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
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