Both Brueghel’s painting and that of Jan Miel provide a way into the discussion with students about the meaning and importance of holiday. To encourage students to think about the meaning of holiday before viewing these two slides, it might be helpful to ask them to either make a list of the elements of or write a brief description of the best holiday or celebration they can remember or that they might imagine. You might decide to ask students to limit their description to a traditional holiday celebration or open it up to include individual celebration. Ask them to include the special symbols of the holiday, the objects, food, dress, and behavior connected with it. Ask them to think about the setting, the activities, the people. As with people of Renaissance societies, students will have many different concepts of holiday.
After sharing and discussing the students’ ideas about the meaning of holiday, ask them to identify the
of carnival shown in both Brueghel’s painting and Jan Miel’s. There are three main categories of activities which students will easily recognize. The
(or parade) was similar to those held today in terms of length, number of floats, variety of people involved and special clothes worn. A second group of activities was
. Horse and foot races, jousts, football, boats battling and tugsofwar were activities designed to resolve the conflicts of everyday life. The third element of the carnival involved the
performance of a play
. In essence, the whole city in Jan Miel’s painting becomes a theatre without walls. The actors were the spectators, participating in mock sieges, sermons, lawsuits, and other farces. The fat carnival clown battled the thin Lenten figure in Brueghel’s carnival and the comedians acted out the “Ugly Bride.”
Once students have identified the elements of carnival, ask them to think about the themes of the activities. There were
of carnival which clearly related to the life cycle. From late December or early January when the carnival began, there was great eating of of
. Beef and pork, pancakes and waffles were the “carne” or lifegiving food. Since carne could also be interpreted as “flesh,”
found some interesting symbols in carnival activities. Sausages and other phallus symbols were often paraded through the streets. Many weddings took place in this time and record numbers of births were recorded nine months later. The third theme, one connected to resolution of conflict or death, was
. People were expected to verbally insult and criticize each other, the social structure, and authority. Sometimes activities led to destruction of property or loss of life, but these were extreme cases and rare. Since people were masked and in costume, in many instances these acts were anonymous. In all of these actions, there was the sense that in criticizing authority and the roles played in everyday life, people were appealing to their deepest values. If everything were perfect, then this is how it would be.
A final discussion topic related to Renaissance carnival might be on the
function of carnival
. This might be explored by a study of the comedy “The Wandering Scholar” by Hans Sachs (available in Teachers Institute Office). What were the purposes of carnival? Ask students to debate whether they think carnival’s primary purpose was entertainment or expression of community structure, power, and solidarity. Did carnival encourage traditional customs and therefore represent a means of social control or were the acts of violence a form of protest against the social order? What was it about the wild celebration that allowed a sober return to the normal social structure and daily routine? One way to connect students to the idea of carnivalesque behavior is to discuss the rituals associated with Halloween. Why do people wear masks and costumes? What kinds of costumes do they wear? How does behavior change? Why do people play pranks on others on the night before Halloween? Why the mischief? Why do people collect food? What elements, themes, and functions are similar to those in Renaissance celebrations?