1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Boy-Bishop

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BOY-BISHOP, the name given to the “bishop of the boys” (episcopus puerorum or innocentium, sometimes episcopus scholariorum or chorestarum), who, according to a custom very wide-spread in the middle ages, was chosen in connexion with the festival of Holy Innocents. For the origin of the curious authority of the boy-bishop and of the rites over which he presided, see Fools, Feast of. In England the boy-bishop was elected on December 6, the feast of St Nicholas, the patron of children, and his authority lasted till Holy Innocents' day (December 28). The election made, the lad was dressed in full bishop's robes with mitre and crozier and, attended by comrades dressed as priests, made a circuit of the town blessing the people. At Salisbury the boy-bishop seems to have actually had ecclesiastical patronage during his episcopate, and could make valid appointments. The boy and his colleagues took possession of the cathedral and performed all the ceremonies and offices except mass. Originally, it seems, confined to the cathedrals, the custom spread to nearly all the parishes. Several ecclesiastical councils had attempted to abolish or to restrain the abuses of the custom, before it was prohibited by the council of Basel in 1431. It was, however, too popular to be easily suppressed. In England it was abolished by Henry VIII. in 1542, revived by Mary in 1552 and finally abolished by Elizabeth. On the continent it survived longest in Germany, in the so-called Gregoriusfest, said to have been founded by Gregory IV. in 828 in honour of St Gregory, the patron of schools. A school-boy was elected bishop, duly vested, and, attended by two boy-deacons and the town clergy, proceeded to the parish church, where, after a hymn in honour of St Gregory had been sung, he preached. At Meiningen this custom survived till 1799.

See Brand, Pop. Antiquities of Great Britain (1905); Gasquet, Parish Life in Medieval England (1906); Du Cange, Glossarium (London, 1884), s.v. “Episcopus puerorum.”