‘What were the functions of popular festivals, etc. in Early Modern Europe?
And why did the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical seek to control or
In Early Modern Europe festivals were the setting for heroes and their
stories, to be celebrated by the populace. They posed a change from their
everyday life. In those days people lived in remembrance of one festival
and in expectance of the next. Different kinds of festivals were celebrated
in different ways. There were festivals that marked an individual occasion
and weren’t part of the festival calendar, like family festivals such as
weddings and christenings. Some took place at the same time every year and
were for everyone, like community festivals like the different saints’
days. Pilgrimages took place all year round. Annuals festivals like
Christmas and Midsummer always took place on the same day every year.
In those days the average village in Western Europe celebrated at least 17
festivals annually, not counting family occasions and saints’ days. Some
festivals, such as Carnival, lasted several days or sometimes even several
weeks. In the Netherlands Carnival started every year at the 11th of
November (St. Martin) and culminated in a big festival of ‘Dranck,
pleijsier ende vrouwen’ (Drink, fun and women) at the end of the Carnival
period, preceding the period of Lent.
Festivals were meant to take the minds of the people off their everyday
life , off the hard times and their work. Everyday life in Early Modern
Europe was filled with rituals, both religious and secular. Songs and
stories played an important role in their lives, although they sometimes
adjusted the details of the legends and stories to fit the way they thought
a certain festival should take place.
Popular culture was mixed with ecclesiastical culture in many ways. The
story of St. John the Baptist is a good example of this. The ancient ritual
of bathing and lighting fires during Midsummer’s Eve was a remnant of a
ritual from the pre-Christian period. Fire and water, symbols of
purification, could be seen as the tools of St. John the Baptist, and
therefore a combination of the two elements of popular and ecclesiastical
culture was obvious. It looks as if the Medieval Church took over the
festival and made it theirs. The same thing happened to the Midwinter
Festival, which became linked with the birth of Christ, on 25 December.
There are many more examples to be found, such as the connection between
St. Martin and geese caused by the fact that the St. Martins Day (11
November) coincided with the period during which the people used to kill
their 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 popular
festival, taking on different forms in different regions of Europe. Aside
from regional variations, these differences were also caused by factors
such as the climate, the political situation and the economical situation
in an area.
On a whole Carnival started in late December or early January and reached
its peak upon approaching Lent. The actual feast, taking place at the end
of the festive
period, could take days and would usually involve large quantities of food
and drinks. The festival took place in the open air in the centre of a
town or city. Within a region, the way Carnival was celebrated varied from
town to town.
The festival was a play, with the streets as a stage and the people as
actors and spectators. They often depicted everyday life scenes and made
fun 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, insults
were exchanged and satirical verses were sung.
More formally structures events were concentrated in the last days of the
Carnival period. These events took places in the central squares and were
often 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 turned
upside down. Men dressed up as women, women dressed up as men, the rich
traded places with the poor, etc. There was physical reversal: people
standing on their heads, horses going backwards and fishes flying. There
was reversal of relationships between man and beast: the horse shoeing the
master or the fish eating the fisherman. The other reversal was that of
relationships between men: servants giving orders to their masters or men
feeding children while their wives worked the fields.
Many events centred on the figure of ‘Carnival’, often depicted as a fat
man, 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 with
fish. These depictions varied in form and name in the different regions in
Europe. 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 could
happen in the form of the mock trial and execution of ‘Carnival’, (Bologna,
Italy, 16th century), the beheading of a pig (Venice, Italy), or the burial
of a sardine (Madrid, Spain).
So what was the meaning of Carnival in Early Modern Europe? Was it merely
an excuse for the populace to go crazy or did Carnival have a deeper
meaning 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. It
was the time of indulgence, of abundance. It was also a time of intense
sexual activity – tables of the seasonal movement of conceptions in 18th
century France show a peak around February. Carnival was also a festival of
aggression, destruction and desecration. It was the ideal time to insult or
pester people who had wronged someone, often in the form of a mock battle
of a football match. A time for paying off old grudges. Serious violence
was not avoided and in most areas the rates of serious crimes and killings
went up during Carnival. It was also a time of opposition, in more than one
way. It opposed the ecclesiastical ritual of Lent. Lent was a period of
fasting and abstinence of all things enjoyed by the people, not just food
and drink but also sex and recreation. The elements that were taken out of
life during Lent were emphasised during Carnival. All that was portrayed by
the figures of ‘Carnival’ and ‘Lent’ (fat versus thin).
Carnival was polysemous, meaning different things to different people in
different areas. In different regions, different heroes were celebrated.
Sometimes elements were taken over from other regions. Carnival did not
have the same importance all over Europe. In the north of Europe (Britain,
Scandinavia) it was less important than in the rest of Europe. This was
probably partly due to the climate which discouraged an elaborate street
festival at that time of the year.
In these regions, people preferred to elaborate the festivities during the
Midsummer festival (St. John’s Eve). Two reasons for this are the pagan
survivals that were stronger in these regions, partly because they were
isolated from the rest of Europe due to geographical obstacles, causing a
lesser ecclesiastical influence, and the climatic situation as mentioned
Carnival was a festival in extremis, but elements of Carnival can be found
in every festival that was celebrated in Early Modern Europe. During the
harvest season, all over Europe festivals and rituals were held. The
harvest 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 an
escape from their everyday life and a way to express themselves. It offered
the people a way to vent their resentments and some form of entertainment.
Festivals were an escape from their struggle to earn a living. They were
something to look forward to and were a celebration of the community and a
display of its ability to put on a good show. It is said that the mocking
of outsiders (the neighbouring village or Jews) and animals might be seen
as a dramatic expression of community solidarity.
Some rituals might be seen as a form of social control, in a sense that it
was a means for a community to express their discontent with certain
members of the community (charivari). The ritual of public punishment can
be seen in this light, as it was used to deter people from committing
Professor Max Gluckman used the African popular culture to explain the
social function of the ritual of reversal of roles as it happened during
rituals as Carnival. Similar rituals still occur in certain regions in
Africa. Gluckman explains this ritual as an emphasis of certain rules and
taboos through lifting them for a certain period of time. The apparent
protests against the social order were intended to preserve and even to
strengthen the established order. As a counter example Gluckman states
that: “in regions where the social order is seriously questioned, ‘rites
of protest’ do not occur.”
Riots and rebellions frequently took place during major festivals. Rebels
and rioters employed rituals and symbols to legitimise their actions.
Inhibitions against expressing hostility towards the authorities or
individuals were weakened by the excitement of the festival and the
consumption of large quantities of alcohol. If those factors were combined
with discontent over a bad harvest, tax increases or other calamities, this
situation could get out of control. It could prove a good opportunity for
people excluded from power to try and enforce certain changes.
It is hardly surprising that members of the upper classes often suggested
that particular festivals ought to be abolished. They felt threatened by
the populace who during festivals tried to revolt against the ruling
classes 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 different
regions and it took place at different moments in time. There were also
differences in the practices that were being reformed. Catholics and
Protestants opposed to different elements of popular festivals and they did
so for different reasons. Even within the Protestant movement, the views
towards reformation of festivals and popular rituals varied.
Missionaries on both sides worked in Europe to install their religious
values in the local people. Reformers on both sides objected in particular
to certain elements in popular religion. Festivals were part of popular
religion or were at least disguised as an element of popular religion. The
festival of Martinmas (11 November) was a good example of this.
What were the objections of the authorities against these elements of
popular culture in general and popular religion in particular? There were
two essential religious objections. Firstly, the majority of festivals were
seen as remnants of ancient paganism. Secondly, the festivals offered the
people an occasion to over-indulge in immoral or offensive behaviour, at
many occasions attacking the establishment (both ecclesiastical and civil).
The first objection meant that reformers disliked many of the popular
customs because they contained traces of ancient customs dating from
pre-Christian times. Protestant reformers went very far in their
objections, even denouncing a number of Catholic rituals as being
pre-Christian survivals, considering the saints as successors of pagan gods
and heroes, taking over their curative and protective functions. Magic was
also considered a pagan remnant: the Protestants accused the Catholics of
practising a pagan ritual by claiming that certain holy places held magical
powers and could cure people.
The reformers denounced the rituals they didn’t find fitting as being
irreverent and blasphemous. Carnival and the charivaris were considered
“the work of the devil”, because it made a mockery of certain godly
elements the Church held sacred. The reformers thought people who didn’t
honour God in their way to be heathen, doomed to spend their afterlife in
eternal damnation. Flamboyance was to be chased out of all religious
aspects of culture, and, where possible, out of all other aspects of life,
according to the Protestant doctrine. In some areas, gesturing during
church services was banned, as was laughter. All these things were seen as
irreverent, making a mockery of religion.
All these changes were introduced in order to create a sharper separation
between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’. The ecclesiastical authorities were
out to destroy the traditional familiarity with the sacred because
“familiarity breeds irreverence.”
The objection against popular recreations stemmed from the idea that they
were ‘vanities’, displeasing God because they were a waste of time and
money and distracted people from going to church. This objection was shared
by both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities. The latter mainly
objected because it distracted the populace from their work, which in turn
affected the revenues of the leading upper classes, or from other
activities that were benefiting the rich, reasons that would vary per
Catholic and Protestant reformers were not equally hostile to popular
culture, nor were they hostile for quite the same reasons. Protestant
reformers were more radical, denouncing festivals as relics of popery and
looking to abolish feast-days as well as the feast that came with it,
because they considered the saints that were celebrated during these
festivals as remnants of a pre-Christian era. Many of these Protestant
reformers were equally radical in their attacks on holy images, which they
considered ‘idols’. During the end of the 16th and the first half of the
17th century Dutch churches were pillaged by Protestants trying to destroy
all religious relics and images (de Beeldenstorm). Catholic reformers were
more modified in their actions; they tried to reach a certain modification
of popular religious culture, even trying to adapt certain elements to the
Catholic way of worshipping and incorporating popular elements into their
religion. They insisted that some times were holier than others, and they
did object to the extend to which the holy days were celebrated with food
and drink. Some argued that it was impossible to obey the rites of Lent
with proper reverence and devotion if they had indulged in Carnival just
before. Catholic reformers also installed rules in order to regulate
certain popular festivals and rituals, such as a prohibition on dressing up
as a member of the clergy during Carnival or a prohibition on dancing or
performing plays in churches or churchyards. Contrary to the Protestant
reformers however, the Catholic reformers did not set out to abolish
festivals and rituals completely.
Civil authorities had their own reasons to object to popular festivals in
Early Modern Europe. Apart from taking the people away from work or other
obligations, the authorities feared that during the time of a festival, the
abundance of alcohol could stir up the feelings of discontent the people
had been hiding all throughout the year. Misery and alcohol could create a
dangerous mix that would give people the courage they needed to rebel
against authorities. This was a good reason for the authorities to try and
stop, or at least control, popular festivals. Bibliography
Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe; P. Burke
The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in 16th century France;
N.Z.Davis, Past and Present 1971
Order and rebellion in Tribal Africa; M. Gluckman
The waning of the Middle Ages; J. Huizinga
Levend Verleden; Prof. Dr. H.P.H. Jansen
Blood, tears and Xavier-water: Jesuit missionaries and popular religion in
the 18th century in the Upper Palatinate; T. Johnson Popular religion in
Germany and Central Europe 1400-1800