From Carnival to Corpus Christi
IN Juan Ruiz’s canonical text, the Libro de Buen Amor (Book of Good Love, composed around 1337), the author includes a delightful aside, telling of the iconic battle between Lord Carnality (Don Carnal) and Lady Lent (Doña Cuaresma) held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, that is on Mardi Gras. In the text, we come face to face with the easy flow between the world of the everyday, of food and pleasure, the world of matter, and the highly somber and austere period that precedes the commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A focus of the story is Lady Lent’s tenuous hold on mankind, as seen in her eventual defeated by carnal love on Easter Sunday and Monday. What is also obvious in the Libro de Buen Amor is Carnality’s sway throughout the year, and the proclivity of the flesh to eat, drink, and celebrate. Don Carnal, richly installed on a stage (not unlike the raised stages from which kings and queens gazed down on parades during their royal entries), enjoys a whole assortment of delightful foods, while jongleurs play and sing for his pleasure. Wine of course flows, placing the whole company in sweet slumber. But Lady Lent’s armies, a whole assortment of sardines, eels, and other seafood associated with Lent, soundly defeat Don Carnal’s troops. For forty days, Lent’s forces rule the world as the dissipation of Carnival and Mardi Gras are left behind. But on Easter Sunday, Lent is overthrown. Carnality and Love once again recover their rightful thrones. That Juan Ruiz chose the high point of Carnival as the setting for what was, essentially, a romp across the full range of fourteenth-century Castilian cuisine, ranging from the delectable foods consumed throughout the year to Lent’s austere fare, tells us a great deal about the prominent place of carnival celebrations in the Western tradition, particularly in Iberia.1
As Julio Caro Baroja has shown and the Libro de Buen Amor demonstrates, Carnival time was extended throughout the year by means of a cycle of popular and secular festivities often juxtaposed with sacred time. Although Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, was seen as the culmination of the Carnival season (Carnestolendas in the Castilian language)—as is the case today in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and other locations known for
1 Arcipreste de Hita, Libro de buen amor, María Brey Mariño, ed., 2nd ed. (Madrid: Editorial Castalia, 1960), 199–230, lines 1076–1317. This battle is a well known trope in Western art. One of the most vivid representations is Peter Brueghel’s wonderful painting, “The Fight between Carnival and Lent.”
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Publication information: Book title: A King Travels: Festive Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Contributors: Teofilo F. Ruiz - Author. Publisher: Princeton University Press. Place of publication: Princeton, NJ. Publication year: 2012. Page number: 246.
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