‘What were the functions of popular festivals, etc.
in Early Modern Europe?And why did the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical seek to control orsuppress them?’In Early Modern Europe festivals were the setting for heroes and theirstories, to be celebrated by the populace. They posed a change from theireveryday life. In those days people lived in remembrance of one festivaland in expectance of the next. Different kinds of festivals were celebratedin different ways. There were festivals that marked an individual occasionand weren’t part of the festival calendar, like family festivals such asweddings and christenings. Some took place at the same time every year andwere for everyone, like community festivals like the different saints’days.
Pilgrimages took place all year round. Annuals festivals likeChristmas and Midsummer always took place on the same day every year. In those days the average village in Western Europe celebrated at least 17festivals annually, not counting family occasions and saints’ days. Somefestivals, such as Carnival, lasted several days or sometimes even severalweeks.
In the Netherlands Carnival started every year at the 11th ofNovember (St. Martin) and culminated in a big festival of ‘Dranck,pleijsier ende vrouwen’ (Drink, fun and women) at the end of the Carnivalperiod, preceding the period of Lent. Festivals were meant to take the minds of the people off their everydaylife , off the hard times and their work. Everyday life in Early ModernEurope was filled with rituals, both religious and secular. Songs andstories played an important role in their lives, although they sometimesadjusted the details of the legends and stories to fit the way they thoughta certain festival should take place. Popular culture was mixed with ecclesiastical culture in many ways.
Thestory of St. John the Baptist is a good example of this. The ancient ritualof bathing and lighting fires during Midsummer’s Eve was a remnant of aritual from the pre-Christian period. Fire and water, symbols ofpurification, could be seen as the tools of St. John the Baptist, andtherefore a combination of the two elements of popular and ecclesiasticalculture was obvious. It looks as if the Medieval Church took over thefestival and made it theirs.
The same thing happened to the MidwinterFestival, which became linked with the birth of Christ, on 25 December. There are many more examples to be found, such as the connection betweenSt. Martin and geese caused by the fact that the St. Martins Day (11November) coincided with the period during which the people used to killtheir geese in the period preceding the Christian period.
Carnival plays a special role in popular culture in Early Modern Europe. It is a great example of a festival of images and texts. It was a popularfestival, taking on different forms in different regions of Europe. Asidefrom regional variations, these differences were also caused by factorssuch as the climate, the political situation and the economical situationin an area. On a whole Carnival started in late December or early January and reachedits peak upon approaching Lent. The actual feast, taking place at the endof the festive period, could take days and would usually involve large quantities of foodand drinks.
The festival took place in the open air in the centre of atown or city. Within a region, the way Carnival was celebrated varied fromtown to town. The festival was a play, with the streets as a stage and the people asactors and spectators. They often depicted everyday life scenes and madefun of them. Informal events took place throughout the Carnival period. There was massive eating and drinking, as a way of ‘stocking up’ for Lent.
People sang and danced in the streets, using the special songs of Carnival,and people wore masks and fancy-dress. There was verbal aggression, insultswere exchanged and satirical verses were sung. More formally structures events were concentrated in the last days of theCarnival period. These events took places in the central squares and wereoften organised by clubs or fraternities.
The main theme during Carnival was usually ‘The World Upside Down’. Situations got turned around. It was an enactment of the world turnedupside down. Men dressed up as women, women dressed up as men, the richtraded places with the poor, etc. There was physical reversal: peoplestanding on their heads, horses going backwards and fishes flying. Therewas reversal of relationships between man and beast: the horse shoeing themaster or the fish eating the fisherman.
The other reversal was that ofrelationships between men: servants giving orders to their masters or menfeeding children while their wives worked the fields. Many events centred on the figure of ‘Carnival’, often depicted as a fatman, cheerful and surrounded by food. The figure of ‘Lent’, for contrast,often took the form of a thin, old woman, dressed in black and hung withfish. These depictions varied in form and name in the different regions inEurope.
A recurring element was the performance of a play, usually a farce. Mock battles were also a favourite pass-time during the Carnival period. Carnival usually ended with the defeat of ‘Carnival’ by ‘Lent’. This couldhappen in the form of the mock trial and execution of ‘Carnival’, (Bologna,Italy, 16th century), the beheading of a pig (Venice, Italy), or the burialof a sardine (Madrid, Spain). So what was the meaning of Carnival in Early Modern Europe? Was it merelyan excuse for the populace to go crazy or did Carnival have a deepermeaning hidden behind the faade of food, violence and sex?Carnival was a holiday, a game. It was a time of ecstasy and liberation.
The form was determined by three major themes: food, sex and violence. Itwas the time of indulgence, of abundance. It was also a time of intensesexual activity – tables of the seasonal movement of conceptions in 18thcentury France show a peak around February. Carnival was also a festival ofaggression, destruction and desecration. It was the ideal time to insult orpester people who had wronged someone, often in the form of a mock battleof a football match.
A time for paying off old grudges. Serious violencewas not avoided and in most areas the rates of serious crimes and killingswent up during Carnival. It was also a time of opposition, in more than oneway. It opposed the ecclesiastical ritual of Lent. Lent was a period offasting and abstinence of all things enjoyed by the people, not just foodand drink but also sex and recreation. The elements that were taken out oflife during Lent were emphasised during Carnival.
All that was portrayed bythe figures of ‘Carnival’ and ‘Lent’ (fat versus thin). Carnival was polysemous, meaning different things to different people indifferent areas. In different regions, different heroes were celebrated. Sometimes elements were taken over from other regions. Carnival did nothave the same importance all over Europe. In the north of Europe (Britain,Scandinavia) it was less important than in the rest of Europe.
This wasprobably partly due to the climate which discouraged an elaborate streetfestival at that time of the year. In these regions, people preferred to elaborate the festivities during theMidsummer festival (St. John’s Eve). Two reasons for this are the pagansurvivals that were stronger in these regions, partly because they wereisolated from the rest of Europe due to geographical obstacles, causing alesser ecclesiastical influence, and the climatic situation as mentionedabove.
Carnival was a festival in extremis, but elements of Carnival can be foundin every festival that was celebrated in Early Modern Europe. During theharvest season, all over Europe festivals and rituals were held. Theharvest was celebrated, again , with elaborate drinking and eating,although in a more moderate way than the Carnival celebrations. All these festival had one thing in common: they offered the people anescape from their everyday life and a way to express themselves. It offeredthe people a way to vent their resentments and some form of entertainment. Festivals were an escape from their struggle to earn a living.
They weresomething to look forward to and were a celebration of the community and adisplay of its ability to put on a good show. It is said that the mockingof outsiders (the neighbouring village or Jews) and animals might be seenas a dramatic expression of community solidarity. Some rituals might be seen as a form of social control, in a sense that itwas a means for a community to express their discontent with certainmembers of the community (charivari). The ritual of public punishment canbe seen in this light, as it was used to deter people from committingcrimes. Professor Max Gluckman used the African popular culture to explain thesocial function of the ritual of reversal of roles as it happened duringrituals as Carnival.
Similar rituals still occur in certain regions inAfrica. Gluckman explains this ritual as an emphasis of certain rules andtaboos through lifting them for a certain period of time. The apparentprotests against the social order were intended to preserve and even tostrengthen the established order. As a counter example Gluckman statesthat: “in regions where the social order is seriously questioned, ‘ritesof protest’ do not occur. “Riots and rebellions frequently took place during major festivals.
Rebelsand rioters employed rituals and symbols to legitimise their actions. Inhibitions against expressing hostility towards the authorities orindividuals were weakened by the excitement of the festival and theconsumption of large quantities of alcohol. If those factors were combinedwith discontent over a bad harvest, tax increases or other calamities, thissituation could get out of control. It could prove a good opportunity forpeople excluded from power to try and enforce certain changes.
It is hardly surprising that members of the upper classes often suggestedthat particular festivals ought to be abolished. They felt threatened bythe populace who during festivals tried to revolt against the rulingclasses and change the economical situation they were in. The reform of popular festivals was instigated by the will of some of the’educated’ to change the attitudes and values of the rest of the population(” to improve them”). This reformation took on different forms in differentregions and it took place at different moments in time. There were alsodifferences in the practices that were being reformed. Catholics andProtestants opposed to different elements of popular festivals and they didso for different reasons.
Even within the Protestant movement, the viewstowards reformation of festivals and popular rituals varied. Missionaries on both sides worked in Europe to install their religiousvalues in the local people. Reformers on both sides objected in particularto certain elements in popular religion. Festivals were part of popularreligion or were at least disguised as an element of popular religion. Thefestival of Martinmas (11 November) was a good example of this.
What were the objections of the authorities against these elements ofpopular culture in general and popular religion in particular? There weretwo essential religious objections. Firstly, the majority of festivals wereseen as remnants of ancient paganism. Secondly, the festivals offered thepeople an occasion to over-indulge in immoral or offensive behaviour, atmany occasions attacking the establishment (both ecclesiastical and civil). The first objection meant that reformers disliked many of the popularcustoms because they contained traces of ancient customs dating frompre-Christian times. Protestant reformers went very far in theirobjections, even denouncing a number of Catholic rituals as beingpre-Christian survivals, considering the saints as successors of pagan godsand heroes, taking over their curative and protective functions.
Magic wasalso considered a pagan remnant: the Protestants accused the Catholics ofpractising a pagan ritual by claiming that certain holy places held magicalpowers and could cure people. The reformers denounced the rituals they didn’t find fitting as beingirreverent and blasphemous. Carnival and the charivaris were considered”the work of the devil”, because it made a mockery of certain godlyelements the Church held sacred. The reformers thought people who didn’thonour God in their way to be heathen, doomed to spend their afterlife ineternal damnation. Flamboyance was to be chased out of all religiousaspects of culture, and, where possible, out of all other aspects of life,according to the Protestant doctrine. In some areas, gesturing duringchurch services was banned, as was laughter.
All these things were seen asirreverent, making a mockery of religion. All these changes were introduced in order to create a sharper separationbetween the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’. The ecclesiastical authorities wereout to destroy the traditional familiarity with the sacred because”familiarity breeds irreverence. “The objection against popular recreations stemmed from the idea that theywere ‘vanities’, displeasing God because they were a waste of time andmoney and distracted people from going to church. This objection was sharedby both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities. The latter mainlyobjected because it distracted the populace from their work, which in turnaffected the revenues of the leading upper classes, or from otheractivities that were benefiting the rich, reasons that would vary perregion.
Catholic and Protestant reformers were not equally hostile to popularculture, nor were they hostile for quite the same reasons. Protestantreformers were more radical, denouncing festivals as relics of popery andlooking to abolish feast-days as well as the feast that came with it,because they considered the saints that were celebrated during thesefestivals as remnants of a pre-Christian era. Many of these Protestantreformers were equally radical in their attacks on holy images, which theyconsidered ‘idols’. During the end of the 16th and the first half of the17th century Dutch churches were pillaged by Protestants trying to destroyall religious relics and images (de Beeldenstorm).
Catholic reformers weremore modified in their actions; they tried to reach a certain modificationof popular religious culture, even trying to adapt certain elements to theCatholic way of worshipping and incorporating popular elements into theirreligion. They insisted that some times were holier than others, and theydid object to the extend to which the holy days were celebrated with foodand drink. Some argued that it was impossible to obey the rites of Lentwith proper reverence and devotion if they had indulged in Carnival justbefore. Catholic reformers also installed rules in order to regulatecertain popular festivals and rituals, such as a prohibition on dressing upas a member of the clergy during Carnival or a prohibition on dancing orperforming plays in churches or churchyards. Contrary to the Protestantreformers however, the Catholic reformers did not set out to abolishfestivals and rituals completely.
Civil authorities had their own reasons to object to popular festivals inEarly Modern Europe. Apart from taking the people away from work or otherobligations, the authorities feared that during the time of a festival, theabundance of alcohol could stir up the feelings of discontent the peoplehad been hiding all throughout the year. Misery and alcohol could create adangerous mix that would give people the courage they needed to rebelagainst authorities. This was a good reason for the authorities to try andstop, or at least control, popular festivals. BibliographyPopular Culture in Early Modern Europe; P. BurkeThe Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in 16th century France;N.
Z. Davis, Past and Present 1971Order and rebellion in Tribal Africa; M. GluckmanThe waning of the Middle Ages; J. HuizingaLevend Verleden; Prof. Dr.
H. P. H. JansenBlood, tears and Xavier-water: Jesuit missionaries and popular religion inthe 18th century in the Upper Palatinate; T. Johnson Popular religion inGermany and Central Europe 1400-1800