Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fastelavn (Shrovetide) in 16th Century's Scandinavia

Pieter Brueghel: The Fight between Carnival and Lent.
In the 16th century's Scandinavia people celebrated Fastelavn for a whole week, but in our days Fastelavn has been reduced to the Monday of Fastelavn. The old Fastelavn's feast is now local carnivals or Fastelavn's processions all over the country. The Monday of Fastelavn is no more a day off,  people are working, children are at school, only the kindergarten celebrate the day. The children are dressed up in fancy costumes, they "beat the cat of the barrel", and a little cat king or cat queen is chosen. In the 16th century the streets  were a noisy chaos during the Fastelavn's festivities. Intoxicated people, dressed up and wearing masks, without or with clothes, were crowding in the narrow streets, running from house to house making fun and mischief.

 Running Fastelavn
To run Fastelavn was the most important content of the February feast, it was an undistinctive term of either be made a fool or be made ridiculous, but it was the quintessence of all joy and fun people might invent, when they really wanted to have fun. Running Fastelavn was to appear in disguise, and the dress demanded the obligation to play the role you had taken on, but at the same time it gave you freedom to do and to pretend, what you liked. This evoked a form of life, which changed the Fastelavn's week in even the most decent town into a noisy madhouse.

It was a common and popular joy to dress up, and even the clerics enjoyed the vicious freedom in disguise, the Catholic clerics were as much to blame as the Lutheranians. It is known from a document that priests, parish clerks and students dressed up as monks or in other disguise and were running about in the streets behaving like crazy. But a regulation from Christian II threatened them that they would lose their skin, if they were caught redhanded. In 1560 the bishop of Sjælland had to threaten the clerics that their names were sent to the king's vasal, and they would be punished.

The dress of disguise was varied , but it seems that people nearly always wore a mask, either a black silken mask or a character mask. When Frederik II in 1560 wanted to celebrate Fastelavn at Nyborg castle, he sent for all the masks he could get hold of at the mask-makers. Such masks were very expensive. A nobleman left several Fastelavn's masks to his wife in his will, and she also inherited two masks with beard. Maybe she might needed them for her next husband!

monks and nuns dresses from 1555
The dresses were often quite simple. Some guys - who were running Fastelavn in Ribe in 1604 - were all masked, but that was almost all. One wore a short woolen shirt, the other a pillow on his back, the third was ligthly dressed in two baby napkins. But princes and rich people spent lots of money on their Fastelavn's dress. A French tailor received 400 kroner in advance in 1562 from Erik 14. of Sweden  for a Fastelavn's dress, and the Danish king Frederik II sent for dresses in Netherland and mummery dresses from England at a sum of 2.400 kroner - a fortune at that time. The ardour of taking part in the Fastelavn's running was immense, both in rich and poor. It's a very significant little story, when a priest's daughter in 1589 denied to lend out two Fastelavn's dresses to her noble friend. A nobleman, who was a friend of her friend, grew so angry  that he broke all the windows in the priest's house. This was not just a little thing to do. Windows were extremely costy.

King's Fool, 1555
frescoe of fool from church
The merriments in the streets were of a very free and unbridled nature. Everything was allowed in these eight days. People from the countryside mostly chose to dress up like aristocrats and imitated the knights' games etc., but people in the town had more sense of the comedy, and they had a large and grateful audience in the city. Three kinds of disguise were the most popular. The first was the fool's dress. It was so commonly used that the word "Fastelavn's Fool" became a description of any disguise. A joke was hidden in this, often repeated by moral people, who claimed that the fools were not in disguise, they were just their natural self. People actually had an idol in the real fools, the court jesters. Their dress was similar to the Fastelavn's dress. They wore bells and they were stuffed in various ways. The guy, mentioned in Ribe with a pillow on his back, was possibly dressed up like a fool. Most fools were equipped with a weapon called a brisk, and they were running in the streets hitting people on their backs.

common bath
Another common disguise was men dressed like women and vice versa. In England this kind of disguise  was mostly called mummery, but in Scandinavia and Germany it was considered a common Masquerade dress. This unusual way of dressing made the figures peculiar and funny and the scenes in the streets were unscrupulous beyond all description. A third disguise was also used commonly - and it was easy to recognize. The role was to appear naked or almost naked, only wearing a mask. This dressing up would be impossible today, but the contemporary concepts were different from ours. People in that period of the Middle Ages were accustomed to common baths, common bedrooms, even common poster beds for both sexes. The naked body was not considered offending like it was later on. When emperor Karl V. , 20 year of age, held his entry in Antwerp, he was received by a procession of the noblest and most beautiful virgins of the town, only dressed in transparent thin gauze, and this was actually more offensive to the decorum than the naked people of Fastelavn, where everything was allowed.

medieval feast.
A Fastelavn's Day is described in a document from 1555:  "There was a deafening noise and an incredible chaos, when all town was up and running, everyone took part, dressed up as fools, monks, nuns, devils, storks on stilts, others crawling on all fours, with or without clothes, they were all crowding in the narrow streets, crying and shouting from every window and running in and out of all the houses". Some strange processions showed from time to time, like four men holding each corner of a sheet with a doll dressed as a body, they were flinging this doll up and down in the air and catching it in the sheet. The whole scenery was quite different from what is happening today in the local carnivals.

Anyone who wore a mask was allowed to enter any house. The possibility of fooling friends and relations was numerous, and it was very tempting to be an anonymus guest and look everywhere you wished for. It was easy to misuse this custom, especially at public houses, where people, wearing a mask, could live for free all week. Some public places like Guild houses, introduced prohibitions forbidding people to enter the club with a "closed face". The custom was however alive for a long time and was later inherited by the Masquerades. In Frederik IV's rule anyone who wanted to, could meet up at the weekly court Masquerades in Copenhagen.

mummery dresses
All this Fastelavn's running had its bad sides. The moral had been given up all week, every limit was gradually exceeded, all houses were opened, men in women's dress, women in men's dress,  most people were according to the contemporary custom more or less intoxicated  - all this had to result in worrying consequences, and there were many complaints about all the immorality and frivolity coming from Fastelavn.

There were lots of other customs during the Fastelavn's week, some were connected to the weekdays and their names, like White Tuesday, where peope were drinking warm milk and eating white bread; this day was also called Fat Tuesday, (mardi grass in France), in England it was sometimes called Panncake Tuesday. Next day was  Ash Wednesday, where people had ashes smeared in their face. Ash Wednesday came from the Catholic time, where people met up in church marked in their forehead with a cross of ashes.

carnival rod(Fastelavnsris)
Some Fastelavn's customs in the 16th century Scandinavia reminded about a time before the Middle Ages. Ancient traces from a celebration of spring and fertility are seen in some of the customs. One has stubbornly survived:  the use of a carnival rod, which earlier was used for whipping women. The heathen Roman feast in February month had a similar custom. Women were voluntarily being whipped by men, because they believed this increased their fertility. The carnival rod had the same decorations through centuries; the same figures were used, like the wrapped child, two doves, or a stork with a child in its beak etc. Today children are whipping up their parents on Sunday of Fastelavn, and their carnival rod is decorated with candy and funny things.  Another ancient custom was a plough being drawn by unmarried women. It was said to be a penance for frivolous dance in the previous year. Familiar to this was a strange custom of halfnaked women running races with guys.

Traces of an original feast of spring and fertility is often seen in customs and folklore, which is known from England and Scotland, but also known in Denmark. St. Valentine's day still plays an important role in England. The old custom was to mix men and women's names in a vessel and then draw lots to see who would be sweethearts. Shakespeare mentions this custom in his Midsummernight's Dream. In some places in Jutland was a similar custom. Young people were divided in couples -  a bachelor was chosen as the street guy (DK: gadebasse) and a girl was his street lamb (DK: gadelam). They decided and divided the rest of the couples - and this arrangement applied for the whole next year. The leader, the street guy, was a guy who had distinguished himself in the horseriding of Fastelavn or by throwing a fire from the bonfire highest up towards the sky. This custom was probably known since before the Middle Ages.

fight between summer and winter, 1555
An old Danish custom was to let two persons fight a duel, one was "the winter", the other "the summer". This fight was held in great solemnity. Each person was on horseback and was followed by a flock of guys, also on horseback, all equipped in a way which suited their role. There was a deeper meaning in this fight, since some church services were connected to it. The two main persons, winter and summer, who had to lead the flock, were chosen on the Sunday of Fastelavn, "Meat Sunday" (DK: Flæskesøndag),  and on Thursday they all "rode into the field" and fought the battle. On Friday all the participants were gathered in church for sacrifice, and after this was in the Catholic period held a soul mass. So,a heathen spring feast and a Christian immortality faith had entered into a union. Still a long time after the reformation the custom was still in use at Sjælland, where the farm guys, who followed the summer person, " the Summer Guys",  met in church and sacrificed.
 A few small customs, also belonging to a feast of spring and fertility, were to gather eggs and chase the rooster. A big number of eggs were placed on a ploughed field, a frozen meadow or alike, and people were commanded to gather eggs and bring them one by one to a certain place. The work was done by two duellants or by one, who had to finish before another one had been running so and so far. The hurry and the insecure foothold in the rough field made it difficult to keep the eggs without breaking them. To chase the rooster was to chase a set loose rooster, often for hours until it fell from terror or fatigue. In England it was a common Fastelavn's custom to have a cockfight, especially on White Tuesday, to beat and mistreat cocks, until they died. This was still an amusement at court in the 16th century and a folk custom for a long period. According to legend the custom origined from that the cocks had once awoken the Danes, when the English had conspired to murder their suppressors, and from that time they took revenge on the cocks by beating them to death on the date of their sin. But the custom was probably older and of another origin, which is seen from its wide spread. At the Ringkøbing district in Jutland it was still in the 1800s an amusement of Fastelavn to run a cock down and twist its head, which wasn't easy, since it was smeared in soap. It's not unlikely that these plays have rests of ancient fertility feasts.

sword dance, 1555
In the sworddance the participants had been training a long time beforehand. A flock of men went into a ring with their swords exposed, which in step with the music were swung over the head, while they were clashed together or thrown, and they caught each others sword, while the dancers formed various figures, especially the so-called rose. The music was slow in the beginning and solemn, but grew faster and faster, and the steps of the dancers, the swings of swords grew wilder and wilder. This dance was considered so decent that even clerics were allowed to take part. The words they sang during the dance, told about a fight between Stærkodder and Charlemagne,  in which Charlemagne was the victor.

silver figure of Chr. IV, Rosenborg Castle
Ring jousting in Sønderjylland (the South of Jutland) is celebrated on the Friday of Fastelavn. The game was an imitation of the nobility's game on Sunday or Monday. The ring was put on a rope hanging between two dugged trees, a so-called gallow, and it was so high that the horseman could gallop under it. This is similar to Christian IV's ring jousting, as he's seen in a silver figure at Rosenborg Castle. It is also common use in Sønderjylland to have rings in three different sizes, the smallest ring is called the king ring, and if it is hit three times the victor has achieved the title of king, while he who has hit no ring, is called a monk and has a straw around his waist.

beat the cat of the barrel
The custom of beating the cat of the barrel is probably the most wellknown Fastelavn's enjoyment. It was brought to Denmark with a Dutch colony, which settled on Amager south of Copenhagen in the beginning of the 1500s. The play was originally done from horseback with spear shafts like in the ring jousting, but instead of the rope for the ring a small barrel had been hung up, and the bottom of the barrel had to be hit and encounter, and the trapped cat or cats jumped out. It was later explained as the rest of a heathen superstition, where the cat was the moon and a symbol of darkness, which had to disappear for the growing dayligt, but maybe it is more likely that it was never more than fun and just some new ring jousting with new funny accessories, and the proof might be that the milk barrel was the thieving place of the cat. To beat the cat of the barrel spread from around 1700, and it was more and more used in Denmark, it came to Jutland too, but was here mixed with the custom to chase a rooster -  in the middle of the 19th century they beat the cat or a rooster of the barrel, they were always living cats, but people had pity enough to be aroused though, and in the second half of the 19th century the barbaric treatment of cats had stopped, and the way of beating the barrel had changed. Today the cat in the barrel is a picture of a cat and the barrel is filled with candy. As mentioned before it is now a funny game for children in the kindergarten.

Masquerade in Copenhagen in the 18th century
But the Fastelavn's week grew wilder and wilder, and the authorities got more and more aware of the problems. Several prohibitions were introduced. Clerics had already been forbidden to run Fastelavn, now came the time for the students at Copenhagen University in 1595. Strict prohibitions arrrived in the 1600s, but it was not possible to abolish the popular feast in no time. Still in the middle of the 18th century there was trouble in the streets, but a new attraction and entertainment arrived, which helped to end the Fastelavn's running - namely the familiar Masquerades. They were introduced to the Scandinavian courts in the 17th century, and at the end of the century they were a permanent part of their winter amusement. The mask balls were introduced in the 18th century, and they became common not only at court, but also among the citizens. In 1803 public Masquerades were allowed all over the country.  The old connection to Fastelavn was manifested by that Masquerades usually were celebrated in the Fastelavn's period - and a memory about their origin is present in their name Carnival, which means "Goodbye meat".

Source: Projekt Runeberg, Dagligt liv i Norden i det sekstende Århundrede, 1914. 


Venetian Mask



Out on the prairie said...

love that mask, almost like the Mardi Gras

Thyra said...

Hej Steve!
Yes, the masks are very pretty and little works of art. The Venice Carneval seems to have especially beautiful costumes and masks.
Grethe ´)