The Merry Month of May

The Merry Month of May
Favorite Fairy Tales of All Time

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Carnival Celebrations in Fairy Tale Land: Death by Dancing or the Ship of Fools


(Click on picture to enlarge).

Carnival Celebrations in Fairy Tale Land: Death by Dancing or the Ship of Fools

In 1483 German chronicles of the city of Eger mention a “procession of plows” and “a ship of fools” that were part of the carnival celebrations that year.  But this was not the first time a “ship of fools” was mentioned rolling across the landscape.  In 1474 such a ship was reported to be part of the Shrove Tuesday traditions of a guild of cloth makers.  Further research by Jakob Grimm tied this “ship of fools” to the overland procession of a ship, first described by Monk Rudolf in his Chronicles of St. Trond in 1133. The priest frowned on this custom because he considered it a vestige of a pagan rite tied to the arrival of spring.  The custom involved a ship being placed on wheels and pulled through a number of villages in the Lower Rhine Valley, where the local population greeted the parade with music, loud cries and dancing. The fact that only cloth makers accompanied the ship and were the only ones allowed to touch it reflects how early such old cult traditions were transferred to handworker guilds. Monk Rudolf not only complained about the noise the villagers made when the ship passed by, but also about the groups of women, stripped bare or wearing only a shirt, mingling and dancing with the fools accompanying the ship. After dancing for some time, the monk witnessed things he felt were better forgotten in silence and anguish. These “ship of fools” parades were originally based on spring fertility rites and magic, even when the festivities later became more of a “game” celebrated by the guilds. These customs were ultimately incorporated in Sebastian Brant’s medieval text “Ship of Fools” (1494) which depicted  the ship as bringer of luck. This belief was popular from the 15th – 17th centuries and became part of the lively New Year’s celebrations of villagers, who saw the Christ Child as a bringer of gifts travelling on a ship of fortune. In 1530 such ship parades were prohibited during the carnival celebrations because they were associated with actions that were much too crude in the minds of missionary priests. Along with the abolishment of the Nuremburg Bearded Mask Runs and their enactments of “hell”, the ship of fools custom also ended abruptly (1539). Oddly this tradition was most popular in regions that did not lie close to any body of water.

No comments: