How a Study of Processional Theatre Grew into a Book about Donkeys, Dissonance, and Blasphemous Pageants

What began for me as a fairly simple history of the processional theatre of Palm Sunday soon ran up against some puzzling questions:

  • Why is there no verifiable record of a live donkey taking part in a Palm Sunday procession before 1424? (A few retrospective “records” are demonstrably false.)
  • Why is Christ’s entry into Jerusalem still widely celebrated on Palm Sunday as a “triumphal” entry when biblical scholars of liberal and conservative persuasion alike agree that it was “nontriumphal,” “atriumphal,” or even “antitriumphal”?
  • If early Church authorities also agreed that Christ’s entry was a deliberate rejection of the pomp of imperial and other military entries, when (and why) did Palm Sunday processions start to resemble triumphal entries and when (and why) did military triumphs start to appropriate the language and iconography of Palm Sunday?
  • Why were life-size, wheeled, wooden images of Christ on a donkey, generally known as Palmesels (palm donkeys), introduced to Palm Sunday processions in the mid-tenth century?

  • Why were children allowed to ride behind Christ on the wooden donkey? Why were Protestant reformers and “enlightened” Roman Catholic prelates so hostile toward Palmesels? And, if all other processional images were (and are) carried at head height or above, why has the Palmesel alone been pulled at ground level?

Digging into these and other general questions soon unearthed a number of even more specific historical questions:

  • Why do scholars insist that the Quaker James Nayler’s ride into Bristol on October 24, 1656, was a deliberate reenactment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? Nayler rode a horse, not a donkey. He did so six months after (or before) Palm Sunday. His followers neither waved palms or other foliage nor shouted “Hosanna.” At his trial before the Puritan parliament, Nayler was accused both of “horrid blasphemy” and of being a “traitor,” but not of imitating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The coronation of Oliver Cromwell as king was thought to be imminent. Is it possible that Nayler’s series of muddy entries into Wells, Glastonbury, and Bristol, for which he was cruelly punished and imprisoned, was a parody of a triumphal royal progress?

  • In the annual Moscow Palm Sunday procession, why did the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia ride a white “horse, covered with white linen down to the ground, his ears being made long with the same cloth, like to an ass’s ears”? And why did the ruling tsar lead the horse?
  • Why do villages in lowland Bolivia still pull a wheeled image of Christ on a donkey in procession on Palm Sunday? How did the Palmesel, which flourished in German-speaking lands north of the Alps, reach Bolivia?

  • Why was the first person recorded as having ridden a donkey in a Palm Sunday procession of sorts in Rome not a member of the clergy but a startlingly eccentric, fifteenth-century, apocalyptic lay preacher?

Answering these and a host of other questions gradually transformed my book-in-progress from a simple work of theatrical and liturgical history into a much more complex exploration of the radical dissonance between Palm Sunday processions and other public enactments of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the biblical story to which they all claimed allegiance. A curious theme emerged: those embodied representations of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem that were, at one time or another, labeled blasphemous, idolatrous, or superstitious by those in power were arguably most faithful to the biblical narrative of Palm Sunday, while those staged with the purpose of exalting those in power and celebrating military triumph were arguably blasphemous pageants.

By Max Harris