The impact of humanism was greatest among Europe’s educated elite. It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the idea of “folk” or common people began to interest European and particularly German intellectuals. The “discovery” of the peasant who accounted for roughly 80% of the population in the Middle Ages, and whose culture and education were completely oral, led to a whole movement of research and writing about the “folk” of the earlier periods. Scholars who specialized in Renaissance folk culture found great variety in both form and function of peasant culture.
The traditions of these nonelite members of Renaissance societies took many forms. Some scholars actually invaded peasant homes to literally catch the folktales and folksongs before they died out. Some researchers studied decorated marriage chests or devotional images for insight into folk customs. Others analyzed plays, broadsides and chapbooks copied down from spoken language of the various groups of common people. Of all the popular traditions scrutinized, none was more revealing or important than the festivals, for they provided an opportunity to observe. What people did in a festival, how they acted and what the parts of the festival were, all gave clues to how and what people thought.
Although not every group in the Renaissance society necessarily interrelated in these community celebrations, all groups participated in some sort of celebration throughout the year. Each experience presented the society with an opportunity from which people could draw an identity and a sense of community. The Church, the guilds, the commoner and royalty all found rituals and symbols to express their place and purpose in society. A mirror of society, Renaissance festivals presented not so much a sample as an anatomy of society, a way to examine the qualities of the society, its essence. Peter Burke defines and describes this popular culture and reveals the underlying attitudes and values shaping early European society in his book
Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe
. Much of the information in the next several sections is based on his study.