Above is Pieter Bruegel's 'Battle between Carnival and Lent'. Click to enlarge.
This post is especially indebted to Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford University Press, 1996), Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1991), and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c.1500 (Yale, 1992).
In a largely unlettered world dependent on natural forces people took out insurance against what they could not foresee or control. Religion was a major protective and where official religion seemed inadequate, other rites were used. The Christian church obliged the realities of the agricultural year by turning at least one third of the days into obligatory festivals. A division may be made between rituals of joy, which welcomed in the seasons of the year, and rituals of protection. All coincided with the liturgical cycle of the Christian churches.
The annual calendar began at Christmas. In England the first sign of the new season would have been the decorating of buildings with holly and ivy just before Christmas Eve. There is no evidence that they were chosen for arcane or magical properties but simply because they were green. (Mistletoe does not seem to have had any significance.) When people left the church they could enjoy, if they wished, their first really ample meal for over four weeks, following the very frugal Advent diet.
Candlemas fell on 2 February and marked the formal end of winter, followed by St Valentine’s Day, where men and women sent each other tokens of affection. In southern Europe in particular, Carnival was the big February celebration (see below). Palm Sunday was ‘one of the longest passages of ceremony in the whole ecclesiastical year’ (Hutton). May was a time of celebrating life and fertility; work resumed in the fields. There were two great festivals in June: Corpus Christi (see below) and the midsummer fire rituals of St John’s Eve when in London there were bonfires in the streets and in Chalon-sur-Sâone the canons repaired to a place called L’Etoile-à-Forêt, where they cut down branches, especially willow branches, and took them back to the cathedral. In July the harvest was gathered in, with further celebrations.
The derivation of the word is uncertain, though it can possibly be traced back to medieval Latin carnem levare meaning to take away or remove meat. This is because it was the final feast before the austere forty days of Lent. The historical origin is also obscure, though in southern Europe, it is plausibly linked to the beginning of spring and the rebirth of nature and in other cultures it can be linked to the Roman Saturnalia. However the first day of carnival varied with both national and local traditions.
Carnival was a privileged time - what was often thought could be expressed with relative impunity. It was a release not only from work, but also from society’s norms. It was a favourite time for the performance of plays. It was not merely a popular festival but was integral to the whole culture. As a young man, Philip II habitually took part in the festivities. Carnival was strongest in the Mediterranean area, weakest in Britain and Scandinavia.
Carnival was normally celebrated in the last few days before the coming of Lent. But in the Catalan lands it began the day after Christmas and ended over six weeks later on Ash Wednesday. In Munich the carnival of Fasching began on the feast of Epiphany (6 January) while in Cologne and the Rhineland it began on 11 November.
The place of Carnival was the open air in the city centre: eg in Nuremberg, the market place, in Venice the Piazza San Marco. Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, and the city became a theatre, and the inhabitants the actors and spectators. There was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators - the ladies on the balconies might throw eggs at the crowd and the maskers were often licensed to break into private houses.
The action of this gigantic play was a set of more or less formally structured event: massive eating of meat, pancakes and (in the Netherlands) waffles, reaching a climax on Shrove Tuesday; heavy drinking; singing and dancing in the streets; masks, long noses, cross-dressing; violence against animals. In the last days of Carnival there would be processions in which there would probably be floats bearing people dressed as giants, goddesses, devils etc. In some French carnivals husbands who had been beaten by their wives or had recently got married were carried in procession by the officials of `the great prince Mardi Gras' or led through the town mounted backwards on an ass. A second recurring element was some kind of competition.
(For a summary of Miri Rubin's book mentioned above, see , ‘Corpus Christi: Inventing a Feast’, History Today, 40 (July, 1990), 15-21).
In 1216 the Fourth Lateran Council sanctioned the word ‘transubstantiation’ as a correct expression of Eucharistic doctrine to describe what happens during the central Catholic ritual of the mass and how the words ‘Hoc est corpus meum’ were to be interpreted. Using Aristotle’s categories the Council moved that while the accidents (outward appearance) of bread and wine remained after the words of consecration, the substance has changed to the body and blood of Christ. (This doctrine was to be elaborated by subsequent theologians and to become extremely controversial in the 16th century.)
The Council also recommended annual communion after due confession and penance. For all the other Sundays in the year, people did not go to mass to communicate but to observe the key moment of consecration. From the end of the twelfth century this was accompanied by the gesture of elevation. At the elevation, bells pealed, incense was burned and candles were lit. English parish inventories of the fifteenth century record the expenditure on bells and their maintenance. The Council of Exeter of 1287 ordered that at least one of the candles should be of (expensive) beeswax.
One consequence of this enhancement of the mass was that it became more clearly the preserve of the clergy. From the twelfth century the chalice was increasingly withdrawn from the laity. In 1415 the Council of Constance decreed that only the clergy could communicate in both kinds.
From the thirteenth century the Franciscan and Dominican friars taught eucharistic doctrine through sermons and stories, many of them focusing on the miraculous. One popular story was that of St Basil and the Jew: a child appeared in Basil’s hand at mass, bits of it were distributed to communicants, and the Jew was converted.
The doctrine was received with particular enthusiasm in the diocese of Liège among the beguine community. Beguines were women who came to live lives of poverty and chastity and to follow a penitential life of prayer, supporting themselves by their own labour. These communities were guided in their religious practices by monks and priests and depended on priests for confession and the reception of communion. They were particularly numerous in the Low countries and the archdiocese of Cologne.
The beguines developed a particular spirituality which focused on Christ’s Passion and by association with the Eucharist, with the consecrated host becoming an object of desire. Some women wished to eat nothing but the host, others saw miracles and experienced visions. One of these beguines the prioress Juliana (c.1193-58), who served at a leper-hospital in Cornillon near Liège, experienced a repeated Eucharistic vision, the meaning of which was only revealed to her after twenty years. Her dream of the moon with a little break in part of its sphere stood for the absence of one feast in the Church that Christ wished to be celebrated. Her vision was conveyed by her confessor to the new bishop Robert de Turotte in 1240. In 1246 Robert ordered the festival of Corpus Christi to be celebrated in his diocese and the first celebration took place in that year. He died shortly afterwards, and Juliana died in 1258, but by this time the Dominicans had taken up the initiative with enthusiasm, seeing it as a useful weapon against the Cathar heretics.
In 1261 Jacques Pantaleon, formerly archdeacon of Liège, became pope as Urban IV and he brought with him to the papacy the wish to complete the project begun fifteen years earlier. In 1264 he ordered the whole church to observe the feast.
This was the first time that a universal feast was founded by a pope, which obviously makes it an event of considerable significance. A later attempt was made to link the foundation of the feast with the alleged miracle of Bolsena, but this is a tradition dating only from the fourteenth century and is therefore in Miri Rubin's opinion (p. 176) misplaced.
Because Urban died soon after the institution of the feast, it did not become secured immediately. There was not yet a well-developed papal bureaucracy to ensure that the pope’s orders were carried out. Only a handful of copies of the papal letter were issued. The Corpus Christi liturgy was composed by Thomas Aquinas, but the feast was not universally observed.
But Urban's order was confirmed by the Avignon Pope Clement V at the Council of Vienne in 1311-12 and in 1317 Clement’s his successor John XXII promulgated a bull introducing the new feast to every province of Christendom. By 1318 the new feast was celebrated at St Peter’s monastery in Gloucester. By the15th century it became, in effect, the principal feast of the church, observed on the Thursday (or, in some countries, the Sunday) after Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost). This meant that it could be held at any time between 21 May and 24 June - a time of year when the weather was likely to be warm even in northern Europe.
Though the papal bull made no mention of a procession, the procession became (and still is) the feast's most prominent feature and was a pageant in which sovereigns and princes took part, as well as magistrates and members of guilds. The Council of Sens in 1320 decreed:
Around the solemn procession which takes place on the Thursday after Pentecost octave, clergy and laity should attend the carrying of the said sacrament which was instituted by divine inspiration, and we hereby enjoin that nothing in the devotion of clergy and laity should be left out.Because it was a new feast, requiring help and encouragement, fifteenth-century popes granted indulgences attached to the procession.
In the processions, the host was carried in a costly and ornate vessel, carried by the clergy and often covered by a canopy of rich material held up by staves which were handled by prominent laymen. By the late fourteenth century most urban processions were controlled by the secular civic authorities. The eucharist could not be handled by a lay person, so its receptacle was always carried by priests, but the canopy and flags were carried by lay people, making the procession a symbol of power in the community.
The Mystery Plays
As the procession gradually moved from a predominantly religious sphere to the public and secular space, it acquired a variety of arrangements ordering political groupsround the symbolic power centre. In most English towns the unit for organization became the craft guilds and the regulating body the town council. By 1453 the Norwich Corpus Christi procession was ordered by craft: the smiths, tillers, masons and lumberman under a banner; carpenters, joiners and wheelwrights; woollen-weavers, linen-weavers, fullers and shearmen; fishmongers and freshwater fishermen; and finally haberddashers, cappers, hatters, pinners and pointmakers . After the processions more informal ceremonies followed as parishes, fraternities and religious houses withdrew from the public scene to have their dinners.
All this demonstrated hierarchy rather than civic harmony as most working people, women, children, servants and visitors were excluded.
In York in the 15th century the procession was customarily followed by the performance by guild members of miracle plays and mystery plays. The 48 York plays date from the 14th century (the first possible mention dates from 1376) and are of unknown authorship. Some of them are almost identical with corresponding plays in the Wakefield cycle, and it has been suggested that there was an original (now lost) from which both cycles descended. It is more likely, however, that the York cycle was transferred bodily to Wakefield some time during the later 14th century and there established as a Corpus Christi cycle. There was also a Chester cycle of between fifteen and twenty-five plays and there are fragments of cyclical plays from Coventry, Norwich and Newcastle.
The plays were given in York on one day, in chronological order, on pageant wagons proceeding from one selected place to another. The cycle covers the story of man's fall and redemption, from the creation of the angels to the Last Judgment; six plays are peculiar to York (the play of Herod's son, of the Transfiguration, of Pilate's wife, of Pilate's majordomo, of the high priests' purchase of the field of blood, and of the appearance of the Virgin to the Apostle Thomas).
In the last revision of the York plays, about 14 plays (mainly those concerning Christ's Passion) were redacted into powerful alliterative verse, the work of a dramatic genius, often referred to as the York Realist. The York plays have been preserved in the Ashburnham Manuscript, in the British Library.
As Catholic eucharistic teaching came under attack from Lollards and later from evangelicals, much criticism came to focus on Corpus Christi. Martin Luther: ‘
There is no feast which I detest so much as Corpus Christi’.Other feasts
Corpus Christi was merely the best example of a wider phenomenon - the growing number of feasts in late-medieval Christendon. There were many other feasts that also had their special days. From 1383 the cult of St Anne was observed on 26 July. Feasts already observed, such as the Nativity of the Virgin (8 September) were raised in solemnity by having a new vigil, involving fasting, attached. In England in the 1480s and 1490s other new feasts were established: the Holy Name of Jesus (various dates in late December and early January), the Visitation of the Virgin (2 July), the Transfiguration (6 August).
One of the most popular saints was the (fictional) Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day was 25 November.