Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy. Carnival is a big word: it spans the buffoonery of the Feasts of Fools, the erotic Saturnalia of Rome, the holy holidays of the Church’s calendar and the agricultural year, and local days of festival in which communities, for most of history, have put down their work and concentrated on enjoying themselves.

The making and sustaining of community requires deep presence and empowerment, with three key properties:

1. Radical break. This is the community’s break from the normality of the working day. Conventions are broken; there is misrule, in the medieval sense of good order being turned upside down, and stepping briefly over the edge of chaos, before—slightly changed and refreshed—stepping back into regular life.

2. Second nature is the animal spirit at the heart of the tamed, domesticated citizen: the deep reality which, if recognised and cared for, connects us with the red-blooded truth about ourselves (see “Unrealistic Expectations” sidebar).

3. Sacrifice-and-succession affirms the ability of the community to survive—to be immortal—in spite of, or because of, the death of other communities and (eventually) of its own living members. The death of individuals in the community is overcome by birth and renewal, and the failure of some communities may be essential for the survival of the system as a whole (Resilience).

Second nature, if not cared for, can go feral

In 1425, Fra Bernardino persuaded the people of Perugia to ban their Battle of Stones; an understandable reform, since the fatalities were beginning to get excessive. However, at the same time, he also insisted on an end to gambling, elaborate clothes and cosmetics. At first, citizens agreed to go along with all this, starting with a huge bonfire of the vanities in the Piazza, but the pious mood passed, and in due course they were back to their old ways—without the Battle, but with a new and exaggerated tendency to homicide and mugging.

Likewise, the saintly Savonarola’s death in 1498 released the people of Florence from similar inhibitions, and they reverted with enthusiasm to “the gambling-hells, the taverns, the brothels . . . and scenes of profanity such as Florence had never before witnessed”.C28

In a day of magic and colour, carnival enables, declares and celebrates these encounters with the nature of our situation, ourselves and our community. It is the central event of community building at the scale of the parish, as we will now explore.


Carnival: uses and origins

Carnival is, first of all, a form of ritual. There is in carnival a quality of exuberance which distinguishes it from the sedate proceedings which would usually go by that name, but it possesses, nonetheless, the seven properties of ritual:

1. Membership. Ritual is a regular meeting place, and taking part in it affirms that the participants are members of the community.C29

2. Emotional daring. The emotion felt by any one individual on his or her own is deepened and intensified when it is shared. This is poignantly illustrated in a reflection by the French historian, Jules Michelet, who, as a child, was kept away from the carnival:

My childhood never blossomed in the open air, in the warm atmosphere of an amiable crowd, where the emotion of each individual is increased a hundredfold by the emotion felt by all.C30

3. Continuity. The unchanging quality of ritual bears out beliefs and hopes about the permanence of the community.

4. Consciousness of time and events. The progression of the year, and events in the community (and in the lives of its members), are noticed and affirmed by ritual and rites of passage.

5. Practice. The practical skills required by carnival build practice — craftsmanship, with its three properties of citizenship: truthfulness, justice and courage.

6. Meaning. Ritual does not supply answers; it suggests insights and raises contradictions to be explored, to grow into through a lifetime (Ironic Space).

7. Locality. Ritual marks the community’s residence in a place. It puts down emotional roots, and makes a place you can love. And when it takes the form of carnival, local diversity goes to imaginative extremes. York’s signature carnival was the lavish display of Corpus Christi. Dunmow’s famous Flitch of Bacon is awarded to the married couple who had lived together for a year without quarrel or regret. In Orkney, carnival was organised around a ploughing competition in which the “farmers” were young boys and the “horses” were young girls. Cider-growing areas took care to have carnivals near their apple trees, and to pour cider on their roots to make them feel appreciated.C31

In the past, there were in addition two substantial assets that were brought to community by the ritual of carnival:

8. Social rank on hold. For the duration of the carnival, at least, social rank became less important, and hard to sustain with due seriousness. The carnival created its own temporary, unofficial, popular aristocracy; rank, privilege, received common sense and norms were suspended. Carnival was always, in a sense, the Feast of Fools, in which the powerful, the pompous, the monstrous, outrageous and some of the frightening aspects of society could be laughed at and made safe. A marketplace full of laughing people is hard to impress. Laughter upstages rank.C32

And ecstasy upstages rank too. It need not be ecstasy of a kind to be wary of: it can be the spectacular dancing joy we encounter in, for instance, Bach’s Freue Dich in his Cantata No. 30, music with its own precedence and authority. Unconstrained joy is an equaliser: as the historian of carnival, Barbara Ehrenreich, notes, “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to retain one’s regal dignity in the mad excitement of the dance.”C33

9. Peace. Carnival is a promoter of peace. The lack of discipline and hierarchy make carnival a poor foundation on which to build an army; other incentives to fight, such as attack by neighbours, may brush aside carnival’s preference for peace, but it is still a property of some value: carnival does not need the further excitement of war.C34


Carnival persons

The sources of carnival belong to the later history of apes as much as to the early history of humans, but here are two persons (“people” doesn’t seem to be quite the right word here) who hold a place of honour in its evolution. The first is Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy. Dionysus had a difficult start in life. Zeus (a god) was married to Hera (a goddess), but made Semelē (a mortal) pregnant. When Hera found out about this, she arranged for Semelē to be consumed by Zeus’ own lightning, but Zeus managed to rescue the foetus from the ashes and plant it in his thigh, from which in due time the young Dionysus was born. He was immediately torn to shreds on Hera’s instructions, but (providentially) his grandmother, Harmonia, was on hand to put him together again. The infant Dionysus was then to be looked after by his aunt, but this came to grief when Hera condemned her to madness, whereupon she jumped into the sea and became a sea-goddess. Finally, Dionysus was brought up by the nymphs of Mount Nysa, where his divinity became manifest, and before long he was travelling and preaching the virtues of wine, ecstasy and peace. He attracted disciples, men and women who spent their days possessed, intoxicated and dancing. But this, too, brought trouble, for the undisciplined band provided little protection against robbers, and Dionysus was kidnapped by pirates and tied to the mast. Fortunately, he was able to command the bonds to fall off him, and a vine to grow about the mast in their place. He himself turned briefly into a lion, and the alarmed sailors jumped overboard and turned into dolphins. We are not told how the ship got back to port, but evidently it did so, for Dionysus had a long and varied career ahead of him.C35

Dionysus was remarkable even by the standards of a god. Whereas other gods merely existed, Dionysus could be brought into being by dance: here was a dance-god that demanded no sacrifices but existed for the joy of the dance itself, and these were qualities which made him popular with women who, at a signal, would put down their spinning and rush off into the mountains to dance in his honour, toss their hair, drink wine and (though this bit—omophagia—might have been a wicked rumour put about by men) eat wild animals raw.C36 One day the poet Edmund Spenser’s Elfin Knight actually came across a group of women in the midst of their Dionysian dance, and he could hardly believe his eyes:

An hundred naked maidens lily white,
All raunged in a ring and dancing in delight.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 1596.C37

The second significant person in the story of carnival and dance is Jesus, and—as Barbara Ehrenreich shows—the two had much in common: both had a father-god and a mortal mother, enjoyed wine and meat, were healers, were popular with women but, it seems, had no sexual partners, were lovers of peace, defended the poor, turned water into wine, were dismissive of the citizen-virtues of work and planning ahead, and were worshipped with ecstatic dance which could bring people to a state of the deepest communion and bliss.C38

Indeed, it is a matter of some doubt whether Dionysus and Jesus can really be regarded as two persons at all, rather than as two representatives among many—Pan, Sabazios, Osiris—of a deep and sustained consciousness of our second nature: ecstatic participation in the natural world, the sacrificial gift, spontaneity—all remembered dimly, despite being overlaid by civic responsibility, by the need to be sensible, to calculate, to plan strategy, to look about warily. Our second nature is comfortable with, and secretly delights in, levitation from the laws of physics and economics, with enchanted logic taking us into the world of anti-reality and dream. It is hard to get at. It is not a matter to be talked about. But it can be danced.


Outside to play

The natural form taken by ritual is dance, and of course the music that goes with it. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, it was a danced religion, and evidently the dance could get wild. It included, for instance, hair tossing which, according to accounts from various times and places, has been one of the recurring actions of wild dance: women’s ecstatic tossing of their long hair could sometimes make it crack like a whip. St. Paul’s famous injunction that women should either keep their head covered, or at least keep their hair short, may have been intended to discourage what he saw as these excesses: “the woman [ought] to have power on her head, because of the angels”.C39

And that anxious plea that the ecstatic worshippers should cool it set the theme for a stand-off between the church hierarchy (which advocated decorum) and the worshippers (who preferred ecstasy) which has shaped the development of both carnival and churches ever since. In broad terms, music and dance are forms of extravagance, and extravagance was a virtue defended by Jesus. He approved of wine and feasting; when the woman came to him with an alabaster box of precious ointment and anointed his feet with it, prompting indignant protests from the disciples who said that it would have been better to sell it and give the money to the poor, Jesus’ reply was withering. And it happened again in his reply to Martha’s complaint about being “cumbered about with much serving” in the kitchen while her sister Mary sat in conversation with their guest:

Martha, Martha, thou art careful and trouble about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.C40

But churches increasingly began to see the bottom-up creativity of music and dance as the wrong kind of exuberance, and around the early thirteenth century, the long-held priestly assumption that the church ought to be above spontaneous joy began at last to take effect. So, carnival had to move outside—to the churchyard, the street, the village green. This was a major source of complaint, and François Rabelais’ story of what happened to the sacristan who would not let a villager borrow some priestly robes for him to wear in a play in which he had been cast as God, tells us something about how deep this ran. The villagers, armed with saucepans and sticks, ambushed the sacristan on his horse, so that the horse bolted—the sacristan fell off but caught his foot in the stirrup. When eventually the horse was caught, there was nothing left of him but the stump of his foot. Villages were evidently short of patience with people of the priestly persuasion who wanted to throw them out of the best building in the place and spoil their fun.C41

The expulsion of carnival from the churches had, however, its good, if unintended, consequences: carnival became extraordinarily developed, with dance, decoration and invention happening throughout the year, especially those parts of the year when less work was needed in the fields. We hear a lot about the hardships of the Middle Ages, the famines, plagues and wars—all true. What we find harder to believe, since it violates our right to feel smug about the wonders of modernity, is that the Middle Ages were also a time of inventive joy, an age of art, participation and festivals—all of which, as the historian E.P. Thompson notes, “were, in an important sense, what men and women lived for”.C42


The long descent

But then, with the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one, carnival began its decline. In fact, that transition has been in various states of advance or retreat for thousands of years, and reports of its death, and that of carnival’s impresario, Dionysus, have come and gone accordingly. One of them, told by Plutarch from the reign of Tiberius (14–37 AD) came in the haunting lament from the island of Palodes (where the preferred name for Dionysus was Pan). The story tells of a Greek merchant ship, whose crew, passing the island of Paxos, heard a loud cry instructing Thamus, a sailor on the ship, to pass on a message: “The Great God Pan is dead”. When they came to Palodes, Thamus duly shouted the message. In reply came a wailing and lamentation from many voices, unseen in the forest.C43

And, more subtly, a story from much earlier. Homer (c.700 BC) tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens’ voices “with enjoyment”, as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it.C44

On this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed (implications of this are discussed in Narrative Truth). As Alasdair MacIntyre notes,

The contrast, indeed the opposition, between art and life . . . provides a way of exempting art—including narrative—from its moral tasks. And the relegation of art by modernity to the status of an essentially minority activity and interest further helps to protect us from any narrative understanding of ourselves.C45

In the seventeenth century, the decline of carnival in the West began in earnest. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Ben Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St. Thomas à Becket. And the invention of firearms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but—more important than that—it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps—forty-three of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s “drill”—each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival.C46

At the same time, the loss of carnival is serious. It invites the bleak question: “What is the point?” The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early seventeenth century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief—all the dark emotions—but loneliness and anxiety . . . ? Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched) . . . ? The sense of the party being over . . . ?C47

Here, for instance, we have a solitary lament from the touch-deprived John Clare, long after the passing of carnival:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest—that I loved the best—
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

John Clare, I Am!, 1848.C48

On the other hand, we have Robert Burton’s prescription, his cure for the black humour of melancholy. Your depression would have to be truly awful not to lift when that cheerful Dr. Carnival shows up:

Let them use hunting, sports, playes, jousts, merry company . . . which will not let the minde be molested, a cup of good drinke now and then, heare musicke, and have such companions with whom thy are especially delighted; merry tales or toyes, drinking, singing, dancing, and whatever else may procure mirth.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621.C49


Carnival and community

At the start of this entry, there was a claim that carnival brings the three central properties of community building—the radical break, second nature and sacrifice-and-succession—to the making and sustaining of community. So, how have we done?

1. The radical break is there. The key insights come from Rabelais, whose subject was laughter, the language of fearlessness.C50 In a strange way, laughter confers protection, and this may help to explain why Rabelais had a long and comparatively trouble-free life, at a time when much milder criticisms of the established order would lead to their serious-minded authors being burned at the stake. Carnival is about laughter, and laughter inspires insight and solidarity; it would be going too far to say that a radical break is impossible without laughter, but it certainly helps: like the screen behind which legendary mime Marcel Marceau momentarily disappeared when switching from being a fierce giant to a terrified pigmy (and back again), laughter gives you a brief phase of invisibility in which you can change your mind, and perhaps your life, without having to explain yourself. Change? What change? In the presence of laughter, you don’t have to answer impertinent questions like that.

2. Second nature. With its folly, its jokes and lack of dignity, its laughter at the intellectual, its wildness and its equality, second nature would be a distinct nuisance if it were allowed to get involved in matters of political graft and calculation. But it is a lifeline. It is the difference between belonging to the community because you feel you ought to, and belonging to it because its artistic expression engages your soul. There is a big difference between the citizen and the soul, and Rabelais makes this plain. Here is the citizen . . .

Well, consider a man who watches over his private affairs and domestic business . . . who attends to his household . . . who keeps his nose to the grindstone . . . who understands thoroughly how to avoid the error of poverty. . . . That, according to the world, is a wise man. Yet, in the eyes of the celestial spirits, he may be the most unmitigated ass.

On the other hand . . .

And whom do those spirits consider wise? Ha, That is a horse of another colour. For them a wise man, a man not only sage but able to presage future events by divine inspiration, is one who forgets himself, discards his own personality, rids his senses of all earthly desires, purges his spirit of all human care, neglects everything.C51

3. Sacrifice-and-succession. One of the symbols of carnival is the act of giving birth. In his Italian Journey, the journal of his visit to the Roman Carnival of 1788, the poet Johann Wolf Fallacygang von Goethe describes a curious scene in the opening stages of the carnival. It is not really all that comic, nor original, nor exciting; it occupies, instead, a position in between these, a sort of mimed logo for the meaning of carnival. A group of (usually) men appears. They are dressed up in various ways: some as peasants, some as women, and one of the “women” shows signs of heavy pregnancy. A quarrel breaks out, fake swords are drawn; there is duelling and fake death. The “pregnant woman” is terrified, falls down in the street and goes into labour. The others gather round her, and in due course produce—well, a cat, perhaps, or a bag of potatoes, or a “formless object”. It is the sheer wetness of this joke which gives it significance; it seems to come from far away, borne on the wind from a Greek island, a mime of the single phenomenon of death-birth, an assertion of collective immortality.C52

And, in Goethe’s journal, the same theme comes in a collective sketch as the carnival closes. It is night-time now, and in the final procession down the Corso in the Festival of Fire, everyone has a candle—un moccolo—to carry. Then comes the chant, “Sia ammazzato chi non porta moccolo!”—“Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle!”, whereupon they try to blow out each other’s candles, sort of condemning each other to death: “Sia ammazzato il signor Padre!” “Death to you, sir father!”C53

It doesn’t seem a friendly way to end a family day out. But that process of sacrifice-and-succession, stirb und werde (die and become)—death of the parts in the interests of the whole, birth and death belonging on the same cobblestones—is as intrinsic to resilience and to continuity as oxygen is to water, and in his poem, Selige Sehnsucht, Goethe reflects on this:

Und so lang du das nicht hast,
Dieses stirb und werde,
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunkeln Erde

And as long as you do not possess
This: die and become,
You are but a gloomy guest
On the dark earth.C54

Order and misrule, death and life, the sage and the ass: strange attractors, dependencies and paradoxes have their day in carnival. The community building of the future will explore the intensely unfamiliar; the assumptions of the present will be laughable. Emerging communities, in contrast, will grow their own common sense, releasing the creative potential of collective folly, while breeding new strains of good judgment for a different world.

Carnival is the act which gives the community its life—its conception. Start with a party.C55



Editor’s note: For inspiration, I couldn’t resist adding this remarkable example
of all that David writes about, birthed only in 2010.
« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: