attend the companies, the choruses of which are very solemn; then followed the friars and regular clergy, two-and-two, in the habits of their different Orders, slow in their motion, and with the appearance of solemn piety. Then came the abbot in a most magnificent dress, richly adorned with silver and gold, his train supported by two men in the dress of cardinals; the host was borne before him by an old white-bearded man of a most venerable aspect, surrounded by a great number of boys in white surplices, who strewed frankincense and myrrh under his feet, and four men supported a large canopy of wrought silver over his head, while four others sustained a large silver lanthorn, with a light in it, at the end of a pole. They then proceeded to the bottom of the street, where there was elevated a grand altar, ascended by a flight of steps, and there the procession stopped, while the abbot came from under his canopy and took the host from the old man; then, ascending the altar, he held up the host in his elevated hands, and the vast multitude instantly fell on their knees, from the house-tops down to the dirt in the streets below. After this solemnity was over, gaiety in the face of everyone appeared, and the procession recommenced; other pageants came forth from the great church, followed by a vast moving machine, consisting of several circular stages. On the bottom stages appeared many friars and nuns, each holding white lilies in their hands, and on the uppermost stage but one were two figures, representing Adam and Eve, and several winged angels, in white flowing garments. On the uppermost stage was one figure only, to represent God, on whom all the eyes of the lower figures were directed, with looks of adoration and humility; and this machine, drawn by horses, was to represent heaven. Then followed on an enormous figure something like an elephant, with a large head and eyes, and a pair of horns, on which several little devils, or rather boys dressed like devils, were sitting. The monster was hollow within, and the lower jaw was movable, by moving of which it frequently exhibited the inward contents, which was filled with full-grown devils, and who poured out liquid fire from the jaws of hell; at the same time the figure was surrounded by a great number of external devils, dressed in crape, with hideous masks and curled tails. But I should have observed that between the figures which represented heaven and hell several young ladies passed with wreaths of flowers on their heads, and palms in their hands, riding in elegant carriages. Then followed old Lucifer himself, armed with a pitchfork, and leading St. Michael the Archangel in chains. Michael and Lucifer were followed by a person dressed in a harlequin's coat hung round with bells, holding a hoop in his hands, through which he frequently jumped, and showed many other feats of activity; but what, or who, he represented, I cannot say. Then came a grand carriage, covered with a superb canopy, from the middle of which hung a little dove; under the dove was a table covered with a carpet, at which were sitting two women dressed in white, and with wings pointing upwards to the dove, and they representing the salutation of the Virgin Mary. Next followed a group of dancing boys surrounding a stable, in which was seen the Virgin, Mary again, and the Child in the manger; and this machine was followed by another fool, like the former, with a hoop and bells.

"The next machine was a fish, fifteen feet long, moved by men on wheels concealed within; upon its back sat a boy, richly dressed, and playing upon a harp. The gold, silver, and jewels which decorated this fish were valued at ten thousand pounds, and were furnished by the city merchants, whose sons and daughters were the principal actors in the show.

"After the fish came another fool with a hoop, as before; then appeared Joseph, as flying from Egypt—a woman representing a virgin with a young child upon her lap, and mounted on an ass, which was led by Joseph, who had a basket of tools on his back, and a long staff in his hand. Joseph and his spouse were attended by several devils, who beat off the people that crowded too close to the procession; these two were followed by a third hoop dancer.

"Then came a large and magnificent carriage, on which sat a penson representing the Grand Monarch on a throne, dressed in his robes, with a crown, ball, and sceptre lying before him on a taole covered with embroidered velvet. His most Christian Majesty was attended by several devils, hoop-dancers, and bannerbearers; then followed another machine, bearing the queen, also in her royal robes, attended by a great many ladies and maids of honour; the jewels of her crown were said to be of vast value. On this stage there was a grand band of music, and many dancers richly attired. Then followed Bacchus, a large, fat figure, dressed in coloured silk, attended by a great number of Bacchanals holding goblets up to their mouths as in the act of drinking, with a few more devils and hoop-dancers.

"Then followed a kind of a sea triumph, in front of which appeared Neptune, with his trident and crown, in a large shell, surrounded by boys dressed in white, who were throwing out and drawing in a deep-sea lead, as sounding for land. After them six men followed in white shirts, with poles twenty-five feet long, decorated with bells and flowers, frequently shaking their poles, or endeavouring to break them: for he who could break one was exempted a whole year from all parish duty.

"The pole-bearers were followed by a large ship, representing a ship of war, drawn on wheels by horses, with sails spread, colours flying, and brass guns on board fired off very briskly. On the quarter-deck stood the admiral, captain, and boatswain, who, when he whistled, brought forth the sailors, some dancing, others heaving the log, and the tops filled with boys.

"The ship was followed by the representation of a large wood, with men in it dressed in green; a green, scaly skin was drawn over their own, and their faces were masked, to appear as savages, each squirting water at the people from large pewter syringes. This piece of machinery, which was very noble, was the production of a Jesuits' college, and caused great jollity among the common people. The wood was followed by a very tall man, dressed like an infant in a body-coat, and walking in a go-cart with a rattle in his hand; and this infant was followed by a man fifty-five feet high, with a boy looking out of his pocket shaking a rattle, and calling out, 'Grandpapa! grandpapa!' He was clothed in blue and gold, which reached quite to the ground, and concealed a body of men, who moved it, and made it dance.

"After him followed a figure nearly of the same stature, mounted on a horse of suitable size for the enormous rider, which made a most striking and elegant appearance, both man and horse being executed in a masterly manner; it was made in a moving posture, two of the feet being raised from the ground. Then followed a woman of equal stature, and not inferior in elegance to those which preceded. She had a watch at her side as large as a warming-pan, and her head and breast richly decorated with jewels; her eyes and head turned very naturally; and as she moved along she frequently danced, and not inelegantly. Thus ended the Cow-Mass."—The Sporting Magazine, vol. xv, pp. 26-28.



  1. Louisa Stuart Costello, A Pilgrimage to Auvergne, 1842, vol. i, p. 233.