Carnival and the Carnivalesque

Battle between Carnival and Lent
Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Battle between Carnival and Lent’ (1559) (from Artchive)

Carne: meat; levare: to take away

As an early modernist, the discovery of blog ‘carnivals’ particularly caught my interest. I’m not sure, though, that these carnivalists know what kind of fire they’re playing with. Carnivals and ‘carnivalesque’ festivals were ubiquitous throughout medieval and early modern Europe, full of rich symbolic imagery and disuptive potential. They caught my imagination as a first-year undergraduate taking my first early modern history course, which focused on ‘popular culture’ in early modern Europe (and was a real revelation, largely to blame for my subsequently taking the early modern path in history…). Carnival ‘proper’ (most enthusiastically celebrated in the warmer climes of southern Europe) was a season of excess just before and in contrast to the fasting and abstinence of Lent. But there were many other carnivalesque festivities through the year, including those of May Day, Midsummer, harvest festivals in late summer, All Fools Day in late December.

For example, the late-medieval ‘Feast of Fools’ was organised by young clergy; they elected a Bishop of the Fools, put on vestments backwards, held the missal upside down, danced and drank in the church, sang obscene songs and insulted the congregation. Their ‘bishop’, dressed in full regalia, delivered nonsense prayers and sermons, marched backwards in procession. (These rowdy activities incurred increasing disapproval, and were progressively purged from the festive calendar.)

Carnival and carnivalesque disputed and mocked the ‘normal rules’ of order and morality. Food and violence alike were often essential part of the rituals (such as the mock trials and ‘executions’ of pigs in Venice), as was sex (real and in imagery and innuendo). ‘Abbeys of Misrule’ (who gave their ‘officers’ names playing on themes of folly, pleasure, youth) often played important roles in organising Carnivals. There were processions, performances, plays, centring on the theme of ‘the world turned upside down’ (the land of Cockaigne, die verkehrte Welt, le monde renversé, il mondo alla rovescia). The forms of topsy-turvy inversion were widely varied: the ‘low’ imitated the ‘high’ with their mock kings, bishops, their cross-dressing, their inversions of pious rites, their mocking satires.

What did it all mean? They have often been seen by anthropologists (such as Victor Turner and Max Gluckman) in terms of a ‘safety valve’ theory – ‘rituals of rebellion’ that allow controlled, safe release of the tensions of hierarchical society, set apart from the normal and everyday world. Contemporaries, too, expressed similar views; one metaphor they used was the need to allow gas to escape from wine barrels periodically to prevent them exploding.

However, other theorists (notably Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary theorist) have offered a more positive (and subversive) analysis: the carnivalesque represents a separate reality, independent of the ordinary hierarchical world, which offers alternatives to it and brings change, a process of liberation, destruction and renewal. Bakhtin also drew attention to its “grotesque realism” and association with the unruly ‘lower body’, the ‘underworld’. He emphasised three characteristics; 1) ambivalence (the combination of praise and abuse); 2) duality of the body (distinction between ‘low’ bodily ingestion/secretion and ‘high’ reason/piety); 3) incompleteness: nature is always replacing old with new (and Carnival can be seen as very much a festival of youth).

Drawing on this, Natalie Zemon Davis, historian of early modern France, argued that carnival is more than merely a safety valve: it can reinforce the existing order, but it can also criticise it and sometimes underpin rebellion, depending on the circumstances. The carnivalesque could not always be safely contained; the imagery, ritual language could migrate beyond the set festive occasions, and be used in a variety of ways. It allowed taboo-breaking, created ‘liminal’ (borderline) spaces in which new and alternative ideas could be expressed. And symbolic violence could turn into real violence, against authorities – or Catholics or Protestants or Jews.

Not all contemporaries thought of the carnivalesque as a harmless ‘safety valve’, either. Many moral reformers disapproved of the excesses and bawdy unruliness (they often viewed it as ‘pagan’ in origin, another theme of later analysis). English puritans’ distaste for the phallic May Pole and the (perceived) sexual excesses of Maying festivities is well known. Those in authority were nervous of its power to disrupt and subvert; they did not take it for granted that the world once turned upside down would simply revert to normal afterwards. And thus efforts to reform and suppress the riotous carnivalesque have been seen (though controversially) as part of a larger trend in early modern history, the ‘reform of popular culture’ and the ‘withdrawal’ of the upper classes from previously shared traditions. Others point to an increasing ‘commercialisation’ of Carnival, its teeth drawn as it became a glossy consumer festival. The ‘Battle between Carnival and Lent’, it is argued, can symbolise the drawing of new social and cultural boundaries – between the respectable and disreputable, the pious and the profane, elite and popular – in the transition to modernity.

So it might well be asked: is there something carnivalesque about blogging as a whole? (Discuss.)

Useful reading:
Edward Muir, Ritual in early modern Europe (Cambridge, 1997)
Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe ([1978] rev ed, Aldershot, 1994)
Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and culture in early modern France (Stanford, 1965)