Maybe you've heard of that mythical place called the Court of Miracles
Where the lame can walk and the blind can see...
So it is sung in the 1996 Disney classic ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, based on the brilliant 1831 novel by Parisian author Victor Hugo. In the book, the Court of Miracles is the home base for criminals, outcasts and gypsies, ruled by the King of Truands; Clopin Trouillefou. Although his character is fictional, the Court of Miracles did really exist. It was a lawless area of Paris located between the rue du Caire and the rue Réaumur (in the current second arrondissement), where beggars, migrants, prostitutes and criminals resided during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV.
The title ‘court of miracles’ may sound misplaced for a stinky, muddy area inhabited by thieves and beggars. Indeed, their tricks where the name giver for this district. Many Parisians had to beg for their survival, and those with a visible handicap gathered more alms than those without physical anomalies. Therefore, beggars became masters in faking handicaps, injuries and infections. Returning to the slum after a day of begging, they would throw their walking sticks in the corner and wash off their fake injuries. Miracles happened easy at that. The lame could walk and the blind could see...
As no one as can describe the miraculous beggar's nest better than master Hugo himself, I copy a citation from his book here:
“There was a sort of sham soldier, a "naquois," as the slang expression runs, who was whistling as he undid the bandages from his fictitious wound, and removing the numbness from his sound and vigorous knee, which had been swathed since morning in a thousand ligatures. On the other hand, there was a wretched fellow, preparing with celandine and beef's blood, his "leg of God," for the next day. Two tables further on, a palmer, with his pilgrim's costume complete, was practicing the lament of the Holy Queen, not forgetting the drone and the nasal drawl. Further on, a young scamp was taking a lesson in epilepsy from an old pretender, who was instructing him in the art of foaming at the mouth, by chewing a morsel of soap.”
From: Victor Hugo – Notre Dame de Paris
When the Parisian criminal situation got worse in the second half of the 17th century, the Paris authorities had to undertake something. Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, Lieutenant General of the Police of Paris, was assigned with the task of ensuring the safety in Paris and of curbing the growth of the Court of Miracles area. Reynie's methods laid the basis for police forces as we know them today. He reorganized the existing police forces, which he supervised directly. The policemen were now responsible for ensuring the safety in Paris. With more police supervising the streets, it should be harder for criminals to conduct their crimes.
As social care and health conditions improved during the Enlightenment period, the number of beggars and criminals was reduced and the Court of Miracles was slowly abandoned. The remains of the area were removed during the Haussmannization, and except for Victor Hugo's story, nothing of the wondrous slum is left for us today.
If you have to be moralistic and are stringed by rules and regulations the whole year, it's only fair to be able let the beast out on one single day a year. At least that's how the clergy reasoned in the late Middle Ages. The day they picked for their debaucheries was New Year's Day, and they called it the Feast of Fools.
The Feast of Fools had its origins in Northern France and was not very widespread. It was a known festival in Britain and England, and was also celebrated in Germany in some cities at the Rhine. The festivities took place on or about January 1st; when a new year was about to begin. The new year was full of questions and uncertainties: will the soil be as fertile as needed, will the harvest be good, will we not lose our sons in battle? The religious festivities of Christmas, a period of fasting and stringent rituals, were just over, and people, not in the least the churchmen, were more than longing to let the beast out.
The nature of the feast was most probably a Christian adaption of the pagan Saturnalia; festivities in honor of the Roman God Saturn, during which social roles were reversed - masters turned to slaves and vice versa. The same inversion of social status was seen in the New Year's festivities of the Middle Ages. A boy from the lower-ranking clergy was elected to be bishop for a day. This Boy Bishop went by several names like "Abbot of Unreason" in France, "Lord of Misrule" in Britain, or "King of the Bean" in England. The latter name derives from the English tradition that the boy who would find the bean that had been hidden in a piece of cake, was to be the King during the festival.