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What Was the Lord of Misrule?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Lord of Misrule was an official who presided over raucous holiday celebrations in England through the 16th century. Similar officials were seen in Scotland and France as well. Typically, the Lord of Misrule was chosen by drawing lots, and he was responsible for organizing entertainment and presiding over events at celebrations which could extend from November to January. These riotous holiday celebrations were banned on multiple occasions before finally being suppressed, turning into the more orderly celebrations of the holidays seen in the 17th century.

The roots of this tradition lie in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which fell during December. During this festival, there was a reversal of traditional roles, with slaves wearing fine garments and sitting at the head of the table while they were waited upon by their masters. People ate massive quantities of food, drank a great deal, and engaged in entertainments like dancing, parades, and plays. The Lord of Misrule was allowed to order anyone to do anything, and at the end of the festival, he was sacrificed.

Sacrificial kings who preside over debauchery can also be seen in other cultures. Saturnalia was likely practiced in England during the period of Roman occupation, and the Celts also had similar figures who presided over seasonal festivals. In exchange for acting as a sacrifice to bring good fortune to the people, the Year King, as he was known, was allowed to enjoy the favors of any woman and to command any favor.

As societies gradually converted from Paganism to Christianity, they retained many of their pagan traditions, including the concept of the Lord of Misrule. He was not sacrificed at the end of the holidays, but he shared many traits with his pagan counterparts, including the ability to ignore usual social conventions and permission to order any favor; monarchs spent lavishly on their holiday celebrations supervised by the Lord of Misrule, and the Christmas holiday was often used as an excuse for a display of excess.

With changing social norms, the Lord of Misrule gradually grew less and less acceptable. Several monarchs and the Church attempted to ban riotous Christmas celebrations, and the role of this official gradually changed, with more of a focus on organizing holiday events, and less of one on drinking and engaging in unsavory activities. Eventually, the tradition of appointing a Lord of Misrule and holding a "Fool's Feast" with a comic reversal of social roles petered out altogether.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon236226 — On Dec 22, 2011

Like no one sees that such 'partying' takes place today in our 'modern times'? There are office, neighborhood, community, family, friends getting together and then some! Extravagances abound in the realms with lavish (unaffordable /overindulgent) gifting not to mention the indulgences of the feastings. Of course, then comes the new year, and the consequences of all the indulgences guided by many as 'worth' their sacrifice and blah, blah, blah with the rent due and payable as well as those other bills and costs!

By Tomislav — On Nov 10, 2011

I don't think the Lord of Misrule was ever fully done away with. It seems some reality stars are getting fame and fortune just for being the life of the party. I think it is horrible that people get paid to drink and party with other people, when there are so many people in this country and other countries with way bigger issues than "who remembers last night?".

There are people starving to death and dying of preventable diseases while some people throw their money basically in the trash for partying and useless luxuries that they won't even remember the next day. Everyone has a right to do whatever they want to do, within reason, with the money they make, but people who make a ridiculous surplus of money should put some of their money to good use.

I think that people should not get paid and praised for being the life of the party. In my opinion I think this a huge waste of every one's money. There is nothing wrong with having a good time, and partying, I just don't think people deserve praise and pay for that.

By snickerish — On Nov 09, 2011

The Roman Festival of Saturnalia seems outrageous to me, besides the role reversal part. It would be great for bosses to become employee's for a day, and vice-versa.

I think this Saturnalia exercise of switching places would be good for everyone everywhere to do at least once a year.

I feel like everyone could learn a lot from walking a few miles in someone else's shoes. I think roles should be reversed within reason of course, I don't think that a person behind bars should have the right to switch roles with a prison guard because they gave up everything but their basic rights when they decided to break the law.

By julies — On Nov 09, 2011

Most all of the holidays that we celebrate today have their origins in the pagan holidays. Because of this it seems, that there is still a little bit of this paganism in every celebration we have, including the origins of Christmas.

I have heard of some Christians who don't celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense because they don't believe in putting up a Christmas tree or decorating for the holiday.

I also find it interesting that you hear much more about the Lord of Misrule than you do the feast of fools.

I wonder how long this feast was celebrated until it was discontinued altogether?

By ZsaZsa56 — On Nov 09, 2011

The Lord of Misrule was also the name of a fantastic book by Jaimy Gordon that came out a few years ago. It won the National Book Award that year.

The story follows the characters who populate a run down race track. The novel is framed around three horse races, one of them featuring an unruly horse named the Lord of Misrule. I know that sounds like kind of a boiler plate plot but it really is a fantastic book with a lot of complicated and interesting characters.

By strawCake — On Nov 08, 2011

@JessicaLynn - Lord of Misrule does sound like a fun tradition. I think we should bring it back, minus the sacrifice part. I don't think modern society would really go for that! However, people do still seem to enjoy a good party.

I'm actually amazed that people used to go along with the sacrifice part of this tradition. I mean, it sounds like the Lord of Misrule pretty much consented to being sacrificed. This article doesn't mention anything about the Lord of Misrule being reluctant to carry out his duties.

By JessicaLynn — On Nov 08, 2011

Being the Lord of Misrule must have been a lot of fun. Except for the part about being sacrificed, of course.

Anyway, it's funny how traditions change over the years. The whole idea of the Lord of Misrule and the role reversal feast sounds like it originated with the pre-Christian Romans. Then, people still kept the tradition up in England even after they converted to Christianity and started celebrating Christmas.

Although, come to think about it, the origins of Christmas and a lot of Christmas traditions are Pagan anyway. The Bible doesn't say anything about Christmas trees or other traditional Christmas celebrations. Those all came from the Pagan holidays that preceded Christmas!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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