The Depiction of Jews in the Carnival Plays and Comedies of Hans Folz and Hans Sachs in Early Modern Nuremberg

The Depiction of Jews in the Carnival Plays and Comedies of Hans Folz and Hans Sachs in Early Modern Nuremberg

By John D. Martin

Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance, Vol.3:2 (2006)

Introduction: Bakhtin’s theory of the social function of the carnival play (Fastnachtspiel) characterized the primary function of carnival plays as one of relieving class tensions and intra–group hostilities by providing members of diverse groups with an outlet for aggression, turning impulses that would otherwise express themselves in violence or disruptive behaviors into carefully modulated public displays of excess consumption (e.g. drunkenness, gluttony, staged sexual humor) and oftentimes sexual or scatological mockery of ruling elites through easily recognizable type scenes and characters (e.g. the foolish old guildmaster cuckolded by the whoring priest, the merchant deceived into buying a bag of his own feces). While this account of the Fastnachtspiel’s role in late medieval German society is certainly persuasive prima facie, it has not been accepted as an exhaustive explanation of their public functions and political uses, which included both critiques and affirmations of public authority figures. The most significant flaw in the Bakhtinian model is that it describes a form of theatre that reinforces existing social structures without either threatening the continued existence of hierarchies of authority or changing the political attitudes and behavior of the audience. What follows here will describe how Hans Folz and Hans Sachs of Nuremberg transformed the late medieval carnival play from an outlet for otherwise repressed impulses — the Bakhtinian ‘social safety valve’ model of carnival — into a means of effecting social, political change. Since this development has already been discussed in some measure by scholars of the Fastnachtspiel, I will discuss here more particularly how Folz and Sachs’s respective depictions of Jews in carnival plays and comedies effected (or failed to effect) the conditions of Jews living in or around Nuremberg in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This study will thus demonstrate that the Bakhtinian model and its critics both contribute to our understanding of the Fastnachtspiel and the development of early modern German attitudes toward Jews.

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