Andrew Lawrence-King comments:
In spite of its literary and musical sophistication, Ludus Danielis was not merely an exquisite work of dramatic composition, it was also an event, a theatrical ‘happening’ that formed part of the post-Christmas celebrations. In mid-12th century France, January 1st was given over to the most junior clerics, the sub-deacons, and their festum subdiaconorum was often referred to as the Feast of Asses, or the Feast of Fools.
It was a day when the normal hierarchy of the cathedral was turned upside-down. There was no rubric, no ordo for this day: it was a reunion of old friends from all around the country, a party, a tripudium – a word associated with feasting and dancing. A young boy might usurp the role of Bishop for the day, the cantor’s rod of office might be stolen by the choirboys, and contemporary sermons complain of all kinds of irreverent behaviour in the church: fortune-telling and divinations; masks, disguises and feigned madness; foolish and sinful poetry in conductus metres or even in the vernacular; dancing, profane laughter and cacophony; priests clapping their hands or playing string instruments and drums; eating; drinking and dicing at the high altar; wild ringing of the cathedral bells; youths riding an ass, beating one another with a stick, and running around in the church.
As the medieval scholar Margot Fassler has shown, all these high-jinks are incorporated into the plot of Daniel. The Drama was indeed ludus, ‘play’ as well as ‘a Play’. Belshazzar is king for the day only, and he is violently dethroned by two singers who run though the church to ‘kill’ him. At his feast, the Babylonians eat and drink at the altar from genuinely sacred vessels (the cathedral chalice was entrusted to the care of the sub-deacons), and they are entertained by foolish astrologers, and by the arrival of a colleague from the remotest ‘regions’ dolled up as the Queen.
King Darius’ courtiers make repeated reference to the tripudium. Groups of messengers scurry around the church looking for the Wise Men or for Daniel. When they find him, they speak to him in their own native dialect. The Angel gets to drag old Habbakuk across the cathedral ‘by the hair of his head.’ There are also ample opportunities for fun in dressing Daniel in purple robes, stripping them off again, robing him once again, and menacing him from behind a lion-mask. Finally, there is the humiliation and ‘slaughter’ of the Evil Counsellors. At the crucial moment of the drama, as Darius is fooled into passing the law that will send Daniel to the Lions’ Den, his mock-solemn proclamation is transformed into the bray of an ass: at this point, Darius has become the Lord of the Fools, a veritable Donkey-King.
Thus the traditional revelry of the Feast of Fools is itself made a religious symbol, transmuting the orgiastic excess of the tripudium into a dramatic spectacle dedicated to the honour of the Christ-child. All the blasphemy is ascribed to the misrule of the Babylonians, whilst Daniel himself is a model of Christ-like obedience and innocent suffering. Ludus Danielis is both carnival and culture: it creates liturgical ordo out of chaotic play, and it presents a Play in which the bawdy humour of the comedy heightens the pathos of the drama.
Bearing in mind the heady mixture of spiritual ecstasy and earthy humour that pervades the whole play, it is difficult to imagine the revellers at the Feast of Fools keeping meek silence whilst the sub-deacons run through the cathedral to ’kill’ King Belshazzar.
The supreme moment of symbolic folly, where Darius is transformed into an ass, marks the turning point of the plot. The spectacle of a mad King rampaging around the church illustrates the principal motive of the Feast of Fools revels – the breakdown of the normal hierarchy of power – and hints darkly at political tensions and power struggle between church and state, between the capital and the outlying region.
The mock ritual in which an ass is led around the cathedral is also of the most ancient elements of the tripudium. Here the singers burst out of the prescribed ordo to join with the instrumentalists in the famous Prose of the Ass.
It is tempting to see the dedicated irreverence of Daniel as a metaphor for the basic paradox of performing early music, which demands that musicians exercise the freedom to improvise within the ordo of authenticity. The medieval ludus (like the sprezzatura of 17th century opera) bestows a licence to break the accepted rules, and throws down a challenge to understand the conventions well enough to flaunt them, to be appropriately disobedient, to have serious fun.