A LIQUORED-UP AND LASCIVIOUS LEXICON
CHIENLITS — Literally “shit-a-beds”, derisive name for working class revelers in pre-revolutionary France.
In his 1690 Dictionairre Universelle, Antoine de Furetriere defined Carnival as a
“Time of rejoicing lasting from Epiphany until Lent. Dances, Feasts and
marriages are mainly held at Carnival time”
As elsewhere, the festivities in France included a symbolic – and temporary – upending of the social order. Yet by the late 18th century, the annual debauch had become entwined with the sustained agitation would bring a permanent end to the Ancien Régime.
In December 1771, Chancellor Renee Nicolas de Maupeou abolished the parlements, or local appellate courts. The move was seen as an effort to bolster the despotic power of the crown. The subsequent Carnival season saw a procession of jeering revelers make their way across Paris from the Faubourg St. Antoine. After calling on the residences of senior police officials, they continued to the home of Maupeou himself. The crowd eventually dispersed, but at least one contemporary detected something more than seasonal high spirits. To Simeon-Prosper Hardy, the incident confirmed that “His Majesty’s subjects have been asked to endure too much”.
With the ascension of Louis VXI in 1774, the parlements were reinstated, but this did not assuage the growing anger of the urban poor and middle classes. In 1789, the approach of Mardi Gras brought out mobs of maskers. Grotesquely attired, devoted to “license, libertinage, and depravity” they alarmed Juigné de Wenchalles. The Archbishop of Paris, Wenchalles condemned the “profane parties” from his pulpit; outside of consecrated spaces, they were known as chienlits, or “shit a-beds”.
The anarchic vigor of the Parisian masses was crucial to the success of the French Revolution. Yet history has proven that those who seek to harness populist discontent often find themselves at odds with the desires of the people themselves. In a fascinating essay, the scholar James H. Johnson has demonstrated that the revolutionary intelligentsia generally showed a distaste for Carnival rivaling that of the hated Archbishop.
After the Tennis Court Oath and the fall of the Bastille, the lighthearted inversion of societal roles took on a deadly seriousness. To preserve their lives and fortunes, aristocratic families were known to adopt the clothing of paupers, stoking a cycle of suspicion, panic and revenge. As the Shrovetide season of 1790 got underway, local councils adopted ordinances against the sale or display of festive disguises. As one chapter of the Jacobin Club explained, “enemies of the Revolution” could exploit the cover of a mask to endanger “security and public tranquility”.
Given the real hostility of France’s nobility and the enmity of neighboring states, such measures make pragmatic sense. Yet Johnson suggests that for leaders of the new order, ideological disdain ran deeper than any transient threat. Jean-Paul Marat denounced Carnival as “a festival for slave-peoples”. The editors of Revolutions de Paris exhorted the liberated citizenry to recognize the celebration as “indecent and costly chaos…intended to plunge them further into their own filth”.
Reporting on the 1790 Carnival, the journalist Louis Marie Prudhomme contended that the people had at last sensed “the absurdity of this monstrous custom”. Polemics aside, the following year seems to have brought a recalibration of sorts. A pamphlet circulated in early 1791 expressed a desire to “merit the esteem and confidence of the French nation”, bon vivants included. The Jacobin club was to hold “a truly patriotic ball”. Masks would be permitted, with the proviso that guests’ true identities be published in advance. The gala thus preserved the form of masquerade while eliminating any frissson of mystery. Some choices seem to have anticipated the subsequent Reign of Terror. Maximilien de Robespierre came arrayed as a ghost; Doctor Guillotin, chief advocate of the execution machine which would bear his name, attended in the guise of “a seller of herbs wearing a death mask”.
The Napoleonic Wars led to the abolition of Venice’s ancient tradition of Carnevale, but by 1805 an imperial order once again allowed the wearing of masks within France. In the decades after Waterloo, the country’s government vacillated between cycles of monarchical restoration and militant republicanism. Napoleon III reigned from 1852 until 1870. The Franco-Prussian brought about emperor’s capture in battle, a popular insurrection and the establishment of the Third Republic.
A humiliating defeat for the French, the conflict also interrupted the public observation of Mardi Gras. Claude Monet’s Carnaval, Boulevard des Capucines was painted in 1873 and depicts the first celebration after the cessation of hostilities. An impressionistic blur of golden color dominates the picture as a parade streams past throngs of black-glad bourgeois spectators. Two figures in the foreground look down from a balcony. Wearing staid top-hats, they seem almost to be of different species than the rebellious maskers of a century before.
French and German armies clashed again, in 1914 and 1939. General Charles de Gaulle was the leading figure of French resistance, and towered over the postwar era.
He served as president for a decade, beginning in 1959. In May 1968, student demonstrations convulsed Paris. De Gaulle raged against the protesters by evoking the rowdies of the Old Regime:“La réforme, oui. La chienlits, non”.
|AFOXÉ — A Carnaval grouping inspired by the Candomble religion|
|ASH WEDNESDAY — In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the day that marks the beginning of Lent. Believers go to church and have their heads daubed with ashes; traditionally, the end of Carnival.|
|AXÉ — The Yoruba word axé can be translated as “energy” or “life force”. In Bahia, the term has come to refer to various styles of popular music|
|BACCHANAL — Commonly, any gathering centered around generous consumption of alcohol. Derived from Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, the phrase is frequently associated with Carnival, especially in the English-speaking Caribbean.|
|BAKHTIN, MIKHAIL — Soviet philosopher and literary theorist (1895-1975). In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin examined the carnivalesque culture of late medieval France through the lens of class struggle.|
|BATERIA — The percussion section of a samba school. In the largest parades, the bateria may consist of up to 300 individuals|
|BAUTA — A plain white mask, traditionally held in place by a three-cornered hat. The iconic image of Venice’s Carnivale and masquerades in general.|
|BLOCO – A grouping of revelers in a Carnaval procession, generally smaller and less formal than an Escola de Samba|
|BONECOS GIGANTES — “Gigantic dolls”, often depicting famous footballers or politicians, which may be as large as 6 meters. Crafted from fiberglass, wood or aluminum, they are carried through the Brazilian city of Olinda during Carnival celebrations.|
|BUTTENREDE — A form of humorous, rhyming speech, heard during Carnival in Cologne. “Butte” means a beer barrel, used as a lectern by the orators|
|CALINDA — Stick-fighting competition, a feature of Carnival in rural Trinidad during the colonial era.|
|CALYPSO — A genre of popular song originating in Trinidad, frequently centered on sexual themes or political satire. Top calypsonians distinguish themselves through clever wordplay and double entendre.|
|CHANTOUELLES– Creole singers who led call-and-response songs at Calinda bouts, extolling the prowess of their champions and mocking the opposition. Anglicized as “chantwells”, they are seen as forbears of calypsonians.|
|CHIENLITS — Literally “shit-a-beds”, derisive name for working class revelers in pre-revolutionary France.
|CIRCUITO — Any one of the routes used for official Carnaval street parades. In Salvador da Bahia, the main circuitos are Dodo, Osmar, and Batatinha.|
|COMMEDIA DELL’ ARTE — Genre of comedy originating in medieval Italy. The plays were performed by troupes of traveling actors, and the stock characters have inspired Carnival costumes and masks|
|COURIR — A type of Carnival procession involving horses or pickup trucks in parts of rural Louisiana.|
|CROP OVER — A Carnivalesque celebration in Barbados, originally marking the end of the annual sugar cane harvest|
|CULECO — Large tanker trucks filled with water and fitted out with hoses. Used to spray crowds of carnival celebrants in Panama.|
|DIABLOS SUCIOS — “Dirty devils”, folkloric characters in Panama’s Azuero peninsula, seen throughout the country during Los Carnevales.|
|DIMANCHE GRAS – Literally, “Fat Sunday”, when prizes are awarded for the best costumes and the Calypso Monarch title is bestowed.|
|ENREDO — The unifying theme of samba school’s procession, reflected in the music and design|
|ENTIERRO DE LA SARDINA — “Burial of The Sardine”, mock funeral rite marking the end of Carnival in parts of Spain.|
|ESCOLA DE SAMBA — “Samba School”, a social and artistic organization famed for staging elaborate parades in Rio de Janeiro and other cities|
|FASCHING — Also Fastnacht, name for pre-lenten celebrations in Bavaria and other parts of southern Germany; in the Rhineland, the more Latinate phrase Karneval is used|
|FÉCOS — Local name for the annual festival held during Carnival season in the Occitanie region of southwest France.|
|FIESTA DE LOS INDIANOS — Carnival Monday celebration on the Canary island of La Palma, famed for a ritual fight with talcum powder. The “Indians” in question are locals who migrated to the Spanish Caribbean, a/k/a the Indies.|
|FREVO — Form of music originated by brass bands in the state of Pernambuco. Syncopated and sinuous, it is now popular throughout Brazil.|
|GNOCCHI — Small dumplings of potato and flour, served like pasta. The traditional Carnevale dish of Verona.|
|GUMBO — A type of stew including combinations of meats, seafood, vegetables and rice. Preparation of gumbo is a centerpiece of Mardi Gras festivities in Cajun country|
|HARLEQUIN — French name for Arlecchino, a popular character from the Commedia del’ Arte tradition.|
|INVERSION — To invert anything is to turn it upside down. Inversion of the usual social norms has been a hallmark of Carnival throughout history and around the world.|
|JAB MOLASSIE — A horned and vaguely menacing presence during Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago. Though the name is derived from the French for “molasses devil”, they typically take to the streets covered in grease or paint — and very little else.|
|JOE CAIN DAY– The final Sunday before Lent, occasion for a rough-hewn “People’s Parade” in Mobile.
|JOUVERT — “Day Break” an informal parade that marks the official start of Carnival, although in reality festivities start weeks earlier.|
|JUMBIES — Collective name for a variety of malevolent spirits, part of the folk religion of Trinidad & Tobago. Jumbies have often served to inspire Carnival songs and costumes.|
|JUNKANOO — A festival celebrated in the Bahamas, with parallels to Mardi Gras and the ancient Roman Saturnalia
|KAISO — Term for early, traditional style of calypso music. The word is said to be derived from the Hausa language of West Africa.|
|KING CAKE — Pastry into which a coin or some other token has been baked. In France it was traditionally shared on the feast of Epiphany. In Louisiana, it is Mardi Gras fare.|
|KREWE — Social organization dedicated to parades and balls during Mardi Gras season.|
|LECHONES — “Suckling pigs”, rival bands of costumed revelers in the Dominican city of Santiago de Los Caballeros|
|LENT — In most Christian denominations, a period leading up to Easter. The faithful are urged to abstain from indulgences and vices. Carnival ends when Lent begins.|
|MARACATU — Carnaval ritual of northeastern Brazil. Various “nations” pay homage to their kings and queens. Processions are marked by call-and-response vocals and stately rhythms pounded out on drums, shakers, and bells.|
|MARDI GRAS – “Fat Tuesday”, the last day of Carnival. Often used to indicate the season as a whole.|
|MAS — Short for masquerade. To “play mas” means to don a costume and take part in a parade.|
|MASCHIERI — The mask-makers’ guild, organized in 15th century Venice|
|MASLENITSA — Week-long celebration leading up to “Great Lent” in Russia and some neighboring lands|
|MATA-ROCS — “Donkey Killers” nickname for residents of the town of Solsona in Catalonia. Legend attributes the name to the accidental lynching of a quadruped; the incident is commemorated during carnival with the hoisting of a papier-mache effigy.|
|MYSTIC ORDER — Mobile, Alabama’s equivalent of a Mardi Gras Krewe.|
|PANCAKE TUESDAY — The last day before Lent in the Great Britain. One of the few Carnival traditions to survive the Reformation.|
|PANORAMA — An organized series of competitions between steel ensembles, culminating on the final Saturday before Lent.|
|PIPOCA — Portuguese word for “popcorn” used to differentiate parade spectators from those in a bloco or watching from a paid viewing location. In other words, the majority.|
|ROAD MARCH — The song that serves as the “anthem’ of a given Carnival, determined by how often it is played on mobile sound systems as they pass designated points.|
|ROBA LA GALLINA — Dominican men dressed as voluptuous, parasol toting matrons. Translated as “Steal-the-hen”, the conceit is that an ample bosom and prodigious rump are ideal for concealing purloined poultry.|
|SATURNALIA — An ancient Roman festival dedicated to the god Saturn and held around the time of winter solstice; some see Saturnalia as a precursor of modern carnival.|
|SAVANNAH — Formally, Queen’s Park Savannah. A large public space in Port of Spain, the epicenter of many Carnival activities.|
|SHROVETIDE — The final three days before Lent, when the faithful traditionally receive the sacrament of Penance. Concurrent with, yet separate from, the indulgences of Carnival.|
|SOCA — Fast, syncopated style of dance music considered to be an offshoot of calypso.
|STEEL PAN — A type of percussion instrument fashioned from an oil drum. “Pan” is used to refer to the instrument itself and the entire genre of music performed by steel orchestras.
|THROW — Any one of various objects distributed as souvenirs by members of a krewe during Mardi Gras parades.|
|TRIO ELECTRICO – Motorized stages on wheels, with sound systems and lights. A fixture of Carnaval parades in Salvador da Bahia.|
|VEJIGA – The inflated bladder of a hog or bull, dangling from a strap and carried by costumed Diablos during Carnival processions in the Dominican Republic. Revelers who get too close risk a sharp blow across the buttocks.|
|VOIL JEANETTEN — Men in dresses and women wearing beards during Carnival in Aalst, Belgium. Genders are bent and egos bruised as these “Dirty Janes” engage in the good-natured abuse of onlookers.|
|WIEBERFASTNACHT– Women’s Carnival in Cologne, held on the last Thursday before Lent. Local Damen are free to kiss all the Herren they desire.|
|ZOUK – Fast paced “jump-up” style of music, originating in the French Antilles. A feature of Carnival on Martinique and Guadeloupe.|