Essentially, Carneval was the festival that lasted the remaining handful of days before the Christian season of Lent began. Named with respect to the Latin phrase “farewell to the flesh”, Carneval was a time of excess. It was a time in which the population gave consideration to all pleasures before having to give them up during the Lenten season. The result was a festival marked by excess of all sorts: food, drink, and debauchery.
Cultural Sociologist Mikhail Bakhtin marks several important characteristics regarding this festival in particular. In addition to the emphasis upon the disregarding of the social convention of authority, many other standards of life were subverted. There was an extreme and noticeable emphasis placed on the matters of the carnal (hence the term 'Carneval'), and the grotesque. During these festivities, themes were drawn to aspects of the body, particularly the sexual aspects. In a similar vein, food and drink were often in great abundance, leading to a willingness to accept drunkenness and obesity for the time. In fact, both were embraced throughout much of the festival. The very idea of bidding a farewell to the flesh, as such, is made apparent in the accepting of bodily grossness and deformity. As Bakhtin asserts, the boundary between what is “gross”, and what is not breaks down, and the physical flesh becomes less important than ideals of humanity in general.
Carneval was a time in which there was a clear and constant juxtaposition between the presence of high culture and the lower, popular culture. Bakhtin offered the theory that people during this time had, in fact, two separate identities: the official life, and the Carneval life. One was regimented and controlled, and the other was free. In a way, Bakhtin places this dichotomy upon the Renaissance culture in general. Society would be controlled and regulated for the majority of the time, yet during time of festival, free and inverted.
Obviously, this festival provided a time in which the popular culture presented a greater claim. Music and dancing were wild and free, as compared to the more controlled and regimented ‘classier’ dances of the day. The music was often lively and merry, in a direct reflection of the joy and revelry present in the Carneval. The dancing was equally lively and energetic to match the music. Puppet shows provided entertainment, often by representing two or more puppet characters hitting each other with batons in the slapstick comedy tradition. Also present were wandering minstrels and comedic characters.
Carneval was hardly a time of cultural refinement, as may be traditionally associated with much of Renaissance culture, particularly the elements of ‘high’ culture. The festival was a celebration of the popular culture. This emphasis upon the popular culture is not surprising, considering that a vast majority of the festival’s attendants were the common people of the area.
Carneval can be seen as an embodiment of the cultural tensions and anxieties of the Renaissance. Perhaps, since sex and bodily grossness were not exactly a realm of day to day discussion, this small period offered a time for it to stand in the forefront. This is clearly an example of the cultural subversion of traditional morality that Carneval and the other similar festivals celebrated. Similarly, Carneval offered a time in which authority was ridiculed, and traditional order was placed upon its head. The fears of domination and oppression can be alleviated through this temporary subversion.