Festivity and Protest, Between the Middle Ages and the 21st century

On a cool summer evening, young people go out on the streets with their pans, in an atmosphere of cheerfulness. Making a great noise, they sing and express their rebelliousness towards local authorities. A Quebecer may have recognized the “casseroles” that enlivened the student strike of 2012 in this description, but it would also have applied to political charivaris in Western cities during the Late Middle Ages. In fact, these demonstrations, marked by the good mood of the actors, are one of many cases of interpenetration between festivity and protest, in the Middle Ages and today.

(By “festivity”, I mean a festive spirit characterized by collective joy, during chosen moments more or less taken out of normal time. By “protest”, I mean all forms of discourses and actions expressing opposition to a political, social, economic, etc., situation.)

First, the most obvious: festivity can become revolt — a change facilitated by the state of disinhibition created by the exceptional festive time and often aggravated by alcohol. The local saint’s day, in particular, could exacerbate parochialism, as in Turin on Saint John’s day in 1486 and 1490 (Barbero, 1990). Festive practices can also be used as pretexts for political actions, much like the 1443 procession in Norwich which targeted the Church under the guise of a Shrovetide procession… in January (Humphrey, 2001). Festive processions such as these fulfill their protest role especially well, as the actors can hide their identity under disguises and avoid prosecution.

Conversely, protest is often itself festive. By essence, it is optimistic: those who denounce a situation are convinced of their right, and that they can indeed change this situation. In the Middle Ages, peasant revolt targeted royal agents, and it was thought that all that mattered was to warn the sovereign of their “abuses” — even though the policy was in fact the king’s, and the agents had his full backing. This is more complex in a democratic society, but members of social movements nonetheless think that they must draw the attention of the (sovereign) people for change to happen. This is obviously not what happens, but this state of mind creates optimism, which can be expressed participants through the register of festivity.

In this essay, we will study a few phenomena which follow from this interaction in the Late Middle Ages and in the 21st century. First, we will study in more detail the crossing from festivity to protest in youth institutions (youth abbeys and student associations). We will also identify a few common functions of carnivalesque and political manifestations. Finally, we will observe how festive rituals and symbols can be used for protest, and even repressed by the state as such.

Youth institutions

Youth abbeys are original institutions known just about everywhere in Medieval Europe (Davis, 1971; Grinberg, 1974; Rossiaud, 1976). Do not mistake their nature: they are not religious, to the contrary, and the denomination “abbey” is only facetious. In fact, youth abbeys had to group young men, and their foremost role was to organize feasts, especially during Carnival and May. They also overlooked matrimony by organizing charivaris (see below) against widowers who remarried or husbands dominated by their wives. They had rather colourful names: abbey of joy[1], of misrule, of fools, etc.

This festive and jolly appearance hides an important, but variable political role. No use to search for it in their statutes: these official documents were redacted under the supervision of their elders in the city council or princely court. All the same, the local abbey often protected the community’s autonomy against foreign elements. Since it was a permanent organization, the abbey could easily receive the community’s attitudes and organize popular movements of opposition. In Turin, for example, the city council tried to stop the abbey’s misbehaviour to protect the university or to avoid the Duke’s reprisals, but the general population backed the monks of the Abbey of Fools when it attacked students and rallied under its banner during revolts — which often happened on festive days, those that were under the care of the Fools (Barbero, 1990). Never officially proclaimed, such political roles were known to all. For example, in Lausanne in 1540, pastor Pierre Vinet knew he had to knock down the Nobles Enfants, here the flying wing of the city council, if he wanted to submit the city to Bern and Protestantism (Taddei, 1991).

On this point, a comparison with student associations is illuminating. In theory, their role is limited: they organize campus life, offer activities and services, represent the students against teaching institution. However, since they have a permanent structure, they can easily gather the student’s discontent and give shape to their dissent. In 2012, the national student organizations even channeled general discontent against the Liberal government. Thus, they have a clear political role: they join social movements, organize actions and manifestations, etc. In fact, this officiously capital political side is officially hidden, often under the imprecise and sober label of “external affairs”, and lies in a fuzzy institutional situation. The most important means of action, the student strike, is wholly extralegal. Not only is it outside the law (as the 2012 injunctions and the conviction of the Laval History association remind us), but associations’ statutes are not much clearer. The convicted Laval History association (AÉÉH) says nothing of strikes. At the University of Montreal, Law (AÉD) and Philosophy (ADÉPUM) are not any more voluble, Economy and Politics (AÉÉPUM) and Architecture (RÉA) only mention it amongst the General Assembly’s roles, and the word “strike” (grève) appears once in the History association’s (AÉHUM) charter, in a 2012 article on referenda (although changes in adoption should correct this). Despite this, the political role of student associations, and especially strikes, decisively form the role and place of student associations and their popular perception.

Both cases follow a similar schema. An organism destined to group and represent youths (against matrimonial or educational institutions), in charge of the organization of joyful activity for its members, expresses and organizes protest because of its structure and permanence. It is obviously not a direct heritage, but both situations draw from mentalities and cultural practices which quickly join festivity and protest. Other cases exist: for example, 13th century Italian societates iuvenum (youth societies) organized feasts and banquets and took part in clan conflicts. When an institution groups youths, it is often festive, and it can easily verge on protest.


Obviously, no one wanted to give shape to popular dissent by creating such institutions. One of the fundamental function of youth abbeys, control of juvenile violence, allows us to study the dynamic between festivity, protest and violence. Violence was an important aspect of medieval social relations. It was even more easily forgiven of youths since they had to defend the community against foreign threats. As such, violence was an important part of the sociability of young men, who had to defend their ticklish honour in public. **Rape trigger** Sometimes, violence was also directed against women: in Dijon in the 15th century, Rossiaud (1976b) estimates that half the young men had taken part in a collective rape **End of the trigger** It is important to point out that this was seen as normal, and was not pathological at all.

Given the importance of violence in daily life, it is not surprising that protest was often violent. In villages, revolting peasants started by physically attacking officials, especially tax collectors. This violence did not impair the festive character of revolt, it was a part of it. Interpenetration of festivity and violence also appears in more benign cases. In Venice, groups of young nobles ambushed city guards, which was much more dangerous for the latter than for the assailants, unlike today. Such acts of insubordination were facilitated by the ubiquity of various weapons, which the state failed to monopolize and were far from well controlled.

Since the 15th century, a long process of control has decreased violence. The creation of youth abbeys was one of its means: by grouping young men in more formal associations than those formed in the streets, urban authorities could overlook and supervise turbulent adolescents. Other means include the more or less systematic use of the death penalty against murderers — beforehand, it was sufficient to compose with the victim’s family, perhaps also the prince. In general, the elimination of violence proceeds from the creation of the “modern state”, from the application of stately and bureaucratic social control and the development of an individualistic and private morality, as opposed to the collective morality enforced by the public rituals of the community. As a result, violence today is perceived as a sign of anomy or pathology, or even as an avatar of chaos, which it wasn’t necessarily in the Middle Ages.

With this new conception of violence, the dynamic between violence and protest changes. For example, violence is not a normal component of political demonstrations, to the contrary: when violence occurs, it becomes a riot. We shall see more on this below through conservative discourses, but this attitude is also that of the protesters who distinguish cases of violence in protest marches to the pleonastic “pacific demonstrations”. In 2012, every party involved in the failed negotiations condemned violence in demonstrations. Violence is in fact rejected on marginal, more or less virtual groups: “looters” (especially by the left) and “anarchist” (especially by the right).

Conversely and in parallel, the importance of police forces in society also changed. In the Middle Ages, the very few “policemen” punished daily offenses and thus, God willing, might prevent potential disorders, but they certainly could not repress them: for that, extraordinary measures were needed. In Italian cities, if a dangerous crowd formed, the authorities could only hope to disperse it by forming another to fight the first one. Discipline being low on both sides, a rout usually started before many deaths occurred. In rural areas, to fight insurrections, the prince could either wait (perhaps the harvest will force the peasants back on their fields?) or raise an army, a long and complex operation. Massive, preventive arrests and asymmetric confrontations between armed and disciplined police forces and protesters without weapons or structure are quite recent.

Social functions : Carnival and demonstrations

Implicitly, we have already compared modern political demonstrations and medieval carnival demonstrations on several points. Similarities seem to go beyond the surface, even to their very social functions. Obviously, in both cases, it is useful to avoid generalization, as any given gesture can hold different meaning according to context and can be perceived differently by different contemporaneous observers. Still, the range of functions of carnivalesque and festive transgression can possess is similar to that of political demonstrations, despite very different intentions.

To remain brief on this, many specialists give two principal roles to misrule and Carnival. On the one hand, it can be conservative, despite the transgression it implies: it allows to showcase, and thus reinforce, the social order, serves as social safety valves and exists only under the direct control, or at least supervision, of the authorities. On the other hand, the same misrule can oppose the status quo by presenting new values to transform it, and occasionally gets out of control and slides into open revolt. Following circumstances, either of their interpretation can apply, even though the conservative explanation is dominant amongst scholars. In any case, despite moderate repression against “abuses”, it is apparent that such practices survived for a long time, without too much trouble.

Political demonstrations carry some of the same functions, at least in modern Western democracies where, far from being illegal and banned, they are encouraged by the dominant democratic ideology. Without any doubt, protesters are motivated by explicit protest intentions. The assembly is most importantly a vehicle to transmit values and ideas, to draw attention to a cause. In a more hidden way, the crowd gathered shows the strength of the underlying social movement, and in fact strengthening its cohesion while expressing its power, in reality and as a symbol. As such, demonstrations can act as catalysts to larger protest movements, as exemplified by the March 22, 2012 demonstration, which marked an important milestone in the crisis. When this happens, events take another meaning and scale, beyond the logic of the demonstration itself. However, few political gatherings are so fortunate, and most never go beyond stating a message again and again. In this case, even though they are not controlled by the state, most demonstrations respect its authority by following its regulations, even when the government is attacked in discourse. This authority is even strengthened by the fact that the demonstration conforms to the state’s terms, activating components of the underpinning democratic ideology: freedom of speech and right of assembly. Even then, transgression by acts (walking in the street) and discourse only lasts a day: afterwards, everything goes back to normal. Protesters, satisfied of their contribution to their cause, become the safety valves of the (democratic) order and status quo. Like Carnival and misrule, political gatherings can act as the transgression to prove the rule.

Charivari and festive/protest rituals

They obviously have more in common than this pessimist portrayal suggests. Then as now, several objects, symbols or rituals can be used equally for festive and protest purposes. Noise, fire and light belong to both festivity or protest (or maybe to festivity, and thus to protest): bonfires and fireworks, slogans and songs, etc. This brings us back to the casseroles mentioned in opening. Although their relation with similar demonstrations in Chili and South America was often remembered, the protest “concerts” also had much in common with the traditional ritual of charivari.

In the typical charivari, young men in disguise gathered at night and made all the noise they could in front of their target’s house with screams, songs, drums, pans, horns or other instruments. (On this point, charivari reminds of both the Quebec casseroles and protest marches in general, and probably draws from a general symbolic of noise.) The ritual was normally used to punish infractions to collective morals, especially remarriage of widowers to young women. Although their objective was to incite fear, the participants were not violent, at least in normal situations. The ritual ended after several days or when the victim paid a “fine” which took various forms, including meals (with drink of course) to the charivariseurs. However, this standard ritual could also be used for political purposes. In political charivaris, different agents of government became the targets of this ritual and inoffensive form of protest. In fact, it seems that in the 19th century, charivari lost its traditional role in certain areas, whereas the political form became more frequent. Even in Lower Canada, political charivari was used as a tactic during the 1837 Patriot Revolt (Greer, 1990)! Its effectiveness for protest was enhanced by the fact that participants were often disguised, and could as a result hide their identity against repression.

Symbolism and repression of masks

In fact, the principle of disguise is common to both protest and festivity, as exemplified by the mask (both as an object and as a practice). It allows us to observe the dynamics of repression which targets festivity/protest. It is not alone: charivaris were also repressed virulently at least since the 14th century, much before its later “political turn”. However, the mask is, as we will see, a much more potent starting point to study the repression of festive and protest instruments and the perception by the authorities of attributes of festivity and political subversion. By hiding its wearer, a mask allows him to avoid ordinary constraints of social life — this is what enables carnivalesque inversion, for example. This same idea exists even at Halloween: would the ritual threat in “trick or treat?” exist if children did not wear masks and disguises? Although primarily festive, masks can also symbolise anonymity. Masks are often claimed by those who want to act for good while also avoiding bad laws: they are worn as a precaution by incognito superheroes, claimed as an ensign by the Anonymous collective and other supporters of freedom of speech… and perceived as a grave danger by the forces of law and order.

As such, masks have been the target of regular bans at the very least since the 15th century. For its opponents, masks favour disorder, violence and various infamies. In Venice, a 1454 Council of Ten proclamation described masked men “who could not be seen or recognised, saying very obscene words, committing very obscene acts, making strident noises” (Crouzet-Pavan, 1992); in England in 1511, a similar Act denounces masked groups who go around town, which is followed by “murders, felonies, rapes and other great sufferings and incovenients” (Twycross & Carpenter, 2002). In addition to avoiding surveillance of his own person, a mask-wearer could escape his role in a Medieval society where everyone’s place in society must be immediately obvious and visible, and allowed confusion of ranks and rites of inversion. For the enemies of masking, even an honourable man could practice vice when his face was hidden, while villeins could mock their superiors. To these reasons, the Church added charges of irreligiosity — several masks bore symbols perceived as “pagan” superstitions. However, such bans were not always complete. In some cases, masks were allowed in specific times (e.g. during Carnival), only to specific groups — actors or dancers, members of the local youth abbey, as in Rouen (Grinberg, 1974), or only with special authorisation.

Similar fears exist in the 21st century, as recent legislation in France, in the United Kingdom and in other countries demonstrates. In Montreal, the infamous P-6 bylaw is widely known which banned masks during protest marches. However, Bill C-309, which became law in June 2013, was less discussed, and the debates in Parliament surrounding it will serve as a case study. A proposal of Conservative MP Blake Richards in October 2011, C-309 forbids to wear “a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse” during a riot or unlawful assemblies — following Blake’s description, this “occurs when citizens on the streets of their own city have reasonable grounds to be afraid”[2]. The new legislation, unlike P-6, does not ban masks during lawful assemblies. Still, the debates leading to its enactment (you can find them on the Parliament’s website) give a good illustration of how law enforcement (several Conservatives who intervened, including Richards, are retired officers) and Order see masks. In fact, the mask-object, more than the simple act of hiding, seems to carry subversion in these debates. Not only does C-309 mention no other specific example of concealment of identity — unlike article 351 of the Criminal Code, forbidding to commit a crime while wearing a mask, which also specifies “colouring” one’s face (e.g. with the colours of a hockey team, as in Vancouver?) –, but an amendment from Françoise Boivin (NDP) which would have harmonized Bill C-309 with article 351 was rejected.

Bill C-309 was an answer to the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots in June 2011 — in fact, most people invited in committee came from British Columbia —, but also the G20 protests in Toronto the year before. For Richards, “these events often begin as peaceful demonstrations of one type or the other, and end up being escalated by masked criminals who are hiding in plain sight”. His supporters claim the law targets “looters” who use the disorder as a pretext to “wreak havoc in [the] city”, and especially anarchists[3], defined by Richards as “those individuals who come to protest with the premeditated intent to use the assembly as a cover for their criminal behaviour” — in a word, the law targets the two groups on which protest violence is blamed, as we have seen. In fact, the language used reveals a fear of “anarchist” organizations only waiting for an occasion to unleash violence: for example, “many of the people wearing masks and facial coverings were part of organized groups with premeditated intent on confronting the police and causing mayhem” (their “sole objective”, according to the Tory MP Robert Goguen), and who “come prepared with a complete tool kit”. To fight “anarchy”, no alternative: masks must be banned. With C-309, police will be able to proceed with “pre-emptive arrests” and prevent further developments, because “in preventing people from being disguised in those kinds of situations, we may be able to prevent those kinds of situations from ever occurring”. Far from inhibiting right of assembly, the Bill “protects individuals who are looking to be part of a peaceful protest, because it will prevent those who want to infiltrate in order to engage in criminal activity” and prevent degeneration of protest into riots, thus forcing police interventions to stop the demonstration.

Here, the carnivalesque danger or the general threat of the medieval mask seems transferred directly in the political scene: the mask is the instrument of “anarchists”. In French, this association has passed in lexicon: chienlit, a word related to masks and then to mascarades and carnival, has come to denote pejoratively disorder and chaos — especially since May ’68, in De Gaulle’s famous word: “La réforme, oui, la chienlit, non” (reform, yes, chienlit, no). At the same time, by characterising them as “looters”, supporters of the bill and of Order assimilate political opponents to common criminals and delinquents, in a typical process described by Foucault.

Some critics, mostly from the NDP, but with limited Liberal support, claim these measures would infringe the right of assembly — and that this might even be voluntarily. Perhaps this desire of direct political, even “masked” behind good intentions, is exaggerated. In practice, neither medieval urban oligarchies nor the Conservative government had much to fear from masks themselves or what it represents (inversion or “anarchism”). Mask bans were unused and unusable in the Middle Ages, and the redundancy of C-309 with already existing measures (article 351 of the Criminal Code) do not foretell a more effective repression. In fact, through these laws, medieval cities and modern government seek less to silence opponents than to answer fears of disorder and affirm, in front of their supporters, an imaginary victory of Order on Chaos.


As we have seen, festivity can become protest, and vice versa. Such a passage is seen in youth institutions, organising entertainments as easily as protest movements. In the same way, festivity and protest can hold similar functions. This proximity is also seen by the use of similar rituals or symbols for both, both in action (noise practices — charivari and casseroles) and perception (mask bans) However, one change has to be noted: violence, once a normal part of protest, is now explicitly excluded as a consequence of new sensibilities.

Works cited

Barbero, Alessandro (1990). “La violenza organizzata: L’abbazia degli Stolti a Torino fra Quattro e Cinquecento”, Bollettino Storico-Bibliografico 88, 1990, p. 387-453.

Davis, Natalie Zemon (1971). “The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France”, Past and Present 50, p. 41-75.

Dupuis-Déri, Francis (2007). “Contestation altermondialiste au Québec et renouveau de l’anarchisme”, in A. Morelli & J. Gotovitch (eds.), Contester dans un pays prospère : L’extrême gauche en Belgique et au Canada, P.I.E. Peter Lang, Bruxelles, p. 177-196.

Fabre, Daniel & Traimond, Bernard (1982). “Le charivari gascon contemporain: un enjeu politique”, in J. Le Goff & J.-C. Schmitt (eds), Charivari, EHESS, Paris, p. 23-32.

Foucault, Michel (1975). Surveiller et punir, Paris, Gallimard.

Grinberg, Martine (1974). “Carnaval et société urbaine XIVe-XVIe siècles : Le royaume dans la ville”, Ethnologie française 4 (3), p. 215-244

Greer, Alan (1990). “From Folklore to Revolution: Charivaris and the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837”, Social History 15 (1), p. 25-43.

Rossiaud, Jacques (1976a). “Fraternités de jeunesse et niveaux de culture dans les villes du Sud-Est à la fin du Moyen Âge”, Cahiers d’histoire 21, p. 67-106.

Rossiaud, Jacques (1976b). “Prostitution, jeunesse et société dans les villes du Sud-Est au XVe siècle”, Annales E.S.C. 31 (2), p. 289-325.

Taddei, Ilaria (1991). Fête, jeunesse et pouvoirs : L’abbaye des Nobles Enfants de Lausanne, Lausanne, Cahiers lausannois d’histoire médiévale.

Twycross, Meg & Carpenter, Sarah (2002). Masks and Masking in Medieval and Early Tudor England, Aldershot, Ashgate.

[1] In French, abbaye de joie. This “joy” is not innocent. It was that of hommes joyeux (joyful men), the members of the abbey, who went to filles joyeuses, or “filles de joie” — prostitutes. In South-Eastern France, the “abbot” led young men and the “abbess”, prostitutes.

[2] It is important to note that fear and danger are not the same, as was the case of the frightening but inoffensive charivari. Misinterpreted by someone unused to a given symbolic language, a ritual act can create a disproportionate fear despite the absence of danger. This ambiguity can also be exploited by voluntary misunderstanding: by omitting its ritual meaning, charivari, masks and other symbols can be denounced for their ritual threat, under charge of “disorder”, but with other objectives. For example, in Cagnotte (Gascony) in 1862, repressing a charivari gave the chance to the mayor to settle accounts with his deputy (Fabre & Traimond, 1982).

[3] As a precaution, we should be aware that the word “anarchist”, as often used by politicians, journalists and law enforcement officers, does not cover the anarchist movement itself, 1) by abusively grouping far-left activists, including communists, under the anarchist label, and 2) by attributing to all anarchists violent intentions, which is rather unfair given that some anarchists are non-violent (Dupuis-Déri, 2007).


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