King of the Bean
A long succession of mock kings have ruled over winter holiday merrymaking in EUROPE. In ancient times they presided over feasts held in honor of the Roman festival of SATURNALIA (see also ZAG-MUK). In the Middle Ages the BOY BISHOP and the LORD OF MISRULE directed certain Christmas festivities. TWELFTH NIGHT celebrations, however, came under the special supervision of another mock ruler: the King of the Bean.
In past centuries the English, French, Spanish, German, and Dutch celebrated Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, with a feast. The Twelfth Night cake not only provided dessert, but also helped to facilitate an old custom (see also CHRISTMAS CAKE). While preparing the cake the cook dropped a bean, coin or other small object into the batter. The man who found this object in his slice of cake was declared “King of the Bean.” If a woman received the bean, she became queen and appointed a man as king.
The king presided over the rest of the evening’s activities. In some areas the king chose his own queen. In others, a pea was also added to the cake batter and the woman who found the pea in her serving of cake enacted the role of “queen.” Everyone else became a member of the royal court. At some parties the courtiers carried out their role by announcing the mock ruler’s every action. Cries of “the king drinks” or “the king coughs” cued others to follow suit. The mock rulers might also give silly commands that the court was expected to carry out. The French saying, il a trouvé la fève au gâteau, which means “he found the bean in the cake,” comes from this Twelfth Night custom and means “he’s had some good luck.”
CHRISTMAS SEASON mock kings sprouted up regularly in the courts of medieval Europe. Records indicate that in late medieval FRANCE these kings were selected by a kind of edible lottery. All candidates received a piece of a special cake into which a bean had been baked. Whoever found the bean in their slice of cake became the king of the feast. The title conferred upon these mock monarchs, “Bean King” or “King of the Bean,” referred back to this custom. It may also have alluded to their lack of real power. In the sixteenth century, ordinary Dutch and German households celebrated Twelfth Night by baking a coin into a cake and acknowledging whoever received the coin in their slice of cake as king of the feast. In the next century this Twelfth Night custom spread to ENGLAND, France, and SPAIN.
The following poem by English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) describes a seventeenth-century English Twelfth Night feast. These lines capture the merriment surrounding the selection of the bean king and bean queen:
Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums, here bean’s the king of sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also Must reveal as queen in the court here.
Begin then to choose
This night as ye use, Who shall for the present delight here
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.
Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake; And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink,
To the base from the brink, A health to the king and the queen here [Miles, 1990,338].
The English added an innovation of their own to the Twelfth Night feast. In 1669 English diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) described his enjoyment of a new custom whereby Twelfth Night merrymakers drew slips of paper from a hat on which were written the names of characters found at the bean king’s court. They were expected to impersonate this character for the rest of the evening. In this way everyone present at the celebration, not just the king and queen, got into the act.
The King of the Bean continued to preside over English Twelfth Night celebrations until the nineteenth century. In this era people began to substitute metallic objects for the bean and pea embedded in earlier Twelfth Night cakes. These objects stood for future fortunes rather than for characters. For example, a ring might foretell marriage, and a thimble spinsterhood. The importance of Twelfth Night declined throughout the nineteenth century. Rather than fade into oblivion, however, this fortune-telling custom transferred itself to Christmas. The tokens found a new home inside the PLUM PUDDING so popular at English Christmas dinners. By the end of the nineteenth century the English had all but abandoned the Twelfth Night king. The custom of baking a bean into the Twelfth Night cake survived into the twentieth century in the southern French region of Provence. In GERMANY the bean king and his cake still appear at Epiphany celebrations.