Rules for the unruly world

Article published on Feb. 20, 2006
Article published on Feb. 20, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Carnival stems from the church’s desire to show its faithful the horrors of the City of the Devil during the Middle Ages. Although the church has since lost its power, Carnival remains more popular than ever.

Rottenburg am Neckar is an idyllic town in southern Germany. Urbane dwellings nestle together in the heart of the Old Town. A lone mighty cathedral towers above them, appearing to promise calm and order. But on 26 February, all hell breaks loose. Leering horned demons known as 'Ahlande' will traipse through Rottenburg’s streets. Wrapped in shaggy sheepskin, steel bells hanging from their bodies, the prancing Ahlande create a hellish racket.

Licentiousness becomes the norm

Similar to Rottenburg, the six days before Ash Wednesday are an exception to the rule in numerous European cities. Whether in Cadiz, Nice, Cologne, Venice or Prague, processions are organised where grotesque masks are on display and the powerful ridiculed. People everywhere dress in costume, and celebrate day and night. The rules of society appear to be overturned and unruliness becomes the norm.

Despite this, church doctrine accords a clear set of rules to this lack of restraint . Pre-Christian festivals such as Roman 'Saturnalia' are known to resemble Carnival, but carnivalistic customs only appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. This coincided with the consolidation of church power on the continent and a direct connection to pagan rituals cannot be proven. Carnival is the festival that precedes the fasting period beginning on Ash Wednesday. The Latin 'Carnem levare' means the avoidance or removal of meat. European carnivals differ only in the date upon which they commence. In Cologne celebrations begin on 11.11 at 11:11, in other cities on 6 January. These dates also have their origin in the history of the church. The advent period of fasting traditionally began on 11.11 and ended on January 6th, the Epiphany.

The jester as citizen in the City of the Devil

The peak of the festival is celebrated on the six days leading up to Ash Wednesday – falling on 23 to 28 February this year. Just as the world in the Bible was created by God in six days, the otherworld exists for the same amount of time. The Munich folklorist Dietz-Rüdiger Moser has researched the relationship between Carnival and Christian theology, “Carnival was used to ensure that the people celebrated Ash Wednesday.” According to Moser’s theory, Carnival can be traced back to the two-empire teachings of one of the church fathers, Augustine, who differentiated between a City of God (civitas dei) and a City of the Devil (civitas diaboli).

The church depicted the City of the Devil to its followers throughout Carnival to discern the necessity of a Christian way of life during the subsequent period of fasting. The king of the carnival, as he is known in Nice, Cologne (the carnival prince) or Venice, is chosen through the principle of chance, and stands in contrast to the king chosen by God. The jester is a citizen of the City of the Devil for a reason – the 52nd psalm in the Latin Vulgate-Bible portrays the jester as an apostate. His sceptre, which is crowned with his own likeness, stands for the un-Christian conceitedness of the jester.

Carnival was once celebrated wherever the church’s power was felt. Nowadays, with the exception of 'Fasnacht' in Basle, it is limited to Catholic areas. Early reports of Carnival date from 13th century Lille and Dijon. Nuremberg’s 'Schembartlauf' was renowned in the 15th century. The arrival of the Reformation brought the abolishment of fasting. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution sounded the death knell for Carnival within their spheres of influence. With the Restoration at the beginning of the 19th century, however, Carnival experienced a renaissance. The carnivals in Cologne, Nice and many other cities were reanimated in this period and have persisted until today.

Letting yourself go

Today the church has lost its cultural supremacy. Carnival is more popular than ever, and new forms are emerging that are unconnected to the ecclesiastical tradition. Multicultural summer carnivals, like London’s Notting Hill, have mushroomed across Europe. Contrastingly the conventional winter carnival threatens to decline into little more than a tourist attraction, as in Venice. Is the festival losing its original meaning and value?

Michi Knecht, a researcher at the Institute for European Ethnology in Berlin does not believe so, “Carnival might not be what it once was, but that does not imply that it has lost all meaning.” She is convinced that Carnival keeps groups together. Clear rules apply to the 'world turned upside down'. “The spectacle provides people with a sense of belonging,” emphasizes Knecht. The psychotherapist Wolfgang Oelsner is also convinced of this. In his book, 'Festival of Desires', he writes, “A person is unconditionally accepted as they are within the carnival.” The pleasant psychological side-effect according to Oelsner is that you can do things that otherwise are not allowed and suppressed emotions are released.

For the moment it seems that nobody needs to worry about the future of Carnival, neither in Nice nor in Rottenburg.