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Feast and Daily Life in the Middle Ages
Lecture by Christian Rohr
Given at Novosibirsk State University (2002)
Introduction: Any culture has its feasts. They constitute something like fixed or occasional milestones, dividing the circle of a year and of life in singular sections. The harder and more monotonous this daily life is, the more these feasts will be an occasion to escape this daily life for at least some hours. Feasts always made daily life tolerable or let it forget for a while.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance time feasts have been celebrated for very different occasions: on the celebration day of a saint, for a wedding or a funeral, during the adventus, the arrival of a king or within a chivalrous or also bourgeois tournament. Nevertheless, a feast did not only serve to flee daily life or to point out a special occasion, but it was also established for representation. A main part of communication was held without any words, but through different signs. It always played a major role, and it also plays today, which dresses you wear for which guest, which dishes you will serve or which place you choose for a feast.
Most of the societies of the beginning 3rd millennium have lost a bit the sense for the meaning of feasts. Some people celebrate feasts every day, if they can effort it or if their job is like that. Feasts have mostly lost the exceptional, the unique, the non-repeatable character. In many cases no one realizes the mechanisms of feasts any longer. Thus, rituals become just patterns, but nothing more. Therefore, historians in Europe have begun some years ago to study medieval and early modern feasts and the symbolism within. They did not only focus their interest on only historical aspects, but they have also taken their competence for consulting. Indeed, we can get a lot of knowledge about our nowadays festival culture, when looking back to the feasts of the Middle Ages.
Pictures are one of the most important types of sources concerning feasts and daily life in the Middle Ages, preserved as manuscript illuminations or frescoes. They serve as little windows to a period, which has passed for a long time. From the 16th century onwards oil paintings on canvas became the leading picture source for feasts and other aspects of daily life.