Youth Groups and Society, Part 2: Subverting Order

This is an edited version of the presentation I gave at the Montreal Student Movement Convention on June 21, 2014, which was a comparison between medieval youth abbeys and contemporary student organizations. It is divided in three parts for my blog. This is part two, which discusses how youth groups could subvert the established order. Part three will discuss how they could reinforce it. Part one described youth in general terms. The video of my original talk is available on Youtube.

In parts 2 and 3, I will compare youth abbeys and student associations on numerous contents. Part 2 is on their subversive potential.

Youth Abbeys

In the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, in most of Europe, young men were very often part of youth associations, often known as “youth abbeys”. They were not religious organizations, unlike what their name suggests: on the contrary, the abbeys were secular organizations of young men, who mostly organized festive activities and supervised marriage in the community (Davis, 1971; Rossiaud, 1976). I will talk principally about urban organizations, but there were also similar associations in rural areas, with more or less the same functions (Muchembled, 1992). As we will see, they had a lot in common with modern student associations. They make a much more interesting comparison than medieval students, who were mostly clerks studying living in a foreign city. This will be obvious when we talk about Turin a bit later.

As I mentioned, the main activity of youth abbeys was to organize festive activities or social gatherings between members, generally with alcohol. Some of these were planned, yearly events. Youth abbeys would take an important part during Carnival season, in January and February, and during the festivities of the month of May, including May Day. Youth associations would also take part in civic festivities, for example to celebrate the local patron saint or to greet visiting princes. Other occasions were spontaneous, for example through the festive way in which they enforced their right of regard on matrimony. The rituals themselves, like charivari, were festive, and the way the victims could acquit themselves was generally to pay food and drink to the young men. Also, many activities were for and by members themselves, either with a clear reason, such as someone’s wedding, or without any, because they wanted to.

However, this festive and jolly appearance hides an important, but variable political role. Their political potential was entirely unofficial, and was certainly not explicit in their statutes. These were official, legal documents, authenticated by a notary. They were often redacted under the supervision of the city council or the princely court. In Venice, by 1529, company statutes had to be approved by the heads of the Council of Ten, the most prestigious Council in the Republic which was also in charge of most issues of internal security. 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 or foster popular movements of opposition, even against local authorities themselves. This was reinforced by attitudes which made young men the defenders of the community, as we have seen.

Alessandro Barbero (1990) described the case of Turin’s Abbazia degli Stolti, or Abbey of Fools, which is particularly interesting to understand the role of youth organizations in organizing the community for its defence. In normal situations, the Abbey was rather tame: its leaders came for the most part from important and rich families. However, Barbero describes several major incidents of violence in which the Abbey played an important role, over and above the city council, to defend the community against foreign elements.

The first two happened in 1486 and 1490, and were related to the contested power of the Duke of Savoy over the city: the first incident is a fight between ducal archers and citizens of Turin; in the second, an important ducal counselor was pursued by a mob and forced to take refuge in a house because he was thought to hold three young people prisoner. Although the ducal court saw them as acts of rebellion, the community felt they were only taking up arms to defend themselves. They had no help from the city authorities, afraid of reprisals, but they were helped by the Abbey of Fools. At least in the second incident, we know the Abbey was leading the community in its defense, and it may have been involved in the first. Both happened St John the Baptist’s Day, which was the patronal holiday of the city. This holiday encourages parochial sentiments, which may helped the conflicts to develop, but it was also under the care of youth and of the Abbey of Fools.

The Abbey of Fools also played a defensive role against the students of the Turin University. Now, as I mentioned earlier, students then and now are not the same people. University students were mostly young clerks who did not come from the city. For the inhabitants of Turin, they were a negative influence and a foreign danger in the town itself. Students were seen as disturbing, since they had a tendency to drink a lot and to pick up fights with the locals. The Abbey’s response was to fight the students in the same way, in which they were seen as the defenders of the community. During the Carnival, in 1526, when students tried to hold their own Carnival activities, the Abbey attacked them to maintain its monopoly on festivities. The ducal court was outraged and tried to force the Abbey to stop, yet the community stood behind the Abbey in its dissent — it even helped them in fighting the students and remained complicitly silent after the events. Once again, the Abbey acted against the will of the city council, which thought that the University played an important role in maintaining Turin’s prestige.

The last event described by Barbero, occurred in 1532, on Ascension Day — once against, a holiday, under the jurisdiction of the Abbey. A conflict strikes in the cathedral between two parties of the Savoyard nobility, and the duchess is forced to take refuge in the presbyter. The people, mobilized by the Abbey, assembles with arms outside the cathedral, in support of one of the two sides. Basically, the Abbey of Fools has the city under its control, and it was their leader who defused the conflict.In fact, in 1532, the Abbey of Fools showed the power it could conjure. During this period, it was the point of reference of the community when it had confidence neither in the city council nor in the ducal government. As a permanent organization, it had the potential to rally and unite the citizens of Turin for their defence against external threats, like the foreign ducal government and the foreign university students.

Student Organizations

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 in limited ways, hold parties etc. The social aspect give rise to one of the most common myths of student associations: that they are a clique of students invested heavily in partying and drinking, not unlike youth abbeys. However, since they have a permanent structure, they can easily gather the student’s discontent and give shape to their dissent. In general, this applies to the specific issues of students, which will be expressed through the small core of elected student officers. Impressively, in 2012, provincial student organizations even channeled general discontent against the Liberal government. This is not unlike what happened in May 1968 in France, when student unrest lead to several weeks of strike throughout the country against Charles de Gaulle. In both instances, students were at the origin of a wider, national protest movement.

Thus, student association have a clear political role: they join social movements, organize actions, hold demonstrations, and so on. This is what explain the second myth surrounding student associations : that they are a refuge of marxists, anarchists and other radical left-wing activists always attempting to start an uprising about something or other. In fact, this officiously capital political side is officially hidden, often under the imprecise and sober label of “external affairs” or given to a “mobilisation comity”. It lies in a fuzzy institutional situation. In Quebec at least, 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 subsequent conviction of the Laval History association remind us), but associations’ statutes themselves are not very clear about what seems to be the most important decision they can take. The charter of the convicted Laval History association (AÉÉH) says nothing of strikes. I also looked at a few associations’ charters at the University of Montreal : Law (AÉD) and Philosophy (ADÉPUM) did not mention strikes, Economics and Politics (AÉÉPUM) and Architecture (RÉA) only mention it amongst the powers of the General Assembly. In my own History association, the word “strike” (grève) appeared only once, in a new article on referenda added in 2012 during the student strike. Reforms changed that situation, and our charter now defines clearly what strikes are and how they are declared, but this was potentially illegal. Despite this lack of official definition and the informal character of strikes, the fact remains that the political role of student associations, and especially strikes, decisively forms their image and function. As the two myths I mentioned exemplify, popular perception of student associations focuses on the official festive role and the unofficial political role.


As such, both youth abbeys and student organization follow a similar schema. An organism destined to group and represent young people and in charge of the organization of joyful activity for its members, expresses and organizes protest because of its structure and permanence — after all, no one else will. When an institution groups young people, it is often festive, and it can easily become politically meaningful. It is obviously not a direct heritage, as they historical trajectory is not the same — as I understand, from 19th-century secret societies to the contemporary movement, student organizations start rather political before gaining a festive function, whereas youth abbeys were always festive first and political as an aside. Still, both situations draw from mentalities and cultural practices which are quick to join youth and defensive protest.

Protest and festivity

Importantly, these also associate protest and festivity. The openly displayed festive character of both medieval youth abbeys and student associations is very close to their political, protest activities. Just to clarify, here, by “festivity”, I mean a festive spirit characterized by collective joy, during chosen moments which are more or less taken out of normal time. By “protest”, I mean all forms of discourses and actions expressing opposition to a situation, be it political, social, economic or other.

Protest is often itself festive, in a way. By essence, protest 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 revolts targeted royal agents, as it was thought that all that mattered was to warn the King of the “abuses” of his agents — 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, yet members of social movements nonetheless think that they must draw the attention of the population — seen as sovereign — for change to happen. During the student strike in 2012, I remember that there was much interest at how opinion polls would react to the events, since it was thought that protest actions would draw people’s attention to the issues and convince them of the rightness of the cause. This is obviously not what happened, not in the Middle Ages, not in 2012, but this state of mind creates optimism, which participants can express through the register of festivity.

A consequence of the interaction between festivity and protest is that several objects, symbols or rituals can be used equally for festive or protest purposes (Bercé, 1976; Humphrey, 2001). Noise, fire and light belong to both festivity or protest (or maybe to festivity, and thus to protest): think of bonfires and fireworks, slogans and songs, drums, etc. The Quebec “concerts de casseroles” are an interesting example. Although their relation with similar demonstrations in Chile and South America was often noticed at the time, the protest “concerts” also had much in common with the much older ritual of charivari, which was effected by young men.

In the typical charivari, often organized by the youth abbey where there was one, 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 (Gauvard & Gokalp, 1974; Le Goff & Schmitt (ed.), 1982). The ritual was normally used to punish infractions to collective morals, especially remarriage of widowers to young women. Although their objective could be to incite fear, the participants were not normally violent. The ritual ended after several days or when the victim paid a “fine”, often free food and alcohol. However, this standard ritual could also be used for political purposes. In political charivaris, government officials became the targets of this ritual and inoffensive form of protest. In fact, it seems that in the 19th century, when youth abbeys were gone, charivari lost its traditional role in certain areas, whereas the political form became more frequent. Even in Quebec (Lower Canada at the time), political charivari was used as a tactic during the 1837 Patriot Revolt (Greer, 1990)! Charivari’s effectiveness for protest was enhanced by the fact that participants were often disguised, and could as a result hide their identity against repression.

Mask and bans

In fact, disguise and masks are also used both for festivity and protest, as exemplified by mask bans. The principle of disguise and the mask as an object are common to both protest and festivity. A mask allows its wearer to avoid ordinary constraints or inhibitions of social life, which is an important aspect of festivity. This is what enables carnivalesque inversion, for example, or legitimizes masked balls or costume parties. The same idea exists even at Halloween, but with it also involves ritual menace in the ritual threat of “trick or treat?” Could that exist if children did not wear masks and disguises?

The avoidance of constraints is also what gives them political potency. Masks are often claimed as a symbol by those who want to act for good despite bad laws: they are worn as a precaution by incognito superheroes, claimed by the Anonymous collective and supporters of freedom of speech… and perceived as a grave danger by the forces of law and order. This is because masks symbolise anonymity and allow their wearers to hide and escape repression.

As such, masks have been the target of regular bans at the very least since the 15th century. For its opponents, masks favoured disorder, violence and various infamies. In Venice, a 1454 proclamation described masked men “who could not be seen or recognised, saying very obscene words, committing very obscene acts and shouting” (Crouzet-Pavan, 1992). The decision banned all sorts of disguises, on pain of losing the disguise, 200 pounds and 2 months in prison. (By the way, this flies to the face of Foucault’s (1975) assertion that prison was not used as a punishment in the early modern period.) In England in 1511, a similar Act denounces masked groups who go around town, from what follow “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 rank, everyone’s place in society must be immediately obvious and visible. Therefore, masks allowed rites of inversion or confusion of ranks. For the enemies of masking, even an honourable man could practice vice when his face was hidden, while vile peasants could mock their superiors when nobody could recognize them (ibid.).

Similar fears exist in the 21st century, as recent legislation in France, in the UK and in other countries demonstrate, but they take a different form. In Montreal, the infamous P-6 bylaw is widely known for its ban of masks during protest marches. But what is widely known is boring, so I’ll talk about Bill C-309. It’s also more appropriate here than P-6 because the latter also has measures against demonstrations in general, while C-309 is a pure mask ban. C-309 was the proposal of Conservative MP Blake Richards in October 2011 and it became law in June 2013. C-309 forbids people to wear “a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse” during riots or unlawful assemblies. Following Blake’s description, these “occur when citizens on the streets of their own city have reasonable grounds to be afraid”. The new legislation, unlike P-6, does not ban masks during lawful assemblies. The debates in Parliament surrounding it will serve as a case study to see how law enforcement and supporters of Order see masks. In fact, several Conservatives who intervened, including Richards, are retired police officers.

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, and were later fed by the Quebec student strike. Let us now follow anti-mask discourses for a while. For Richards, riots “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”, but more specifically so-called anarchists, 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 fact, the language used reveals a fear of “anarchist” organizations only waiting for an occasion to loot and 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 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 should protect “individuals who are looking to be part of a peaceful protest, because it will prevent those who want to infiltrate it in order to engage in criminal activity”. It would prevent degeneration of protest into riots, which forces police interventions to stop the demonstration.

Here, the carnivalesque danger or the social threat of the medieval mask seems transferred directly in the political scene: the mask is the instrument of “anarchists”. In French, this association between mask and so-called “anarchy” has passed in lexicon: chienlit, an old word related to masks, masquerades 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, which discredits their protest by making it subpolitical. This is a process described by Foucault (1975) and used time and time again. The recent characterization of the Ferguson events as “riots” (rather than, say, “rebellion”) is another good example of this.

In practice, neither medieval urban oligarchies nor the Conservative government had much to fear from masks themselves or what they represent. In both case, it represents the destruction of Order, either social order, through carnivalesque inversion of hierarchy, or political order through ill-defined “anarchism”. In reality, mask bans were unused (and unusable) in the Middle Ages : the laws had to be reproclaimed periodically, which shows they probably did not work as intended. In effect, masks were everywhere, in fact. As for C-309, it is redundant with already existing measures : participating to a riot is a criminal offense, and wearing a mask while committing a crime is also illegal, so the Bill creates nothing new. In fact, through these laws, medieval cities and modern government sought less to silence opponents than to answer fears of disorder and affirm, in front of their supporters, an imaginary victory of Order on masks and Chaos.

Works cited

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

Bercé, Yves-Marie (1976 [2006]). Fête et révolte : Des mentalités populaires du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Hachette Littératures.

Crouzet-Pavan, Élisabeth (1992). « Sopra le acque salse » : Espaces, pouvoir et société à Venise à la fin du Moyen Âge, Rome, Istituto storico italiano per il Medio Evo.

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

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

Gauvard, Claude, & Altan Gokalp (1974). « Les conduites de bruit et leur signification à la fin du Moyen Âge : Le Charivari », Annales E. S. C. 29 (2), p. 693-704

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

Humphrey, Chris (2001). The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in medieval England, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Le Goff, Jacques, & Jean-Claude Schmitt (ed.) (1982). Le charivari, Actes de la Table ronde organisée à Paris par l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales et le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (Paris, 25-27 avril 1977), Paris, Mouton, 445 pages.

Muchembled, Robert (1992). « I giovani e I gruppi giovanilli nella società rurale francese », in Agostino Paravicini Bagliani & André Vauchez (ed.), Poteri carismatici e informali : chiesa e società medioevali, Palerme, Sellerio, p. 17-37.

Rossiaud, Jacques (1976). “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.

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


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2 thoughts on “Youth Groups and Society, Part 2: Subverting Order

  1. […] divided in three parts for my blog. This is part one, where I talk about youth in general terms. Part two will discuss how youth groups could subvert the established order. Part three will discuss how […]

  2. […] This is part three, which discusses how youth groups could reinforce the established order. Part two described how it could subvert it, while part one described youth in general terms. The video […]

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