Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The killing of carnival

Earlier I posted about the creation of Carnival.

Now, more from Queen Barbara

At some point, in town after town throughout the northern Christian world, the music stops. Carnival costumes are put away or sold; dramas that once engaged a town's entire population are canceled; festive rituals are forgotten or preserved only in tame and truncated form. The ecstatic possibility, which had first been driven from the sacred precincts of the church, was now harried from the streets and public squares."

The suppression of traditional festivities, occurring largely in the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, took many forms. Sometimes it came swiftly and absolutely, when, for example, a town council suddenly broke with tradition by refusing to grant a permit for the celebrations or a church denied the use of its churchyard. Or the change might come slowly, with authorities first limiting festivities to Sundays, then, in a classic catch-22, prohibiting all recreations and sports on the Sabbath. In other places the festivities were attacked in a piecemeal fashion: some German towns banned masking in the late fifteenth century; in mid sixteenth-century Bearn, the queen issued ordinances outlawing singing and feasting. Dancing, masking, revelling in the streets – the ingredients of carnival, or festivities in general, could be outlawed one by one.

"The wave of repression.. extended from Scotland south to parts of Italy and eastwards to Russia and Ukraine, [targeted] almost every opportunity for revelry and play.” (p97-8)

The explanation offered by Max Weber in the late nineteenth century and richly expanded on by the historians E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill in the late twentieth is that the repression of festivities was, in a sense, a by-product of the emergence of capitalism. The middle classes had to learn to calculate, save, and 'defer gratification'; the lower classes had to be transformed into a disciplined, factory-ready, working class – meaning far fewer holidays and the new necessity of showing up for work sober and on time, six days a week. Peasants had worked hard too, of course, but in seasonally determined bursts; the new industrialism required ceaseless labour, all year round.” p100

Was this changed forced upon people, or were they compliant?

A mixture of both, Barbara suggests. “Protestantism – especially in its ascetic, Calvinist form – played a major role in convincing large numbers of people not only that unremitting, disciplined labour was good for their souls, but that festivities were positively sinful, along with mere idleness... Protestantism, serving as the ideological handmaiden of the new capitalism, “descended like a frost on the life of 'Merrie old England'” as Weber put it, destroying in its icy grip the usual Christmas festivites, the maypole, the games, and all traditional forms of group pleasure.” (p101)

There was more.

As tensions rose between different wealth groups, festivities where all came together became the cooking pot for that friction, which increasingly boiled over into violence.
Until the 15th century, knights and noblemen and women revelled, according to Barbara, along with the peasants. By the turn of the 16th Century, retreat behind masks became retreat altogether and the establishment of totally separate festivities.

Upper class festivities started out as raucous as the community revelries, but gradually became restrained and solemn so that by the late 18th century, according to historian Robert Darnton, the poor and working class "had all the fun" while the elite could only “parade about solemnly in processions generales.” (quoted by Barbara, p113).

"Has our culture lost something?" asks Stuart Brown.

Yes, I think so. But fear not! The Fun Fed is here! :)
And Hide and Seek. And Come out and Play. And even, though slightly different, the
Celebration Activists. And the Nomadic Academy of Fools. And everything in this blog and much, much more besides.

Something in our culture is twisting and turning. New (old) things are being born again.

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