Fairs and Festivals

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Fairs and Festivals

Fairs and festivals were special events that broke up the cycle of the Renaissance year. A fair was essentially an economic event—a large multiday market. A festival, by contrast, celebrated a holiday or other special occasion. Fairs and festivals not only spiced up Renaissance life but also gave people of different regions and social classes a chance to interact.

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Fairs became a significant form of economic activity between the 1000s and the 1200s. A typical fair was simply an outgrowth of a town's weekly open-air market. Once a year, often at the time of a local saint's feast celebration, the town expanded this market into a multiday event. Such small fairs had little importance to anyone outside the town.

A few fairs became more major events that attracted buyers and sellers from throughout the region or nation—sometimes even from foreign countries. For example, Flemish* merchants brought their goods to English fairs at St. Ives and Winchester. The only truly international fairs took place in a few towns in northeastern France. There merchants from England, France, and the Netherlands traded cloth for Italian merchants' goods from the Mediterranean and the Near East. Before the 1400s these were the only fairs where different coins and currencies were exchanged.

The number of fairs declined when the European economy fell into a slump in the 1300s. During the unsteady recovery of the 1400s and 1500s, new fairs arose and old ones declined in importance. For much of the 1400s, Geneva, Switzerland, held four fairs throughout the year that attracted merchants and financiers from all over Europe. By the 1500s, however, the quarterly fairs in Lyon, France, had become the biggest in Europe. They supported a booming trade in merchandise, especially silks and spices. They also played a major role in the international money market. Financiers met at the fairs to arrange loans and set interest rates.

Over time many fairs simply died out. In England, some fairs survived by specializing in one or two products or types of livestock, becoming "mop fairs" or "goose fairs." A few fairs also added an annual labor market at which employers could hire workers. The fair at Scania, Sweden, survived until the mid-1500s. It specialized in herring but also provided a general distribution point for goods across much of the region. Several German fairs also remained active. Frankfurt served as a major exchange for textiles, with cloth traveling north from Italy and southern Germany and south from England and the Netherlands. Frankfurt and Leipzig, another German town, held annual book fairs that still survive today.


Renaissance festivals ranged from sober church ceremonies to wild street parties. Some festivals occurred every year. Others were one-of-a-kind events in honor of an important occasion, such as the wedding of a noble. Modern historians have noted that some Renaissance festivals celebrated and reinforced the existing, established order of society, while others appeared to overturn it for a period of time.

Celebrating the Social Order. Both religious and civic* festivals aimed to show the social order in a positive light and to make people feel safe and comfortable within it. The calendar of religious holidays reassured people by repeating itself year after year without change. Religious festivals also offered comfort with their references to salvation and the afterlife, which suggested that human life and the world as a whole had meaning and purpose.

Many festivals served both church and state interests. Local officials sometimes took part in religious processions, hinting at the idea of a link between the spiritual and worldly realms. In the city-states of Italy, the feast day of each city's patron saint was also a patriotic holiday, like the modern Independence Day in the United States and Bastille Day in France.

Public events often aimed to promote the idea of social unity. Processions might feature heads of state and government officials appearing in the company of foreign visitors, merchants, and representatives of local guilds* and other groups. These public displays hinted at harmony among the different social classes and among Christian nations. Processions of this sort could form part of the wedding festivities for royalty and nobles. Such events might also include banquets, decorations, fireworks, performances, and tournaments. Humanist* professors and students in various places revived classical* festivals and created new holidays to celebrate key events in Roman history. In Rome in the late 1400s, a small group began celebrating the Palilia, an annual ancient festival honoring the city's founding. In 1513, city officials used the Palilia as an occasion to honor the new pope, Leo X. The result was the most remarkable scholarly festival of the Renaissance. The Romans built a huge theater in the ancient style, decorated with paintings and inscriptions. The celebration included a 20-course banquet, performances in Latin, and a Latin speech praising Rome and the pope's family. The festival was the ultimate expression of Renaissance humanism, celebrating literature, learning, and culture.

Challenging the Social Order. Not all festivals celebrated order and harmony. Some popular and widely enjoyed events played with images of "misrule," an overthrowing or reversing of the social order. Some historians believe that such festivals undermined the established order of society by leading people to focus on physical pleasures rather than on reason and morality. Others, by contrast, see them as safety valves that allowed common people to voice their resentments in ways that would not actually threaten society. In this way, misrule may have actually reinforced the social order. In fact, Roman civic and religious leaders organized, approved, and even funded local festivals of this kind.

Festivals of misrule dated back to ancient times. During the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a midwinter holiday, masters had dressed in their servants' clothing and served them at the table. A Renaissance version of this event was the Feast of Fools, celebrated in most of western Europe. During this festival, people made fun of the things they normally held sacred by electing a young clergyman as "bishop" and holding mock church services. In some areas churchgoers also observed a related festival, the Feast of Asses, by bringing donkeys into church and braying during the service. Church authorities had largely suppressed these customs by the 1500s. However, secular* festivals of misrule continued to thrive.

During the 1400s and 1500s, young men in France and some other countries organized "abbeys" or "kingdoms" of misrule. These associations staged activities during regular festivals, such as Christmas, and also provided an outlet for high spirits. At times the groups conducted rituals to embarrass newlyweds, mocking henpecked husbands or old men with young wives.

By far the most popular festival of the Renaissance was Carnival, which came just before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and sober living that led up to Easter. In contrast to Lent, Carnival was a time of rule breaking that encouraged eating, drinking, and sexual freedom. The length of the Carnival season varied, according to locality, from a week or so to several weeks. This festival was most widespread in southern parts of Europe.

The unifying theme of Carnival was the "world turned upside down." Normal rules of social order and Christian behavior were suspended, criticized, or mocked. Pageants and other entertainments explored such themes as servants giving orders to their masters, laborers pretending to be kings, and men and women dressing in each other's clothes. Carnival represented a temporary, brief triumph of the weak over the powerful, the young over the old, and the earthly over the sacred.

During the 1400s and 1500s Carnival was an unruly, grassroots expression of popular spirit. The common people both observed and took part in the performances. By the 1600s, however, criticism from moralists and Protestant reformers had changed the nature of Carnival festivities. In some places, the festival faded out altogether. In others, it became formal and commercial. Professional actors, acrobats, and singers took the place of spontaneous, festive crowds.

(See alsoEconomy and Trade; Money and Banking; Parades and Pageants. )

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

see color plate 6, vol. 2

* civic

related to a city, a community, or citizens

* guild

association of craft or trade workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

Carnival Mockery

In Germany, Carnival celebrations often ridiculed religious authorities. Around the time Protestants first began to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, floats in several cities mocked the pope and Catholic clergymen. However, Protestants were not safe from mockery either. The main float in the Carnival parade at Nürnberg in 1539 made fun of a local Protestant preacher who had criticized Carnival pleasures. Nervous city authorities everywhere tried to prevent such embarrassments but did not always succeed.

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

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