History of popular culture ‘Functions of festivals in Early Modern Europe..’ University level Essay History of Popular Culture ‘What were the functions of popular festivals, etc. in Early Modern Europe? And why did the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical seek to control or suppress them?’ 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 above. 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 …