By Danièle Cybulskie
This week, if you’ve been looking at the news, no doubt you’ve seen photo after glittering photo of celebrations of Mardi Gras / Carnival / Shrove Tuesday / Pancake Tuesday. Every year, there is a huge celebration on the day before the forty days of Lent, a time of fasting or giving up something you love to better understand the suffering of Jesus in the days leading up to Easter. How, you may have wondered, is the beginning of a time of deprivation related to such wild festivity? The roots of carnival celebrations go very deep, extending at least as far back as the Middle Ages, and probably much, much further.
In the medieval era, there were many feast days and celebrations during the Christian year. Although they were called “holy days” (hence our word “holiday”), these days were marked by celebration more than quiet reflection. On holy days, most work was forbidden, so people had time to spend in the pursuit of fun and feasting. The general consensus seems to be that these celebrations were a way for people to blow off the steam from their otherwise repressive lives, marked by the harsh rules of church, state, and mere survival. In her book Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that, rather than these exuberant activities being simply a reaction to rules, they were an expression of religious devotion that was slowly being pushed out of its original home: the church.
Ehrenreich reaches back to pre-Christian religious expression as a way to establish a connection to the divine through ecstatic dancing, such as during festal devotion to Dionysus in Ancient Greece. She postulates that sacred dancing was, for centuries, a part of Christian worship as well, and that, in the Middle Ages, the Church was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this happening within the church building, itself (for myriad reasons). Gradually, papal edicts banned dancing from within the sanctuary, but people still felt the need to perform their dances in order to feel spiritually connected to their religion. Thus, joyful, musical spectacles of religious devotion moved outdoors, and carnival began.
While dancing, because it was mostly recorded by people who disapproved of it, is hard to pin down, Ehrenreich may well be onto something. After all (and she mentions this in the book, as well), we know that medieval drama began as part of religious services, eventually being pushed out of the church as playwrights pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for the sanctuary, and as the Church as an institution continued to shape itself and its dogma. These religious dramas kept being performed in secular spaces, such as town squares, and were a way for ordinary people to connect to the stories of the Bible in ways that were less serious than what they heard at mass. As Max Harris and others have mentioned, dealing with those matters of the body – like sex, dancing, and toilet humour – that were being eliminated from church wasn’t necessarily anti-religious for a people who were taught to think of Jesus as a divinity in a regular, human body, just like their own. Instead, celebrating the human body in all its messiness and simple joy was a way to connect with the miracle of being human, and the significance of Jesus’ taking that form.
Although crazy feasts, such as the Feast of Fools, often included a raucous send-up of the Church, this seemed to be acceptable because, perhaps contrary to what we might imagine, the ability to be so unapologetically rebellious every once in a while never truly upset the status quo. The day after the foolishness, life returned to normal, just as it does now.
While it would certainly be a stretch to say that everyone who participated in the satire, silliness, and debauchery of carnival festivals was meditating on religious themes, the relationship of carnival to church is a strong one, and much more complex than it might initially seem. When it comes to the glittering joy of Mardi Gras, what looks irreverent from the outside, both then and now, has deep roots in the reverent.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist