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The Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season

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“…one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season…”–Edgar Allan Poe “The Cask of Amontillado”

Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, Louisiana

Although Americans do not have a monopoly on Carnival, when we think of Mardi Gras, New Orleans inevitably comes to mind. Given the volume of visitors and events that take place in the city during this season, it is no surprise that the Code of Ordinances:  City of New Orleans, Louisiana has a whole chapter dedicated to the occasion:  Chapter 34-Carnival, Mardi Gras. I find these ordinances (and law, in general) interesting because we seldom think of the role law plays in implementing practices.  In fact, if we were to ponder this for a bit, we would realize that many of our customs stem from legally effected (cultural) change. I, personally, find Article V particularly interesting.  It addresses all manner of nuances concerning “Throws and Throwing.” (And as some of the provisions make mention of more risqué matters, I will leave it up to you to read further into the Ordinances of La Nouvelle-Orléans.)  So, when in New Orleans, do as the New Orleanians Now, motley-clad jesters or parade participants, you should know that “No Mardi Gras parade participant shall knowingly throw any doubloon, trinket or other throw which would be redeemable for or entitle the bearer to a prize or a discount on the price of any food, beverage, merchandise, service or admission to any event or which displays, conveys or communicates any commercial, political or religious message.”

Charles V

Let’s take a little detour here:  Did that say doubloon?  What is this, New France or New Spain?  Well, that’s where it all gets stirred up a bit.  The first expedition made by Europeans to this region occurred in the 16th century by a conquistador named Pánfilo de Narváez during the reign of Charles V, who held all of the following titles:  the Holy Roman Emperor; King of (the) Spain(s), Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia; Count Palatine of Burgundy;  and Emperor of Germany, among others.  Without veering too far off the subject, it would seem that Spain’s influence in this area was not small.  In fact, the coins (doubloons) used as Mardi Gras favors may be just one hint of a Spanish past. 

Another might be the king cake. Although France had its own Galette des Rois, these king cakes, according to BBC Good Food, are a “puff pastry pie filled with frangipane.”  Now, certainly Southern France has its Gâteau de Rois (aka Couronne de Rois and/or Brioche des Rois), which resembles an annular cake–like the Rosca de Reyes or Roscón de Reyes that is prepared in Spain and many Hispanic American countries.  But, according to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the geographic origins of the immigrants reflect the importance of Atlantic France in the migratory trend.  Over two-thirds of Canadian and Acadian colonists came from the Atlantic coast, considered in a very broad sense. […] More specifically, 39% of immigrants came from the northwest, 19% from the centre west and 11% from the southwest.

Consider this:  the settlers of New France (which included modern-day Louisiana) came from Northern and Northwestern France.  And the seasonal pastry of this region resembles a pie. Perhaps then, the encounter in Louisiana between the Spanish and the scant population of Southern French provenance gave way to the current king cake shape.

For those who may not know, Carnival Season, as it is celebrated today, begins on the day of Epiphany (the arrival of the Magi).  And Carnival Season culminates on the Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday, also known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, which marks the (technical) end of king cake season. Although many associate the king cake almost exclusively with Fat Tuesday on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, in reality that celebration is a common festivity for many modern countries that once were part of or had ties to the Roman Empire.

The precursor to this Christian celebration may be the pagan feast of SaturnaliaThis was a celebration in honor of the god of Roman religion and myth, Saturn. Keep in mind that many Roman myths and lore are derivatives of their Greek counterparts; therefore, some countries associated with the Greek Empire of the Hellenistic Period have common practices. During the festivities of Saturnalia, wars were deferred; slaves and masters were able to move as social equals; executions were also deferred and criminals were pardoned; and, like some of our modern-day practices, gifts were exchanged.  This was to be a time of complete and uninhibited leisure and merrymaking.

Now this notion of the master and slave being equals led to later practices of role reversal.  The festivities included imbibing copious amounts of wine and consuming rich foods without restraint.  This gave way to an environment of carnival that led to a reversal of social norms; and gambling, which was an otherwise forbidden vice, was permitted. Some of the social reversals included the lords of the house serving the slaves.  In fact, one of the traditions associated with the king cake was that the slave who got the piece of cake with the fava bean, trinket, or coin in their piece of cake entitled him to be king for the day.

The modern concept of carnival with masks may date back to medieval Venice (or earlier) or as late as early modern Florence.  A particular aficionado of Carnival was Pope Leo X (but I’ll let you read about him).   Each year the people waited for the pope to issue an edict, which allowed for the festival to take place. However, the celebration of carnival was not foreordained.

To further illustrate the purpose of masquerades in a social setting, Baldassare Castiglione‘s piece of courtesy literature, Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), states that

There are certain other exercises that can be practiced in public and in private […], but which would perhaps little befit a gentleman.  Yet privately, in a chamber, […] he could be allowed to try this, and try morris dances and branles as well; but not in public, unless he is masquerading […] because masquerading carries with it certain freedom and license. (102-3)

So wherever you may celebrate, keep your mask on, and have a safe and happy Mardi Gras!

For more information on renaissance dance pieces, see this article from the Library of Congress American Memory collection on Western Social Dance.

Portions of information contained in this blog post comes from an article presented at an LC Hispanic Cultural Society function in January 2013:  King Cake?  But It’s Not Mardi Gras, Yet!

Comments (2)

  1. Fantastic article!!

  2. Thanks for interesting article. I was not aware that carnivals’ origin has Christian roots. I took a libert to quote your article in photo essay on Venice carnival.

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