Rethinking Carnival from the Pre-modern to the Present

Rethinking Carnival from the Pre-modern to the Present

Roberta Colbertaldo, Institute for Romance Studies, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main; Jeremy DeWaal, Department of History, University of Exeter
British Arts and Humanities Research Council; Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
Frankfurt am Main
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
05.10.2023 - 08.10.2023
Jeremy DeWaal, Department of History, University of Exeter; Roberta Colbertaldo, Institute for Romance Studies, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main

The Carnival tradition, which emerged in the Middle Ages, has been the subject of research in history and cultural studies, as well in literary studies, sociology, and anthropology. As the tradition spread throughout Europe and across several continents, customs took on very different manifestations. While scholarship on Carnival has been prolific, it has also been deeply fragmented based on place, time-period, and discipline. These divisions have often been enforced by language barriers, the expertise of researchers in particular time periods as well as by the local or regional provenance of Carnival traditions. Such barriers have particularly limited study into the longue durée transformations of the tradition across time and space.

Seeking to bridge such divisions and re-think the dynamic histories of Carnival and Shrovetide traditions, scholars from thirteen countries came together in a conference at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main. The international and interdisciplinary conference was funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council in the frame of DeWaal’s project “Reinventing Tradition: Rhenish Carnival and Cultures of Emotion over the Long Durée” and was further supported by the German Research Foundation’s (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) project “Fat Worlds II. Between Excess and Asceticism: Collective and individual body constructions in pre-modern times (in France and Italy)”, directed by Christine Ott and Roberta Colbertaldo at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main.

The conference explored the historical development of Carnival in diverse political and social contexts as well as through the lens of the history of everyday life and emotions. It was opened by Ott’s introductory words on the institutional frame of the “Fat Worlds II” project and on the history of the collaboration between DeWaal and Colbertaldo that led to the organization of the conference. The first contribution to the conference was a paper by ANDREA BALDAN (Frankfurt am Main). He presented many literary and visual sources in search of explicit connections of Carnival to Hell in France and Italy during the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Times.

The conference’s consideration of artistic and ethnographic sources from the European Early Modern Times and the first occasion for discussion was offered by the screening of two short films realized by WERNER MEZGER (Freiburg) in the frame of the project “museum4punkt0”. They tackle the history of provenance and the iconography of the “Fools’ Plate” (1528), held at Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck, which thematized mankind’s incurably foolish nature, and the archetypal Carnival battle depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The fight between Carnival and Lent” (1559), exhibited at Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

The first keynote, delivered by HEIDY GRECO-KAUFMANN (Bern), offered an overview on Lucerne Carnival and theatre traditions. Lucerne was presented in the context of Swiss confessional struggles, in which Carnival was denounced as bad practice of Catholics by the followers of the reformist Huldrych Zwingli. Lucerne, as the leading town of the Catholics, insisted on maintaining its cultural customs and used them as a powerful propagandistic instrument. The keynote engaged particularly in identifying the protagonists of Lucerne Carnival and how it changed throughout the centuries up to the present.

The following panel dealt with the transformation of the allegorical battle of Carnival and Lent, a medieval theme which was adapted throughout Europe in the following centuries based on changing political and cultural conditions. ROBERTA COLBERTALDO (Frankfurt am Main) presented some of the earlier French and Italian examples of the battle of Carnival and Lent as an allegory of Court Culture and drew a parallel between them and the reprise of the ritual in the 19th century in popular French media for both defining a tradition and describing modern society. GABRIELE BUCCHI (Basel), looking at Counter-Reformation rhetoric against Carnival, focused on fictional texts about the battle between Carnival and Lent from 16th century-Bologna and their correspondence in ordinances and regulations of the same time which sought to expel Carnival.

The next panel examined particular figures participating in the Carnival, animals, bodies and masks. KATRIN HESSE (Kitzingen) explored the topic of the monstrous (das Ungeheure) in late medieval and early-modern Carnivals and how such monstrous figures shed their often horrific nature in modernity. Hesse built on classical ethnological studies and drew on materials available to her through her position as director of the German Carnival Museum. ROSTISLAV TUMANOV (Stuttgart) considered paintings by Pietro Longhi, Alessandro Longhi and Giambattista Tiepolo for exploring elephants, masks, and Mondi Nuovi as Venetian Carnival Attractions of the 18th century, which served as idealized subjects in the visual arts. Coming from the perspective of Ethnology, CANDICE MOISE (Artois) gave insight into the role of the mask in Carnival celebration, offering examples from fourteen different European countries.

WERNER MEZGER, drawing on decades of research, presented the second keynote on the jester (Narr) as a key figure in the interpretation of Central European Carnivals. Tracing Carnival’s emergence in the Middle Ages, Mezger followed the development of the jester figure as an embodiment of sin and representation of Carnival’s role as a symbol of the Kingdom of Hell which stood in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven represented by the fasting of Lent. The diabolism of the jester figure went into slow decline throughout the early modern period and had mostly disappeared by the dawn of modernity.

In the fourth panel, three perspectives from literary studies were presented, which looked into literary traces of Carnival festivities beyond the Carnivalesque elements as they have been theorized by Michail Bakhtin. MIRIAM STRIEDER (Bern) claimed that no Carnivalesque is to be found in Arthurian Romance, although the court could be thought as the ultimate place where carnivalesque events take place and especially carnivalesque inversion à la Bakhtin finds space. SELINA SEIBEL and ALINE WIEDER-LOHÉAC (Stuttgart) also challenged Bakhtinian perspectives by analyzing Carnival as a literary motif in 19th-century French Literature. GIANLUCA ESPOSITO (Naples) focused on the novel “Die letzte Welt” (1988) by Christoph Ransmayr, in which he explored classical and Nietzschean elements as characteristics of Carnival depiction.

The following panel explored new approaches to the study of Carnival. JEREMY DeWAAL (Exeter) outlined the theoretical and methodological frame of his longue durée approach, which he uses to theorize about processes of re-invention of tradition and examine shifts in cultures of emotion and ideas of Carnival pleasures over the course of several centuries. He draftes these approaches drawing on examples from Carnival in the Rhineland. In a video recording, NIKOS POTAMIANOS (Rethymno) spoke about the transformation of modern urban Carnival in Athens between 1800 and 1940. He interpreted this process as a “domestication” of the Carnival, influenced by the emerging of the middle class and secularization and as well as the establishment of a liberal democratic regime. GIOVANNI KEZICH and ANTONELLA MOTT (Trento) presented their project titled “Carnival King of Europe” which started in 2006 and differentiates between European Masquerades and Carnivals. Their ethnological undertaking aimed to visit and analyze contemporary festivals throughout Europe to identify their common roots and differentiating features.

The sixth panel explored Carnivals’ migrations and processes of remembering or forgetting the geographical movements of Carnival rituals. JARULA WEGNER (Zhejiang) examined how memories of the transnational connections of Carnival in Trinidad were gradually erased as the tradition evolved into a celebration of national identity. Coming from the perspective of performance studies, KEARN CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS (Leeds) observed the reverse movement of Trinidadian Carnival forms which have been exported elsewhere throughout the English-speaking world. Turning back to Europe, ANDREW SNYDER (Lisbon) presented an anthropological study of re-importation of Brazilian Carnival forms into contemporary Portugal. Such transnational connections were embraced and often encouraged, though differed notably between those brought by Brazilian immigrants, largely in urban centres, and rural Carnivals where Portuguese celebrants drew on medialized ideas of Brazilianness.

The seventh panel looked on the cultural politics of Carnival. HENDRIK KRAAY (Calgary) examined controversies over the pre-Lentian practices of Entrudo, involving rowdy water play and throwing games, which was increasingly castigated as uncivilized, with advocates arguing for its replacement with what they perceived to be “European” Carnival. Anti-Entrudo laws would be passed in Brazilian cities throughout the 19th century, though many came to mourn its disappearance. IOANA BASKERVILLE (Iasi) offered a critical re-evaluation of 19th-century nation-building ethnography of winter Carnivals in modern Romania and underscored the meaning given to Carnival forms and the function of Carnival as a contested site of expression.

Turning to the American South, ISABEL MACHADO (Vancouver) focused on contested processes of invention of tradition in Mobile. Shedding light on questions of race, sexuality and gender, Machado underscored how Carnival could function both as a site of resistance and assertion of authority. Looking at 19th-century New Orleans Mardi Gras, DEREK WOOD (New Orleans) explored themes of “modernism” and “anti-modernism” in Carnival and how defeated confederate groups sought to shape the tradition to resist federal reconstruction. Looking at contemporary New Orleans Mardi Gras from an anthropological perspective, MARTHA RADICE (Halifax) emphasized the multiple meanings that Mardi Gras has for its diverse celebrants, including its appeal as a site of community. Radice particularly focused on efforts of new wave krewes to challenge late-stage capitalism, while remaining enmeshed within them. Looking at questions of race and place in Mardi Gras, BRIAN BOYCE (Knoxville) examined the importance of Congo Square to African Americans in New Orleans and its prominence as a historical space for celebration of Carnival and as a site of resistance and resilience.

The final panel examined Carnival and state repression. NAZ VARDAR (Burnaby) presented on the Turkish ban on Greek Carnivals in Istanbul in the early 20th century and subsequent celebration of the tradition in the private sphere. More recently, the city has seen attempted revivals of the tradition as a symbol of the city’s multi-cultural past. LINA GERGOVA (Sofia) examined secularization processes and efforts to harness the tradition for state purposes in Bulgaria under Communism. Looking at a one-off revival of Carnival in interwar Dijon, PHILIP WHALEN (Conway) demonstrated how local political elites used events to advance conservative gender politics.

Discussions and comparisons between contributors demonstrated clear parallels and differences in developments of Carnival traditions across time and place, while also providing perspectives on new research questions. The works presented at the conference reflected the movement of the field beyond older binary debates about Carnival as either re-asserting hierarchies or fundamentally challenging them, with most viewing Carnival as a site of complex contestation which could serve both functions in different contexts. A major theme that emerged from the conference was the appropriation of modern Carnivals for territorial identities – a longue durée transformation worthy of greater attention from scholars. Appropriation of Carnival for local, regional, or national identities often went hand in hand with transformation of their perceived meanings throughout modern history. Such processes in some cases involved forgetting the transnational connections of the tradition itself, while memory of other forms of Carnival mobility remained present. Organizational forms of Carnival also saw similar development across place, with the 19th century representing a particular watershed in explosion of Carnival societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Comparison of Carnival in different periods also evoked questions about secularization of the tradition over time and shifting religious attitudes towards pleasure in Carnival – particularly in view of the relative retreat of diabolism in modern Carnivals. Questions about the boundaries of what is considered “Carnival,” and how it relates to the Carnivalesque, other forms of festival culture, and other pre-Lentian traditions remained a subject of debate. More consensus could be found on how the tradition’s imbrication in diverse issues of class, social discipline, gender, sexuality, and cultures of emotion made it a valuable lens into a range of longue durée historical developments.

Conference overview:

First Panel: Contrasting Ideas about Carnival in Different Christian Traditions

Andrea Baldan (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main): Carnival in Hell. Carnivalesque Representations of the Infernal Afterlife in France and Italy between the 13th and 17th Centuries

Screening of two short films realized by Werner Mezger in the frame of the project “museum4punkt0”

First Keynote

Heidy Greco-Kaufmann (Universität Bern): Lucerne Carnival and Theatre Traditions. Continuity and Change

Second Panel: The Battle of Carnival and Lent

Roberta Colbertaldo (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main): The Battle between Carnival and Lent as an Allegory of Court Culture

Gabriele Bucchi (Universität Basel): Expelling Carnaval. The Rhetoric against Carnaval in Counter-Reformation Italy

Third Panel: Lenses into the Study of Carnival: Animals, Bodies and Masks

Katrin Hesse (Deutsches Fastnacht Museum Kitzingen): The Monstrous in Carnival

Rostislav Tumanov (Universität Stuttgart): Elephants, masks, and Mondi Nuovi. Venetian Carnival Attractions of the 18th Century as Subjects in the Visual Arts of their Time

Candice Moise (Université d’Artois): What Masks Tell us about Carnivals. A Look back at the Masks of a Study in Fourteen European Countries Nowadays

Second Keynote

Werner Mezger: Der Narr als Schlüsselfigur der mitteleuropäischen Fastnacht

Fourth Panel: Carnival beyond the Carnivalesque

Miriam Strieder (Universität Bern): The Arthurian Court – a Serious Matter? In Search of the Carnivalesque in Arthurian Romance

Selina Seibel & Aline Wieders-Lohéac (Universität Stuttgart): Carnival without the Carnivalesque – an Analysis of a Literary Motif in Nineteenth-century French Literature

Gianluca Esposito (Università Federico II di Napoli): The Motif of Carnival in Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt (1988): Classical and Nietzschean Elements as Connection between Antiquity and Modernity

Fifth Panel: New Approaches to the Study of Carnival: Bridging across Temporal and Geographic Divides

Jeremy DeWaal (University of Exeter): A History of Emotions Approach to the Study of Carnival: Examples from the Reinvention of the Rhenish Tradition

Nikos Potamianos (Institute for Mediterranean Studies-FORTH, Rethymno): The Transformation of a Modern Urban Carnival: Athens 1800–1940

Giovanni Kezich & Antonella Mott (Trento): Towards a (double) European Atlas of Masquerades and Carnivals. “Carnival King of Europe”, Sixteen Years on (2006–2023)

Sixth Panel: Carnivals’ Migrations

Jarula M. I. Wegner (Zhejiang University): Trinidad and Tobago Carnival: Between National Pride and Transcultural Entanglements

Kearn Christopher Williams (University of Leeds): I ain’t come here for No Stand Up; I come to Party with my hand Up!: Trinidad Carnival Fetes – Innovation, Tensions and Meanings

Andrew Graver Snyder (Universidade Nova de Lisboa): Portugal’s Brazilian Carnivals: Mediation, Migration, and Modeling

Seventh Panel: Cultural Politics and Conflicting Meanings in Carnival Celebrations

Hendrik Kraay (University of Calgary): From Entrudo to Carnaval in Nineteenth-Century Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Ioana Baskerville (The Romanian Academy, Iasi Branch): Fur, Fun and Fight. Social and Cultural Meanings of the New Year Carnival in Modern and Contemporary Romania

Isabel Machado (University of British Columbia, Vancouver): Carnival in Alabama: Marked Bodies and Invented Traditions in Mobile

Eighth Panel: The Contested Meanings of New Orleans Mardi Gras

Derek Wood (Tulane University, New Orleans): From Medieval to Antimodern: The Americanization of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Martha Radice (Dalhousie University, Halifax): ‘Everywhere else it’s just Tuesday’: Contemporary Meanings of New-wave Carnival in New Orleans

Brian Boyce (University of Tennessee, Knoxville): The Meeting Place: Congo Square

Nineth Panel: Carnival and State Repression

Naz Vardar (Simon Frazer University, Burnaby): Carnival in Modern Turkey: From Public Festivities to Private Commemoration

Lina Gergova (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia): Traditional St. George’s Day and Socialist Humorous Carnival: Local Transformations

Philip Whalen (Coastal Carolina University, Conway): Crazy Mother Rides again: The Gender Politics of Carnival Revival in 1930s Dijon