Friday, January 6, 2017

Royal Frolics: Choosing the "Queen of the Bean" at Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany occasioned much merriment--and expense--at the French court during the Renaissance. The tradition of sharing a galette des rois--a cake containing a concealed bean--traces back to early sixteenth century celebrations of Twelfth Night. The person who found the bean in his or her piece of cake became the de facto ruler for the duration of the festivities. Whereas in England the choice of a "king," or Lord of Misrule, predominated, across the channel it was the election of the "Queen of the Bean" that evolved into an elaborate ritual.

According to Robert Knecht in his book The French Renaissance Court (p. 75-76), it was custom at the court of François I to chose not only a Queen of the Bean, but a bevy of eighteen ladies to attend her. The women wore beautiful new clothes, which the King provided: undergarments of crimson velvet with slashed sleeves held together by gold clasps and outer garments of grey satin fringed with velvet and lined with mink. Matching belts, necklaces and bracelets complemented the attire; the Queen wore a plumed bonnet atop a long golden or silver snood adorned with precious stones. When it was time for supper, the Queen of the Bean rose from her seat next to the true queen, Eléanore, and took the King's hand. The monarch led her and her ladies into the hall where two tables had been set. The Queen of the Bean sat above Queen Eléanore, the dauphin's wife Catherine de' Medici, and the King's sister Marguerite de Navarre at the shorter table; the King joined the eighteen attendants at the second table. During the meal, the Bean Queen was served with the ceremony normally reserved for the real queen, who surrendered any precedence during the twenty-four hours of her rival's reign.

One wonders just how random the choice of the Queen of the Bean was, especially since at the court of François's son, Henri, the king himself chose her name. In 1550, the Venetian ambassador describes how Henri II came into the queen's chamber to pick a name out of a hat. However, Henri discarded several names before announcing that of a "young, really beautiful and most charming" lady who belonged to the circle of his sister Marguerite. The young lady touched his hand and retired to dress "honorably." At dinner, Henri sat in the middle of the shorter table, flanked on his right by the Queen of the Bean and on his left by his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The real queen, Catherine de' Medici, sat next to the Queen of the Bean, along with the king's sister; the cardinal of Lorraine, the duchesse de Guise, and the Constable of Montmorency sat beside Diane. A ball followed the banquet. The next day, the King escorted the Queen of the Bean into Mass before the real queen; after Mass, everyone dined in the same order as on the previous evening, then watched a joust in the palace courtyard. The feast concluded with another banquet and a final ball, which brought the Queen of the Bean's short reign to a memorable end.

[Photograph courtesy of Gorrk, Wikimedia Commons.]

This article was originally posted on January 6, 2010.