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Donkey’s Mass: Orientis partibus

Leggi in Italiano

The Donkey Festival (or Festa dei Folli, known as the Festa dei Pazzi in Florence) was celebrated in the church in different regions of Europe, on the day of the Circumcision of the Child Jesus (on the first of January – see Holy Foreskin); but the date in question varied so could fall to Epiphany or January 14 (see Jean-Baptiste Thiers “Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la fête des foux“)

Calends Festival

The purpose of the festival was to pay homage to the donkey who had not only kept warm Jesus in the cave, had fled with the Holy Family in Egypt, but also had brought the adult Messiah on his back in the entrance to Jerusalem.
The veneration of the Donkey was still widespread among the eartly Christians and in the Middle Ages we see Jesus Christ crucified/donkey (Alexamenos graffito )

Pietro Lorenzetti: Gesù entra a Gerusalemme, Basilica in Assisi

“Immagine non necessariamente (o per nulla) blasfema, bensì profondo simbolo sacrificale.
Al raglio asinino, quest’invocazione che sembra così piena di dolore e vuota di speranza, è stato in questo senso associato il grido altissimo di Gesù sulla croce. E all’umile e paziente asinello, segnato dalla croce sulla schiena in ricordo e ringraziamento per il suo servizio nella Domenica delle Palme, si associa appunto il Cristo stesso di cinque giorni più tardi, il Cristo dileggiato e sofferente che, al pari dell’asino, porta sulle spalle la croce sulla quale sarà sacrificato. I corteggi medievali dei condannati montati su asini, e poi ancora le “feste dei folli”, i “carnevali degli asini” e tutti i riti “di rovesciamento” nei quali l’asino veniva abbigliato da re o da vescovo e onorato, rex unius diei prima di venire bastonato e scorticato (o anche semplicemente prima di tornare all’improba fatica di tutti i giorni), conservano tutti la memoria di questo ambiguo ma commovente rapporto fra asino e Cristo, entrambi figure regali ed entrambi obiettivo della crudeltà dell’uomo.” (from here)

Poorly tolerated but still practiced by the priests, the Festa dell’Asinello was a mixture of the sacred and the profane, a joke that could be pushed to the mockery of the liturgy, in a parody of the mass.
It must be said that in the Middle Ages the church is not only a building where mass is celebrated: it takes place political assemblies under the aegis of the Bishop, a lot of Corporations affaires with meetings and councils for the Corporation matters . It becomes a hospital refuge during epidemics or for pilgrims or sick in search of healing, inviolable asylum of the persecuted, grave for the illustrious dead. It could happen that men entered on horseback and at least once a year a donkey in a cassock.


Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut, “Wheel of Fortune”, c1494

An ambivalent animal in the Middle Ages the donkey is a symbol of both the Good, humble, patient, mount of the Prophets and sapiential creature (the donkey of Balaam), but also of Evil: it is the donkey opposed to the ox symbol of Christianity and the Elected People beeing a “pure animal that has a bifid and non-ruminant nail”, while the pagan donkey is “impure, rumen and has a compact nail”; it is the donkey of Dionysus and then ridden by Jesus to symbolize the Christian church that triumphs over previous cultures. It is the golden Ass of Apuleius slave of the pleasures of the flesh, ignorant but curious to learn the magic.


A procession left the church and returned with a donkey led up to the altar. At Mass all the faithful answered with some bray.
Hez va, hez va, hez va, hez !
Biaux sire asnes, car alez,
Bele bouche, car chantez!
For the occasion it was also written a song: Orientis partibus! The song is attributed to the archbishop of Sens Pierre de Corbeil, whose text and music we know of as contained in the “Officium stultorum ad usum Metropoleos ac primatialis Ecclesiae Sennonensis” (XIII century) preserved in Paris in the King’s library.

The Jaye Consort & Gerald English

Musica Vagantium

New London Consort (Philip Pickett)


Compagnia dell’asino che porta la croce

Joglaresa & Belinda Sykes

Orientis partibus
adventavit asinus
pulcher et fortissimus
sarcinis aptissimus
Hey, Hez, sir asne, hey!
Hic in collibus Sichan
iam nutritus sub Ruben (1)
transiit per Iordanem
saliit in Bethlehem
Saltu vincit hinnulos
dammas et capreolos
super dromedarios
velox madianeos
Aurum de Arabia
thus et myrrham de Saba(2)
tulit in ecclesia
virtus Asinaria  (3)
Dum trahit vehicula
multa cum sarcinula
illius mandibula
dura terit pabula
Cum aristis, hordeum
comedit et carduum
triticum ex palea
segregat in area (4)
Amen dicas, asine
iam satur de gramine
Amen, amen itera
aspernare vetera
English translation*
In eastern lands
the ass arrived
pretty and strong
fit for bunen
Hey, sir Ass, Hey!
Here on the hills of Sichan
already suckled by Ruben (1)
he crossed the Jordan
and enters Bethlehem.
He defeats in the jump the young mule
the fallow deer and roe deer
higher in speed
to the dromedaries of the Medes.
The gold of Arabia
the incense and the myrrh of Saba
he took to the church
the virtue of the donkey
While he pulls his cart
many with heavy loads,
his jaw
grinds tough fodder.
He eats wheat and barley
and the thistle
he separates the wheat from the chaff
on the threshing floor
You say “amen”, ass,
all filled with grass,
“amen”, “amen” once again,
spurning the past.

* partially from here
1) Ruben is the first-born son of Jacob
2) the donkey entering the church symbolically enters Jerusalem or peace. The land of Saba was the land of magicians-astrologists in the Middle Ages.
3) for the initiates, the Church had abandoned the path towards esoteric knowledge, so the glorified donkey indicates a new initiation path, the way of the mad.
4) once the animals was used to husk the wheat (simply by walking on the wheat)

second part


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

Amministratore e folklorista di Terre Celtiche Blog

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