Late Medieval and Early Modern European Celebrations and Festivities

Festivities and celebrations have always been cultural aspects of every civilization. People have traditionally used them to express an idea, to remember something that happened or to celebrate a glorious event. Feasts are somehow part of the collective identity, they are important and frequent, and so they were in the pre-modern world. Celebrations were meant to bring the whole town joy, honour and unity. Obviously we have to consider that these festivities would be different depending on their location and the people who performed them. For example, in Poland and Lithuania, royal celebrations like birth or marriages were less significant than in other countries, because they did not mean anything for succession as they were elective monarchies. Also, different celebrations had different purposes. In Christian Europe, many of them were celebrated in dates that matched the liturgical calendar, so it is reasonable to assume that these would have some sort of religious connections. But there were many reasons for these celebrations: fear and gratitude being some of the most common ones. For example, the Bavarian and Tyrolese Passion plays were performed for the first time due to the end of a wave of plague in 1633. Entries and marches of aristocratic figures into towns were also occasions to celebrate, as well as jousting tournaments, feats of fools, student plays and, of course, carnivals.

These spectacles were designed to leave a print in their population and visitors, to impress them in the collective memory. They were aimed to promote the sense of united community, to preserve their status as independent town and to show the world that they, shoulder by shoulder, supported their local societies. Many feasts achieved this quite successfully, implicating everyone. In Scotland, Midsummer bonfires played an important social function. They showed off the status of different householders but, also, this colourful propaganda made the elites joined the inferior social classes in a common celebration, creating a relaxation of the tensions within the civic community. Preparing a feast is hard and requires everyone’s work, it needs the cooperation of every individual, like Gregorio Dati wrote in his document about the feast of St. John the Baptist, Florence.

A kind of celebration that represents best the spirit of the urban community is actually a religious feast: the Corpus Christi. This festivity and the yearly processions and parades that occurred in the European town and cities started to appear and became popular during the late Middle Ages, and has carried on since, especially in Catholic countries like Spain. In fact, even nowadays in the city of Toledo, every year there is a massive congregation of people attending the meeting at the main square in Zocodover. (The gathering lasts for hours, and not even the sudden heat strokes some people suffer- as this takes place in the summer-stops the celebration from taking place as usual or for their attendants to not show up).  Festivities like this not only brought society together as individuals but also as Christians: all professing their faith together in the same space, as a ritual. On the other hand, occasionally these feasts would provide union in a greater and more political scale. There is the case of William of Orange’s entry into the city of Ghent in 1577. The inhabitants, despite the social conflict going on in the Lower Countries, welcomed the ruler, almost portrayed as a hero thanks to the propaganda made by D’Heere. The message he sent to the society in order to favour his master was one explaining the need of unity within the seventeen provinces and the need for religious reconciliation, or tolerance.

However, the result of these feasts has not always produce the consequences that one would have originally expected, and sometimes it ended in severe disruptions of the social order and communal peace. First of all it has to be considered that with time, the nobility started to distance from the popular celebrations. Usually this was due to the wish to do not get involve with mundane world, but there were other reasons. In the case of the Valois dynasty, they ended up developing their own activities because they were concerned about the loyalty of their subjects, the violence and public attacks they suffered. The Spanish courts had their own tradition of masquerades and games since the XV; most of time those included Nativity plays and jesters’ mocks. This also happened, in the north of Europe. In 17th Century Sweden court spectacles included stylish tournaments, pageants, ‘wirtschaften’, and ballets. Rebellions and social outbreaks got in the way of festivities too. Several European carnivals ended up in riots like those of Bern in 1513 or Dijon in 1630. Ritual violence was also prone in these celebrations, where many people got mocked, verbally abused, lynched or even rape like Mrs Coton (1395) in Chelles, by a group of men who had come to the city to celebrate the Passion of Christ. In addition, Spanish ‘romerias’ of the 16th and 17th centuries had a tendency of ending in sword fights due to the high volume of alcohol consumption.

Finally, religious conflict seemed to flourish rather often during certain celebrations. The houses of the protestant population of Rouen are known to have been assaulted in 1560 by several catholic parishioners and priests during a Corpus Christi parade, as the protestants refused to join in and honour the celebration. The interaction of Catholic and Protestant forces in family celebrations caused much trouble, reaching ridiculously and aggressive levels during and after the Reformation. This happened in Nemours, when a group of Catholics stole a protestant baby to be re-baptised. In Toulouse,during a funeral a man was burying his catholic dead wife according to the reformed rite when a Catholic group seized the body to rebury it following the Catholic manner, and after that a group of Protestants rescue the body and rebury it! The whole incident finished in a fight between the two factions.

It is clear that not every feast ended with happiness and joy, but rather many of them were culminated with black eyes and broken legs…

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