Food for Thought III: A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque

Mark Hailwood

This is the third and final post in a series introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first, here for the second). The previous post concluded on Pierre Bourdieu’s point that the cultures of different social groups were relational to one another. But what was the nature of this relationship? It can be interpreted in a number of ways. Elias, for instance, as I mentioned in the previous post, tended to think that the cultural practices and preferences of the elites gradually ‘percolated’ down through the rest of society. Sometimes a similar argument is made with reference to the term ’emulation’ – the idea that lower social groups tend to ape the culture of higher social groups, and that this in turn causes those higher social groups to reinvent themselves to maintain their sense of distinctiveness and superiority.



A rather different way of looking at the relationship between the cultures of different social groups can be seen in our next concept that has proved popular with historians of food and drink – Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’. Bakhtin was a Russian literary critic, most famous for his book about the French Renaissance humanist Francois Rabelais, published in 1965 (although written under the Stalinist regime during WWII) Rabelais and His World. In the book, Bakhtin argued that Rabelais’ work provided a valuable insight into what he called the ‘folk culture’ of early modern Europe. If Elias’ conduct books could reveal the eating and drinking culture of European elites, what Bakhtin termed ‘official culture’, then Rabelais had written a carefully observed account of the consumption practices and dispositions prevalent amongst ordinary men and women.

[This in itself is often disputed by critics – Rabelais was hardly an ‘ethnographer’, his work ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’, on which Bakhtin bases his theories, is in fact often considered to be one of the first novels – but one which for Bakhtin had much to say about actual folk culture]

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent  Pieter Bruegel, 1559

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
Pieter Bruegel, 1559

Central to this folk culture – and especially to its rituals of eating and drinking – was a ‘spirit of carnival’. What were its key characteristics? One was that it tended to produce drinking rituals that reflected an ‘idealised’ world rather than a real one: moments of sociability and consumption represented ‘the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance’. A second key characteristic– and this brings us back to the relationship between different social groups and their cultures – was that it set itself up in direct opposition to official culture.

Indeed, within folk culture many of the cornerstones of ‘civility’ were turned on their head: whereas civility demanded bodily control, carnival was rampantly physical, sexual, immoderate, marked by the excessive consumption of food and drink, and the indulgence of bodily urges and pleasures:

Indulging bodily pleasures

Indulging bodily pleasures

Bakhtin also argued that whereas official culture was serious and sober carnival culture was marked by humour and laughter: both of a joyous nature, and of a satirical kind. In an  attack on ‘civilised’ official culture this humour was often scatological, playing on the amusing nature of bodily functions – it was not an unusual prank, for instance, to leave a turd at the gate of an unpopular local lord in early modern England. If this might sound something like the ‘wild anarchy’ that Ben Jonson spoke of in our previous post, it was not, Bakhtin would argue, in any sense ‘mindless’ anarchy. Rather, he saw it as deliberately and self-consciously anti-authoritarian – designed as an affront to elites and their cultural preferences.

But was this carnivalesque folk culture really that subversive? It tends to be associated – by Bakhtin and others – with special festive occasions: feast days and holy days, not necessarily with more routine eating and drinking practices. In fact, historians have often argued that this kind of anarchic behaviour was not only sanctioned but positively encouraged by elites and the authorities, but only on these special festive occasions. That way it could serve as a kind of ‘safety-valve’, allowing the lower orders to let off steam and be as subversive and indulgent as they liked, so that they could then return to their ‘normal’ state of being obedient and abstemious until the next feast came around. This way, any animosity the lower orders might feel towards their social superiors would not be able to build up and explode into a revolutionary uprising.

Francois Rabelais: riotous writer

Francois Rabelais: riotous writer

Of course, this ‘safety-valve’ theory relies on the assumption that this carnivalesque spirit could be restricted to particular occasions – but was this really the case? Bakhtin was able to show that it was often found in forms of popular literature, and of course in the writings of Rabelais, and we might ask whether it spilled over into the more routine drinking culture of the alehouse as well as onto the printed page. In one instance from Langport, Somerset, in 1611, drinking companions who had been up all night boozing at an alehouse dressed up as bishops – with one using a cushion on his head to represent the three-cornered bishop’s hat – and held a mock court, in which they ridiculed the authority of the local church courts.

This kind of ritual – involving dressing up, mocking laughter, excessive drinking and the inverting of established hierarchies and authorities – could well be seen as being imbued with the spirit of carnival, and we might think about whether carnival culture was something more than just episodic, only associated with festive occasions.There are, of course, limitations with this concept too though. For a start, it begs the question of whose culture is really opposing whose? Bakhtin seems to suggest that folk culture set itself up to deliberately offend elites. But if we think back to Elias, his theory seems to suggest that ‘civility’ was actually an emerging concept across our period, and that it was the elites who were creating a new culture that was different to the wild anarchy indulged in by the common man. In other words, had folk culture perhaps always been like this, and in the middle ages had to some extent been shared by both elites and ordinary people, before ‘civility’ had gained credibility (something that is often seen to occur after the Renaissance)?

51DzFVzn+RL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Indeed, the most influential cultural historian of early modern Europe – Peter Burke – suggests just that – a shared ‘popular culture’ in the medieval period, in which all classes joined together in excessive drinking on festive occasions, gave way to a cultural split between civil elites on one hand and the carnivalesque common people on the other – but it was really the elites who were setting up in opposition to folk culture, not vice versa. Bakhtin may well be guilty of valorising folk culture here then – certainly not an unusual sin amongst historians – and according it a defiant and purposeful anti-authoritarian edge that may have actually been more defensive than offensive. [We might forgive him his enthusiasm for anti-authoritarianism when we remember he was writing this under the Stalinist regime]

Another problem here though – with both Burke and Bakhtin – is that they tend to draw a rather rigid line between the cultures of ‘elites’ on one hand and ‘folk culture’ on the other. Historians of drinking in early modern England have actually stressed that even elite drinking could be rather more carnivalesque, and indeed humourous, than these models allow.

That is, I think, a good place to draw these posts to a close. As I said at the outset, all of these concepts have played some part in influencing the ways historians of food and drink in early modern England have thought about their subject. But, as you will have noticed, these theories have rarely been accepted ‘wholesale’, and all have been subject to various critiques, revisions, and adaptations. To use the obvious metaphor, we might think of them as a finger buffet or a wine list: something from which historians might pick and choose depending on personal taste and circumstances. Still, to choose effectively, it helps to have at least some idea of what is on offer. Hopefully these posts have provided a navigable, if cursory and partial, menu.


3 thoughts on “Food for Thought III: A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque

  1. Thanks for this great series of posts, Mark. The notion of ‘misrule’ and ‘carnivaleque’ is something that I’ve be talking about a lot with my students in the last term. The notion of a ‘safety valve’ or ‘opposition’ is definitely something that we’ve been thinking about.

    Of course, in the case of early modern England, the other factor that was very important is Protestantism, especially Puritanism. Following Burke, this would be an example of elite (or at least ‘official’) culture separating itself from, and trying to supress, folk culture. However, this could then spur ‘the folk’ to start using festive misrule as a more directly oppositional, anti-authoritarian, purposeful critique. A festival that was a ‘safety valve’ in 1500 might become a political statement in 1600, even more so in 1650.

    • Yes, thanks Brodie – good point. Of course, it is complicated by the fact that certain sections of the elite (and certainly of officialdom) were actually supportive of festive culture – not least of all both James I and Charles I, as demonstrated in their issuing of the Book of Sports. So festivals were certainly politicised in early modern England, but it is not necessarily the case that they were always anti-authoritarian.

  2. Pingback: History Carnival 145: Elections, Bodies and Wars in History | George Campbell Gosling

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