Essay History Of Popular Culture


Essay History Of Popular Culture Essay, Research Paper

History of popular culture

‘Functions of festivals in Early Modern Europe…’

University level

Essay History of Popular Culture

What were the functions of popular festivals, etc. in Early Modern Europe?

And why did the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical seek to control or

suppress them?’

In Early Modern Europe festivals were the setting for heroes and their

stories, to be celebrated by the populace. They posed a change from their

everyday life. In those days people lived in remembrance of one festival

and in expectance of the next. Different kinds of festivals were celebrated

in different ways. There were festivals that marked an individual occasion

and weren’t part of the festival calendar, like family festivals such as

weddings and christenings. Some took place at the same time every year and

were for everyone, like community festivals like the different saints’

days. Pilgrimages took place all year round. Annuals festivals like

Christmas and Midsummer always took place on the same day every year.

In those days the average village in Western Europe celebrated at least 17

festivals annually, not counting family occasions and saints’ days. Some

festivals, such as Carnival, lasted several days or sometimes even several

weeks. In the Netherlands Carnival started every year at the 11th of

November (St. Martin) and culminated in a big festival of ‘Dranck,

pleijsier ende vrouwen’ (Drink, fun and women) at the end of the Carnival

period, preceding the period of Lent.

Festivals were meant to take the minds of the people off their everyday

life , off the hard times and their work. Everyday life in Early Modern

Europe was filled with rituals, both religious and secular. Songs and

stories played an important role in their lives, although they sometimes

adjusted the details of the legends and stories to fit the way they thought

a certain festival should take place.

Popular culture was mixed with ecclesiastical culture in many ways. The

story of St. John the Baptist is a good example of this. The ancient ritual

of bathing and lighting fires during Midsummer’s Eve was a remnant of a

ritual from the pre-Christian period. Fire and water, symbols of

purification, could be seen as the tools of St. John the Baptist, and

therefore a combination of the two elements of popular and ecclesiastical

culture was obvious. It looks as if the Medieval Church took over the

festival and made it theirs. The same thing happened to the Midwinter

Festival, which became linked with the birth of Christ, on 25 December.

There are many more examples to be found, such as the connection between

St. Martin and geese caused by the fact that the St. Martins Day (11

November) coincided with the period during which the people used to kill

their geese in the period preceding the Christian period.

Carnival plays a special role in popular culture in Early Modern Europe.

It is a great example of a festival of images and texts. It was a popular

festival, taking on different forms in different regions of Europe. Aside

from regional variations, these differences were also caused by factors

such as the climate, the political situation and the economical situation

in an area.

On a whole Carnival started in late December or early January and reached

its peak upon approaching Lent. The actual feast, taking place at the end

of the festive

period, could take days and would usually involve large quantities of food

and drinks. The festival took place in the open air in the centre of a

town or city. Within a region, the way Carnival was celebrated varied from

town to town.

The festival was a play, with the streets as a stage and the people as

actors and spectators. They often depicted everyday life scenes and made

fun of them. Informal events took place throughout the Carnival period.

There was massive eating and drinking, as a way of ’stocking up’ for Lent.

People sang and danced in the streets, using the special songs of Carnival,

and people wore masks and fancy-dress. There was verbal aggression, insults

were exchanged and satirical verses were sung.

More formally structures events were concentrated in the last days of the

Carnival period. These events took places in the central squares and were

often organised by clubs or fraternities.

The main theme during Carnival was usually ‘The World Upside Down’.

Situations got turned around. It was an enactment of the world turned

upside down. Men dressed up as women, women dressed up as men, the rich

traded places with the poor, etc. There was physical reversal: people

standing on their heads, horses going backwards and fishes flying. There

was reversal of relationships between man and beast: the horse shoeing the

master or the fish eating the fisherman. The other reversal was that of

relationships between men: servants giving orders to their masters or men

feeding children while their wives worked the fields.

Many events centred on the figure of ‘Carnival’, often depicted as a fat

man, cheerful and surrounded by food. The figure of ‘Lent’, for contrast,

often took the form of a thin, old woman, dressed in black and hung with

fish. These depictions varied in form and name in the different regions in

Europe. A recurring element was the performance of a play, usually a farce.

Mock battles were also a favourite pass-time during the Carnival period.

Carnival usually ended with the defeat of ‘Carnival’ by ‘Lent’. This could

happen in the form of the mock trial and execution of ‘Carnival’, (Bologna,

Italy, 16th century), the beheading of a pig (Venice, Italy), or the burial

of a sardine (Madrid, Spain).

So what was the meaning of Carnival in Early Modern Europe? Was it merely

an excuse for the populace to go crazy or did Carnival have a deeper

meaning hidden behind the facade of food, violence and sex?

Carnival was a holiday, a game. It was a time of ecstasy and liberation.

The form was determined by three major themes: food, sex and violence. It

was the time of indulgence, of abundance. It was also a time of intense

sexual activity – tables of the seasonal movement of conceptions in 18th

century France show a peak around February. Carnival was also a festival of

aggression, destruction and desecration. It was the ideal time to insult or

pester people who had wronged someone, often in the form of a mock battle

of a football match. A time for paying off old grudges. Serious violence

was not avoided and in most areas the rates of serious crimes and killings

went up during Carnival. It was also a time of opposition, in more than one

way. It opposed the ecclesiastical ritual of Lent. Lent was a period of

fasting and abstinence of all things enjoyed by the people, not just food

and drink but also sex and recreation. The elements that were taken out of

life during Lent were emphasised during Carnival. All that was portrayed by

the figures of ‘Carnival’ and ‘Lent’ (fat versus thin).

Carnival was polysemous, meaning different things to different people in

different areas. In different regions, different heroes were celebrated.

Sometimes elements were taken over from other regions. Carnival did not

have the same importance all over Europe. In the north of Europe (Britain,

Scandinavia) it was less important than in the rest of Europe. This was

probably partly due to the climate which discouraged an elaborate street

festival at that time of the year.

In these regions, people preferred to elaborate the festivities during the

Midsummer festival (St. John’s Eve). Two reasons for this are the pagan

survivals that were stronger in these regions, partly because they were

isolated from the rest of Europe due to geographical obstacles, causing a

lesser ecclesiastical influence, and the climatic situation as mentioned


Carnival was a festival in extremis, but elements of Carnival can be found

in every festival that was celebrated in Early Modern Europe. During the

harvest season, all over Europe festivals and rituals were held. The

harvest was celebrated, again , with elaborate drinking and eating,

although in a more moderate way than the Carnival celebrations.

All these festival had one thing in common: they offered the people an

escape from their everyday life and a way to express themselves. It offered

the people a way to vent their resentments and some form of entertainment.

Festivals were an escape from their struggle to earn a living. They were

something to look forward to and were a celebration of the community and a

display of its ability to put on a good show. It is said that the mocking

of outsiders (the neighbouring village or Jews) and animals might be seen

as a dramatic expression of community solidarity.

Some rituals might be seen as a form of social control, in a sense that it

was a means for a community to express their discontent with certain

members of the community (charivari). The ritual of public punishment can

be seen in this light, as it was used to deter people from committing


Professor Max Gluckman used the African popular culture to explain the

social function of the ritual of reversal of roles as it happened during

rituals as Carnival. Similar rituals still occur in certain regions in

Africa. Gluckman explains this ritual as an emphasis of certain rules and

taboos through lifting them for a certain period of time. The apparent

protests against the social order were intended to preserve and even to

strengthen the established order. As a counter example Gluckman states

that: “?in regions where the social order is seriously questioned, ‘rites

of protest’ do not occur.”

Riots and rebellions frequently took place during major festivals. Rebels

and rioters employed rituals and symbols to legitimise their actions.

Inhibitions against expressing hostility towards the authorities or

individuals were weakened by the excitement of the festival and the

consumption of large quantities of alcohol. If those factors were combined

with discontent over a bad harvest, tax increases or other calamities, this

situation could get out of control. It could prove a good opportunity for

people excluded from power to try and enforce certain changes.

It is hardly surprising that members of the upper classes often suggested

that particular festivals ought to be abolished. They felt threatened by

the populace who during festivals tried to revolt against the ruling

classes and change the economical situation they were in.

The reform of popular festivals was instigated by the will of some of the

‘educated’ to change the attitudes and values of the rest of the population

(” to improve them”). This reformation took on different forms in different

regions and it took place at different moments in time. There were also

differences in the practices that were being reformed. Catholics and

Protestants opposed to different elements of popular festivals and they did

so for different reasons. Even within the Protestant movement, the views

towards reformation of festivals and popular rituals varied.

Missionaries on both sides worked in Europe to install their religious

values in the local people. Reformers on both sides objected in particular

to certain elements in popular religion. Festivals were part of popular

religion or were at least disguised as an element of popular religion. The

festival of Martinmas (11 November) was a good example of this.

What were the objections of the authorities against these elements of

popular culture in general and popular religion in particular? There were

two essential religious objections. Firstly, the majority of festivals were

seen as remnants of ancient paganism. Secondly, the festivals offered the

people an occasion to over-indulge in immoral or offensive behaviour, at

many occasions attacking the establishment (both ecclesiastical and civil).

The first objection meant that reformers disliked many of the popular

customs because they contained traces of ancient customs dating from

pre-Christian times. Protestant reformers went very far in their

objections, even denouncing a number of Catholic rituals as being

pre-Christian survivals, considering the saints as successors of pagan gods

and heroes, taking over their curative and protective functions. Magic was

also considered a pagan remnant: the Protestants accused the Catholics of

practising a pagan ritual by claiming that certain holy places held magical

powers and could cure people.

The reformers denounced the rituals they didn’t find fitting as being

irreverent and blasphemous. Carnival and the charivaris were considered

“the work of the devil”, because it made a mockery of certain godly

elements the Church held sacred. The reformers thought people who didn’t

honour God in their way to be heathen, doomed to spend their afterlife in

eternal damnation. Flamboyance was to be chased out of all religious

aspects of culture, and, where possible, out of all other aspects of life,

according to the Protestant doctrine. In some areas, gesturing during

church services was banned, as was laughter. All these things were seen as

irreverent, making a mockery of religion.

All these changes were introduced in order to create a sharper separation

between the ’sacred’ and the ‘profane’. The ecclesiastical authorities were

out to destroy the traditional familiarity with the sacred because

“familiarity breeds irreverence.”

The objection against popular recreations stemmed from the idea that they

were ‘vanities’, displeasing God because they were a waste of time and

money and distracted people from going to church. This objection was shared

by both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities. The latter mainly

objected because it distracted the populace from their work, which in turn

affected the revenues of the leading upper classes, or from other

activities that were benefiting the rich, reasons that would vary per


Catholic and Protestant reformers were not equally hostile to popular

culture, nor were they hostile for quite the same reasons. Protestant

reformers were more radical, denouncing festivals as relics of popery and

looking to abolish feast-days as well as the feast that came with it,

because they considered the saints that were celebrated during these

festivals as remnants of a pre-Christian era. Many of these Protestant

reformers were equally radical in their attacks on holy images, which they

considered ‘idols’. During the end of the 16th and the first half of the

17th century Dutch churches were pillaged by Protestants trying to destroy

all religious relics and images (de Beeldenstorm). Catholic reformers were

more modified in their actions; they tried to reach a certain modification

of popular religious culture, even trying to adapt certain elements to the

Catholic way of worshipping and incorporating popular elements into their

religion. They insisted that some times were holier than others, and they

did object to the extend to which the holy days were celebrated with food

and drink. Some argued that it was impossible to obey the rites of Lent

with proper reverence and devotion if they had indulged in Carnival just

before. Catholic reformers also installed rules in order to regulate

certain popular festivals and rituals, such as a prohibition on dressing up

as a member of the clergy during Carnival or a prohibition on dancing or

performing plays in churches or churchyards. Contrary to the Protestant

reformers however, the Catholic reformers did not set out to abolish

festivals and rituals completely.

Civil authorities had their own reasons to object to popular festivals in

Early Modern Europe. Apart from taking the people away from work or other

obligations, the authorities feared that during the time of a festival, the

abundance of alcohol could stir up the feelings of discontent the people

had been hiding all throughout the year. Misery and alcohol could create a

dangerous mix that would give people the courage they needed to rebel

against authorities. This was a good reason for the authorities to try and

stop, or at least control, popular festivals. Bibliography

Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe; P. Burke

The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in 16th century France;

N.Z.Davis, Past and Present 1971

Order and rebellion in Tribal Africa; M. Gluckman

The waning of the Middle Ages; J. Huizinga

Levend Verleden; Prof. Dr. H.P.H. Jansen

Blood, tears and Xavier-water: Jesuit missionaries and popular religion in

the 18th century in the Upper Palatinate; T. Johnson Popular religion in

Germany and Central Europe 1400-1800

Додати в блог або на сайт

Цей текст може містити помилки.

A Free essays | Essay
25.3кб. | download | скачати

Related works:
Is Popular Culture Subservient To High Culture
Popular Culture
Popular Culture In The 19C
The Odyssey In Popular Culture
Advertising and popular culture
Stamps In Popular Culture
Chinese Popular Culture
Understanding Popular Culture
Baseball And American Popular Culture
© Усі права захищені
написати до нас