Friday, March 15, 2024

The Real Origins of Carnival (which has nothing to do with Ancient Paganism)

The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel, 1559

By John Bossy

Sin required penance from the individual, as Dante had expounded it; it also, as a stain on the community of Christians, required penance from the population at large, collective ascetic rituals of which the most important was the annual season of Lent. Though generally felt to be essential to individual salvation and public prosperity, penance remained a daunting prospect: the task of persuading people to enter upon it was likened by the Strassburg preacher John Geiler to getting a horse on to a small boat. The horse might pass more readily if its steps were guided by the formalities of a rite of passage. So by the sixteenth century the moment at which the population passed from its carnal into its penitential state had become a time for the vigorously cultivated rites of separation generally known as Carnival. These were, despite some appearances, Christian in character, and they were medieval in origin: although it has been widely supposed that they continued some kind of pre-Christian cult, there is in fact no evidence that they existed much before 1200. The Italian term carnevale derived from the dominica carnelevalis or Quadragesima Sunday, the feast which in the Roman and Milanese liturgies marked for the clergy the passage from the normal to the penitential regime, and signified the abolition of meat or flesh; those words in use in other vernaculars (antruejo/introitus, carĂªme-entrant) referred to the entrance into Lent. As a period of time and a moral conception Carnival was one half of an entity of which the other half was Lent. The unity-in-opposition of the pair, which seems a notable instance of the structural anthropology practised by Claude Levi-Strauss, was the theme of the French and Spanish poems which diffused the conception in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and also of a line of pictorial representations memorably concluded in the middle of the sixteenth by The Fight between Carnival and Lent of Pieter Bruegel.