The art of carnival!

In a recent post, I touched on the history of Halloween, where it finds its roots (sorry america, you aren’t responsible for this one!) and this led to an interesting discussion about festival days and carnival, really how ingrained it is in our society. It is something I studied at uni so I thought I would revisit.

Now while I was at Uni, the period I was looking at covered the 15th & 16th century and at first glance you would think that this would bear no relevance to today. But please give me a moment of your time and you will see that things have not really changed.

Now we are fast approaching Halloween which is popularised by costume wearing, this was indeed a big part of festival days, were you would have several roles, that were easily distinguished, and still recognisable today. For example, Hero’s and Heroines, wise rulers, fools, knights, damsels in distress were all popular features. In urban environments peasants were often portrayed as dishonest.

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Another popular theme was The World Turned Upside Down; Judges in stocks, Clergy dressed as women etc. Carnivals would be presided over by a fat man, often carrying a phallic symbol, the Carnival King. It was often young men that kept things going, carnival spirit was freedom and release from the daily toil – some festivals would go one for days and even weeks. Although from time to time, they were also used as political stages.

As part of the ‘world turned upside down’ theme found in festivals and carnivals there was often a ‘Lord of Misrule’. In the main, this was legitimised disorder built into the 12 days of Christmas. Originally appointed at the royal court, he was given full ‘panoply of kingship’ including a throne, armoury, a jester and a gibbet for mock executions.

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This was also true of private households, Polydor Virgil, writing in the 15th Century emphasised that there were mock rulers to whom the usual leaders of the household or official institutions became subservient to during the Christmas period. It seems that the office lay in role reversal, in the elevation of the servant to a position of apparent authority. The alteration of the natural order seems to have been the misrule involved and a suitable symbol for a season of revelry and release from work. No information remains on exactly how they carried out their duties 😉

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However, at Christmas 1516/17 someone took this idea a little far. A ‘Jack Straw’ figure and his ‘followers’ appeared at the Lincoln Inn, broke down doors, and invaded rooms. This was carried out in the spirit of the season but not a legitimised action. Jack Straw was named after the leader of the 1381 Peasants Revolt and clearly an instigator of pranks and wild behaviour among young men.

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Carnivals were also an opportunity to ‘punish’ those who did not stick to traditional roles, a woman marrying a younger man, a young married couple unable to produce a child – they would often be harried and harassed. Eggs and flour through at their house, pots and pans hit outside their house at all hours to make sure they would not get any peace. In some cases, these were the sort of cases brought to the Lord of Misrule to face a court and decide their punishment.

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Carnivals succeed in allowing people to ‘blow off steam’ every year, in symbolic and ritualised ways. In this way, it helped to control the populations, if the people knew that at certain times of the year they would be able to relax and let heir hair down. However, this was not always enough to curb revolution; ritualised revelry could only accomplish so much. Sometimes the issues at hand; if not properly addressed would cause mass rebellion. Religious movements at the time also meant that some festivals were beginning to be frowned upon as they had their roots in pagan rituals. Although a lot of the festivals were able to be incorporated into the new religious calendar, in order to minimise the upheaval for people still getting used to the new set of morals and life style codes being inflicted upon them.

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I hope you have enjoyed reading this, I realise it isn’t to everyone’s taste but it does offer food for thought – think about festivals that we still have today – music festivals that last 3 or 4 days, bank holidays, religious holidays that are still observed but now secular. The ideas behind festival and feast days have not been diminished, but they have taken on new guises.

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