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Carnival: Importance in Culture and Relations Within Historical Communities

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Historians studying the phenomenon of Carnival will recognize its importance in culture and relations within historical communities, such as 16th Century France, early modern England, or post-colonial Trinidad, and moreover, the underlying structures as the cause for Carnival will be of particular interest to Social and Cultural Historians. As a result, work on the subject has helped us to understand culture as an independent force that acts separately, even without the influence of politics or socio-economics.

One thing that can be understood from the study of Carnival is the different ways in which it is expressed by different cultures. Historian Peter Burke through non-European carnivals established that in some forms, Carnival could act as a moment of union between classes, as he put it: ‘Carnival may be a moment of emotional union … and even a truce in the class war’. Class is often seen as a point of contention for communities which is why this is so significant and certainly suggests that there are underlying structures at play beneath straightforward economic forces which drive society within communities. Professor Raimund Schäffner provides support to Burke’s ideas when he writes: ‘carnival emerged from its confinement to the big halls and manor houses of the privileged upper classes’ suggesting that Carnival did not exclusively apply to the working class but was practiced by all classes. Schäffner also describes Carnival as ‘a constituent element of popular culture’ which again indicates it was practiced by all different classes as ‘popular culture’ does not discriminate based on class. In this particular case, Schäffner is focusing on Carnival after the abolition of slavery in Trinidad in 1833, which he sees as a major contributing factor to the development of Trinidadian culture and consequently the Trinidad Carnival, Play Mas. In references to French settlers expressing French culture and carnival during the occupation of Trinidad, he writes: ‘slaves were barred from participation in such festivities, and . . . had separate celebrations in their own quarters’, which provides evidence to why Carnival in Trinidad may be a celebration of unity, rather than rebellion, and how individuals in Trinidad demonstrate Carnival as irrelevant of class, yet relevant of culture. Burke mentions Carnival in Trinidad in Varieties of Cultural History however he does detail the impact of slavery, although he does emphasize the impact of female participation in the Carnival, for example; ‘Thus an English officer in Trinidad in 1826 noted that ‘ a party of ladies, having converted themselves into a party of brigands, assailed me in my quarters.’’ which would suggest Carnival in Trinidad was more inclusive to women as well as classes. When compared to European carnivals, which were often not so inclusive, Burke writes: ‘the carnivals of the Americas contrasts with traditional European customs, in which a woman’s place was generally on the balcony’. This supports the argument that Carnival in Trinidad focused more on a union of individuals with shared culture as a result of the Trinidadian experience of Slavery and did not discriminate based on class. Burke however does reference the New World’s experience of Slavery in Salvador: ‘the Salvador carnival focused on Zumbi, leader of the rebel slave community of Palmares’ which directly supports Schäffner’s idea of slavery being a contributing force toward a cultural carnival where classes are united instead of divided, and shows how the cultures, in this case, of Trinidad and Salvador translate freedom from slavery into a carnival culture. Social and cultural historians such as Peter Burke are particularly interested in the underlying structures responsible for events such as Carnival within communities, in particular those which lie even beneath economic and political forces. In the case of Trinidad and Salvador, the structures are made up by the cultural heritage and connections developed after slavery which encompasses their respective societies, importantly regardless of class. This means that the works of these historians have helped us to understand culture as a force within its own right, not simply a consequence of political or socio-economic changes, which makes events in history, such as Carnival easier to understand and discover causes of.

Whereas with Burke on Trinidad, where Carnival was enacted as a union between classes, in the works of third-generation Annales School Historian, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who focused instead on communities in 16th Century France, Carnival is enacted as an expression of class tension instead, with much of his focus going toward the culmination of this tension in the Mardi Gras Carnival. An important concept to understand when studying Ladurie’s works and especially his book Carnival in Romans is the idea of Microhistory, by which a small, perhaps insignificant community is analyzed, which in this case is the town of Romans in the province of Dauphiné, France, in which, as quoted by Ladurie: ‘one Romans family in seven or eight belonged or aspired to the moneyed elite’ showing that the town’s population contained a significant peasant majority. Ladurie also describes the population of Romans as a ‘divided citizenry’ which indicates class tension in the town, as the majority of the wealth is owned by a minority of the population. Given this information, Romans can be seen as a town with a community divided by class between the peasants and the elite, which stands in contrast to the communities of Trinidad and Salvador previously discussed. Ladurie emphasizes in Carnival in Romans the translation of this division, through Carnival into violence, for example, describing the ‘cannibalistic fantasies’ of parading members of the less wealthy St. Blaise’s fellowship ‘Crying flesh of Christians, six deniers the pound’ when jeering at the ‘notables’. Whilst Ladurie makes the distinction that these cries were ‘half-jesting’, he later comments: ‘The agricultural workers and craftsman’s pantomimes . . . rapidly turned political as they continued throughout the week’, which forebodes the violence that would occur, Ladurie describing as: ‘more intense than simple street fighting in a town of 7000 inhabitants’. Ladurie’s description of this is supported by that of Liewain Scott Van Doren, who describes Carnival and revolts in the late 1570s as ‘their fight against privilégiés’, indicating a form of violence against the elite. Indeed, in reference to the events previously mentioned on the Day of St. Blaise, Van Doren points out that ‘the Day of St. Blaise was used by the drapers . . . to assert their presence as a special group within the community’. 

For context, the primary production industry in Romans in 1580 was the textiles industry. A large portion of merchants in Romans would have been drapers, and Ladurie, in Carnival in Romans describes Guérin’s belief that ‘God had made the drapers, carders and others who had plotted the 1579 St. Blaise’s Day festivities lose their hearts and minds’ reinforcing the disconnect between the peasants or ‘leaguers’ and the elite or ‘gentle-folk’ in Romans, which would lead to the massacre in 1580. Ladurie does mention that during the Carnival, the thinking of the gentle folk, led by Guérian was not so disconnected from the thinking of the Leaguers, led by Paumier. He writes: ‘The Croquants’ God was on permanent call in their judicial revolt’ and ‘No doubt it was much the same with the oral pronouncements of the discontented Dauphiné peasants and townsfolk’, showing that it was religion which connected the cultures between the two participating masses. Ladurie also notes: ‘Death made Paumier the Christ of the revolt’, cementing this idea further, however, this did not stop the massacre from happening or reduce the antagonism between the two groups, and Ladurie states: ‘The Leaguers were more men of action than of words’ suggesting the Leaguers had less time for religion, resulting in a point of class tension. Whilst the Annales School, certainly in the First and Second generations focused more so on quantitative work and structures, the Third Generation began to shift the focus more toward culture with a particular emphasis on Microhistory, and the attempt to understand the thoughts, emotions, and consequent actions of the common individual, especially with Ladurie. The Mardi Gras Carnival provides a Micro-historical insight into the underlying structure of culture in the working-class community in Romans and as such would be of interest to Social and Cultural Historians, including the Annales. Furthermore, the study of Microhistory introduced by Ladurie with the Carnival in Romans helps us to understand that the previously mentioned structure of culture was a major driving force in the Carnival, translated into violence through the community in Romans, and this may be applied to other areas of history, where culture is a driving force for events in its own right.

Marxist Historian E.P. Thompson takes yet a third approach to the study of Carnival. The concepts of union between classes and class tension have already been discussed, but Thompson, who in his works, refers often to Carnival in France as ‘Charivari’ and in England as ‘Rough Music’, depicts it as hostility by communities toward individuals who are seen to have transgressed social normalities in an attempt to ostracise or punish them. Thompson focuses exclusively on the English experience of charivari and mentions the concept briefly in his work from 1963, The Making of the English Working Class when he quotes: ‘both the ideas and the institutions arose in response to certain common experiences . . . In the simple cellular structure of the friendly society, with its workaday ethos of mutual aid’. Thompson states this in reference to the development of working-class community culture in England, or the development of plebian culture. Ultimately, Thompson’s Making does not examine his idea of Charivari or Rough Music in-depth, but his article ‘Rough Music Reconsidered’ provides more of an insight into it. In said article, Thompson quotes: ‘Rough Music is the term which has been generally used … to denote a rude cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually directed mockery or hostility against individuals who offended against certain community norms’ which establishes the effective definition of Thompson’s ‘Rough Music’. He elaborates on this with a description of the universal form of Rough Music as ‘raucous, ear-shattering noise, unpitying laughter, and the mimicking of obscenities’ which Thompson conveys is intended to be directed at a certain individual, and that despite differences in Rough Music across the British Isles ‘were so various that it is possible to view them as distinct species’, the idea of noise as a crucial aspect in showing hostility remains the same. Indeed, noise being a major factor of Rough Music is reflected in an article by Martin Ignram where he supports Thompson’s argument: ‘Basic to all of them was mocking laughter’, although, as well as noise, Thompson also details physical aspects that can occur during Rough Music, such as dancing, miming and parading, and this is reflected once again by Ingram upon describing a form of Carnival that occurred in Wiltshire in 1618: ‘Stones were thrown at the windows, an entry forced, and Agnes Mills was dragged out of the house, thrown into a wet hole, trampled, beaten, and covered with mud and filth’.

This also demonstrates Thompson’s concept of Rough Music as hostility toward individuals, through audible and physical methods. Ingram gives an example of some of the causes of these violent outbursts in the form of domination of a male by a female or ‘cuckoldry’: ‘These domestic situations, especially female domination, were the most usual occasions for charivaris in early modern England’. These points spearhead Thompson’s idea that Carnival is a form of targeting certain individuals who are perceived to have acted against the community, and social/cultural Marxist historians such as Thompson have been so interested in this as it helps to understand the cultural structures formed within a community which drives communal hostility and violence, especially as Thompson intended to incorporate cultural history into a Marxist narrative. This has furthermore helped us to understand communal structures that exist beneath basic economics – culture as its own, independent force in historical theory.

To conclude, social and cultural historians have been interested in Carnival for similar reasons; mostly that relating to the underlying structures which exist beneath the basic economic and political forces – the structure of culture, and the work of these historians has helped us to understand culture as its own force, often left out by previous historiographers such as Karl Marx, however, emphasized by historians such as Burke, Ladurie, and Thompson. 

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Carnival: Importance in Culture and Relations Within Historical Communities. (2022, July 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
“Carnival: Importance in Culture and Relations Within Historical Communities.” GradesFixer, 07 Jul. 2022,
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