The casual observer would be forgiven for failing to recognize Mardi Gras as a centuries-old Christian event. Indeed, there seems little Christian about the contemporary spectacle. It is a party different only in scale from the parties of any given Friday night. But there once was a time, in the late Middle Ages, when Mardi Gras was an important part of the liturgical year, when the whole Carnival season—of which it is the culmination—was an integral part of the cycle of Christian life. It was the necessary companion to Lent. But what is really fascinating is that even then it was a giant party, filled with debauchery, the mockery of religion, and the upturning of the social order. What are we to make of this? It seems paradoxical to the contemporary Christian mind, shaped as it is by the rigorously rational moral and theological perspective of modern thought. How could an enduring aspect of Christian culture be seemingly devoid of Christian content?
In the Middle Ages, Carnival was a time when the order of Christian society was undone. Not only was it a time of rampant gluttony, drinking, and general license, but it was filled with rituals of mockery of the established order. There was a king of Carnival, a jester or beggar, who mocked the real king. There was a boy bishop who would officiate at mock Masses and discipline the clergy, who (embracing the absurdity) submitted to the authority of the child prelate. The solemn liturgical procession was replaced with an unruly parade of the farcical and grotesque. It was a spectacle. Many historians and anthropologists have tried to “unpack” Carnival and undercover its “meaning.” Predictably, they tend to see Carnival as an act of subversion on the part of “folk culture” against the repressive and stuffy culture of the upper classes, or else they see Carnival as a “release valve” that allowed the masses to escape from the rigors of Christianity and blow off steam. I find these explanations to be wholly inadequate. They are attempts at shoving Carnival into modern categories of psychology, social discipline, and class conflict. Indeed, it is a mistake to view Carnival as an exception to the Medieval Christian order. Rather, it was something that had a place in Christendom because of how Christians themselves understood and practiced Christianity: in the late Middle Ages in many parts of Europe everyone from the peasant to the noble, to the priest and bishop participated—it was a part of what Christians did.
I’m not sure there is an easy explanation for Carnival. It is only with extreme difficulty that we moderns can set aside our relentlessly scientific categories of thought and so understand what the revelers were up to. But I do think that it had something to do with their understanding of sin and with their understanding of time.
In the Middle Ages there was a certain acceptance of sin. I do not mean by this that sin was okay—far from it. Rather, the fallen-ness of the world was somehow more accepted. Prostitution offers an example. Prostitution was never condoned. It was a sin. Saving prostitutes was a praised act of charity, and the evil of fornication was a regular topic of the Church’s moral exhortation. Nevertheless, only very rarely did someone try to stamp out prostitution—most of the time it seems to have been recognized as a feature of social life. Only in the beginning of Modernity did the idea emerge that all of society could be perfected through the eradication of sin and the disciplining of the populace. Before this modern theological and political trend, the tendency was to see sin and redemption as bound up together in a sort of drama—albeit one whose plot was known.
It was in this drama that Carnival had a place—but only a temporary one, which raises the issue of time. To the medieval mind there were really two courses of time. There was the linear time of sequence—one thing came after the next, forever—and there was the higher order time through which the transcendent came into contact with the immanent. This higher order of time “spiraled” around the linear, manifesting itself in the liturgical cycle. For example, the celebration of Holy Week 1253 would have been understood as “closer” to the actual passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ than would the literal week after the events in the first century. In the higher order of time, significant events of the past transcended sequence and escaped the abyss of the past. They were re-experienced, they came around again and again, and the living participants partook of their essential reality. Before the reign of Grace, there had been a time of the reign of the body, of the flesh, when sin was not recognized as such; it was a time of moral and social chaos. It seems to me that Carnival was a participation in this part of the drama of redemption. And it was fun. It was fun in the same sort of way that the prodigal son in his “far country” no doubt had fun, a fun that led ultimately to an empty and desperate life of self-loathing that could only be redeemed through a profound humbling, through begging to be allowed once more into the Father’s household, now as a slave. And so, Carnival transitioned suddenly into Lent, the time of penance and prayer, which itself ended with Easter. At Easter the faithful received the then infrequent sacraments of Confession and Eucharist and were fully incorporated into the body of Christ that was the Church. There was coherence to this sequence, a congruency between salvation history and the people’s social and ritual life.
It was only with the modern conception of time as a ubiquitous “field” on which events are played and which can be captured absolutely by the regular ticking of the stop watch that the liturgical, higher order of time receded from the Christian world-view. This combined with the modern conception of sin and of the perfectibility of society led to the loss of whatever place in Christian culture the non-sequitur absurdity of Carnival once held.
Is all this to say that the excesses of Medieval Carnival were okay, that the reformers of the modern period were wrong to condemn them as immoral? I don’t think so. Certain aspects of Carnival were immoral—that was the point. But, they were immoral in a different way than those of the typical modern affair. I think on Bourbon Street very few wake Wednesday morning and set out on the arduous, Lenten path to Easter; And without Lent and Easter, Mardi Gras is no longer a “world turned upside down,” but is rather business as usual—this is rightly condemned. Medieval Carnival is difficult to understand. It was an aspect of a culture of which little remains, and it is a mistake to think that it could or should be replicated in the modern context. Nevertheless, I do think that if our observance of Lent and Easter became a bit deeper and more rigorous, we would probably find ourselves enjoying Tuesday night a bit more.
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