With the fall of Rome in 410 BCE, the “Dark Ages” is considered to have begun. They would continue until around the 4-5th century CE, though there were slow beginnings around 1st century CE. As Europe crawled out from the Dark Ages, where theatre seems to have no history, the first millennium shows a rebuilding and an interest in the arts again, not seen since just before the beginning of the Common Era. In France and Rome, medieval drama was starting. Storytelling started in the churches, in the form of bible history. These were seen as a physical alternative to sermons. The visual nature of the plays was meant to appeal to the parishioners. In 800 CE, Christianity was pouring into the Roman Empire, including the formerly Celtic lands. Believing in the singular deity, the idea of worshipping multiple gods was abhorred by the Christians. The Christians, therefore, were believed to be understandably shocked at the rituals involving the passing of the dead, and of multiple god and goddess worship. Wearing masks was seen as idolatry or devil worship, as well as other celebrations that they deemed as “pagan”. To convert these believers, they kept the celebration of honouring the dead (like the Romans before them), but changed the idea, turning it into a three day festival. This was not changed at once, but their days were allowed to melt into the now Romans (and Celts) beliefs. To help the conversion of the days, the 31st of Halloween was now called All Hallows Eve, the day set aside to be to be hallowed to the past ancestors.
As the centuries passed, The churches felt that they had to get the stories to the larger populations outside the churches. As a result, the stories were told to bigger and bigger audiences, and simple ritual storytelling evolved to theatrical productions. They would eventually take their stories outdoors, and in the 12th century, there are records of priests setting up a platform and performing in France. Called “The Mystery of Adam”, the play tells the story of Adam and Eve, but also with the inclusion of devils and demons. It was the performing outside, on a platform, that allowed performer to get more elaborate with the story. This t story sums up as Adam and Eve are dragged away by the demons into a smoking pit. No doubt there were many masks in these productions, particularly for the demons. Also during this time we see the beginnings of farce. There is question as to how farce evolved. Some suggest at this time that it was storytelling adapted from pagan stories; others suggest that the drama stories that were being told had some farcical elements to break up tension.
So the conjunction of the hallowed days and the use of masks in theatre continued. The practice of the Hallows Eve continued with the 31st, 1st of November would be All Saints Day, where past saints would be remembered, and in 1000 AD Nov 2 became All Souls Day, the final day of memorial for past souls. The idea of masks and costumes was further developed, for the belief of keeping evil spirits at bay. The masks were either encouraged to be more Christian ideals, like angels, or if demon faces were insisted, it was the idea to scare off other demons, not to idolize them (as the Christians believed was happening). Along with this was the practice of “souling”; going door to door asking for soul bread. The bread would then be brought home to offer to the ancestors.
The path to the well known Venice Carnival starts in 1094. The word ‘Carnival’ actual derives its name from the phrase carnem levare, ‘to put away meat’. In many Mediterranean cities up to this point the holiday stemmed from agriculture, celebrations of Dionysus and other gods of harvest. The celebrations were of ritual, of masks and dancing, celebrating the upcoming year for harvest and thanks for the previous. As Christianity rose, the rituals would die down. The Christians still wanted to convert the people, so, like Hallows Eve, festivals were held, including “Feast of Fools” and “Feast of the Innocent”, which were variations on previous pagan celebrations. These were held between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Fancy dress balls and Masquerades were very popular during time and these would carry forward. Each city has tailored their own celebrations since then. Thus Carnival was used as a way of ingratiating others into Christianity (and in this case, Catholicism). The earliest reference to Carnival is in a charter written by Doge Vitale Michael. He makes reference to ‘carnis laxatio’, or ‘forsaking of the flesh’. The indication is even at this time in history; the Venetians were finding were very wealthy and constantly looking for diversions and entertainment. In 1162, The Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulhico attacked the town of Grado with twelve armies from various towns. The people ran over the city and took it over in short order. The Venetians , under Doge Vitale Michael grouped and gathered an armada of ships. With troops and ships, Doge recaptured Grado and defeated Ulhico. Doge captured Ulhico and many of his army. Instead of killing them, they spared their lives and sent them out of the town. Although this seems like mercy, it was not without a price. In return for their lives being spared, Ulhico was obligated to send a bull(it ended up being an ox) and 10 pigs each year to symbolise the defeated army. In a form of great pageantry, every year the ox and pigs, the “prisoners”, were marched like the condemned through the streets, with the crowds watching. The pigs and ox were “executed” by a town butcher picked for that year, and the meat would feed the festival which followed. The celebration was allowed in San Marco square, where Carnival finds its roots.
In 13th century Europe and Venice, masks were coming into use in lent related celebrations. Lent is the Catholic ritual that involves the abstinence of a vice for a period of 40 days. The forty days were symbolic of the forty days Jesus was said to have 1wandered the desert until he found his ministry. Therefore, the celebration would allow drinking, sex or other vice, before settling down for forty days. Masks meant you remained anonymous during these celebrations, and would not be held against you at later times. Masks also meant that the “higher” classes could associate with the “lower”, thus making an equal social ground. Eventually there had to be some restrictions, in the form of laws. The first written example of masks in any capacity during this time is from a law in 1268. It pertains to masqueraders being forbidden from playing a game called “eggs”, a game in which Venetian boys would throw perfumed eggs at passerby or from balconies. During this period, Carnival would start on St. Stephens Day (December 26) and continue to Ash Wednesday. The Tuesday before is known as Shrove Tuesday, also known as “Fat Tuesday”, or Mardi gras? This proceeded Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent. Different countries celebrate differently, some use the whole time between New Year and Lent as Carnival, others like Venice had a slow ramp up, with the last two days being the pinnacle of the celebrations. In 1339, law was introduced of masqueraders being prevented from being on city streets at night. In 1458 male mask wearers were forbidden to dress as women and enter convents to partake in less than “pure” social relations. There seemed to be a problem with inappropriate activities with nuns. And in 1608 mask wearers were finally told in law that they were obligated to wear masks only during carnival and official banquets. The question may be what type of punishment awaited those who wore their masks flagrantly? Quite severe it seems. Breaking one these laws would see a man sent to two years in prison, or eighteen months of rowing servitude (rowing in slave ships). Women who broke the rules were whipped. Having a mask did not give you free reign to do what you wished. Coming back to Carnival itself, there were spectacles to see. There were different sections of town with different activities. In one section would be a human pyramid and other feats of strength. There was a masked ballet performed by women in another. A bloody bull beheading contributed to the sacrificial aspect of Carnival. The highlight of the carnival was the “Dove Flight”. A rope was strung from the bell tower to Doge place. A condemned that was chosen prisoner would walk this rope. If he made it to the end, he was given gifts and his freedom. The only other alternative was to fall to his death. Over time this was replaced with a metal dove that slung down the rope to Doge place. Eventually the practice was returned with an “Angel Flight”, which has a supported performer now resuming the symbolic trip.