|Pieter Brueghel: The Fight between Carnival and Lent.|
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|
|King's Fool, 1555|
|frescoe of fool from church|
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.
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.
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|
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|
|silver figure of Chr. IV, Rosenborg Castle|
|beat the cat of the barrel|
|Masquerade in Copenhagen in the 18th century|
Source: Projekt Runeberg, Dagligt liv i Norden i det sekstende Århundrede, 1914.