How Carnival of the Middle Ages Served a Purpose Beyond Mere Fun
The carnival of the Middle Ages developed over a century as a grass roots phenomenon. It was not spectacle produced on a stage or organized by officials, but participation by everyone in which there were no masters and slaves, rulers and peasants. All were equal and anonymous at carnival. Carnival was an annual event that lasted several days. Carnival parodied the official feasts of the church and the state. At official functions rank was paramount and everyone of rank wore the trappings of their office. Carnival disposed of all the marks of office and ridicule was the order of the day.
Mikhail Bakhtin explored the images of the carnival in the work of Francois Rabelais. Bakhtin coined the word Carnivalesque to describe anything marked by mocking or satirical challenge to authority and the traditional hierarchy. Rabelais’s novel Pantagruel presents the forms and culture of the carnival. Everything that is high is made low; whatever is exalted is made common. Bakhtin calls this grotesque realism. It is the world as cosmic and universal with the bodily elements depicted as an indivisible whole which is both gay and gracious. Bakhtin views the bodily element as “deeply positive” and relates to fertility, growth and abundance. The image of carnival was Janus with the two faces representing the two extremes.
The essential element in literature relating to carnival is degradation; however, the meaning of degradation is not to insult, but to level and bring down to earth. The humor centers on exaggerated praise and violent invective in the same speech or the same sentence. Billingsgate abuse is ironic and satiric offering both insult and compliment.
The people were renewed in the carnival. It served a needed purpose in the harsh times of the Middle Ages and revitalized them as individuals and as a society. They engaged in a wild romp through the countryside or in the marketplace where they engaged in eating, drinking, sexual activity and all other bodily functions. The masks and images of carnival were exaggerated and thus served as a disguise to protect participants from undesirable consequences when normal life resumed.
At the end of the Fourth Book, the character Panurge cheerfully recites twelve words for human excrement which he calls the “fruit of the shittim tree.” It is a tribute to the value of the renewing element of fertilizer. Bakhtin interprets Rabelais’s scatological reference as unifying and humanizing.