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Carnival Chaos and Lenten Sacrifice

Although perhaps not as closely observed here as in the past, the approach of the period known to Christians as Lent was long marked with festivities and licence; a storm before the calm of six weeks solemn observance marked by self-discipline, abstinence and spiritual reflection that conclude with the celebration of Easter.  

Traditionally, one of the most marked days of this week was Shrove Tuesday, popularly known as Mardi-Gras in France. It is quite likely that the festive nature of the day has its initial roots in the pagan celebrations that once marked the end of Winter and heralded the coming of Spring; long standing seasonal celebrations that morphed with the Matronalia feasts of the Roman Empire before later becoming Christianized to mark the start of Lent in the 4th century.

Carnival - Mardi Gras - Easter traditions - Brittany - France
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Lent, the forty days before Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday and recalls the forty years spent in the wilderness by the people of Israel under Moses and the forty days that Christ spent in the desert after his baptism, before the commencement of his mission. For Christians, it was and remains for many, a period of introspection and penitence, where the devout fasted or willingly abstained from alcohol, meat and rich foodstuffs.

The day preceding Ash Wednesday marks the end of the period of excess or ‘seven fat days’ that took place between the Thursday preceding Quinquagesima Sunday (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) and Shrove Tuesday. This last day before the Lenten fasting period began thus became popularly known as ‘Fat Tuesday’ or Mardi-Gras. Today, it is customary to eat crêpes, doughnuts or waffles on Mardi-Gras. Such an indulgence is a remnant from the times when these dishes were made to purposefully exhaust the scarce reserves of eggs and butter that were not going to be used during Lent and would therefore spoil over the next forty days.

Carnival - Mardi Gras - Easter traditions - Brittany - France
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Even as late as the 1930s, this was the only time of the year when the folk of rural Brittany ate beef bought from a butcher. Before the First World War, such meat was so rare on the tables of western Brittany that a special song was sung when it was served. Other Mardi-Gras favourites included crêpes and craquelines but a sweet dish known as Farz Buan was also very popular; a sort of deconstructed pancake made with a thick crêpe batter, lots of sugar and salted butter, the mixture fried until carmelised and sprinkled with sugar.

In western Brittany, the Bara Dous and the very similar Bara Gwastell were other Mardi-Gras specialities; soft sweet breads made with flour, butter, milk, eggs, sugar and a dash of alcohol, sometimes raisins were added too. This part of Brittany also enjoyed another quite distinct Mardi-Gras culinary tradition, the chotten or pig’s cheek.

In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, it was common for even the most meagre households to raise a pig for the purpose of feeding the family and to sell the good cuts of meat for money to buy iron, salt or another pig. The pig was therefore a valuable commodity and no part of the butchered animal was wasted; just the offal from one animal alone could keep a large family well-nourished for over a fortnight. For those animals slaughtered in the run-up to Mardi-Gras, the pigs’ heads, having first been cut in half and soaked in brine, were brought to the neighbourhood baker or communal bread oven to be baked after the bread, where they roasted in the pre-heated oven for several hours before emerging still steaming.

Carnival - Mardi Gras - Easter traditions - Brittany - France
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Giving-up food for Lent was a genuine sacrifice at a time when most people enjoyed, at best, a simple and relatively poor diet. Visitors to Brittany in the 19th century all noted the populace’s wretched diet and even towards the end of that century, bread, pancakes and broth were noted as the staple diet of most people. Today, broth has become re-invented in the popular imagination into something served in fine-dining restaurants but the broth eaten by the peasants of Brittany was very basic fare; a pottage of buckwheat or millet, sometimes enlivened with chestnuts or a little cabbage and a turnip or potato. During Lent, even these meals were reduced to a minimum and any vegetables used in a broth were usually replaced with parsnips.

Typically, bread was made from barley or rye and in many households constituted both breakfast and dinner when soaked in salted hot water with just a trace of butter in it. Meals were usually accompanied with water or milk – cider and wine, being tradeable commodities, were saved for feast days and celebrations. Meat was another luxury usually reserved for feast days; a state of affairs that was still typical for poorer farmers and agricultural labourers in the years immediately before the First World War. By that time, the better off farmers could afford to eat a little fatty bacon every day but most people were only able to afford a small piece once or twice a week.

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The rarity of meat on the table is suggested in a tale noted in the 1880s around the northern town of Langueux in which four young men vie with each other over what they would do if they were king for a day. In discussing what they would eat, one man declared: “Beans and smoked bacon; a piece as fat as my big toe.” Without hesitation, another said: “A pork sausage as long as the road from Lamballe to Saint-Brieuc!” Not to be outdone, the third man announced: “I will have the sea turned into suet and will be in the middle of it with a wooden spoon.” The fourth man was speechless and decried: “There is nothing left for me; you have taken all the good things!”

One might wonder why hard-working, productive farmers ate so poorly. Simply put, it was out of necessity because almost the entirety of their production was reserved for sale or barter; the best vegetables, potatoes and chestnuts were destined for market, as were the eggs and most butter. Likewise, any birds or fish caught were typically sold or exchanged rather than eaten at home; a state of affairs that was also noted in the coastal communities where the fishermen ate only the cheapest shellfish and crabs, selling all their fish, lobsters and oysters.

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It is worth noting that, until the early years of the 20th century, the food eaten by farmers and their households here was remarkably similar to that reserved for animal feed, principally buckwheat, potatoes and chestnuts. Thus, when harvests were poor and food was scarce, the people endured simply because their animals received less to eat.

In anticipation of forty days of austerity, the festivities associated with the period before Lent, known as Shrovetide, were an opportunity for people to enjoy themselves and behave more freely than was usually socially accepted; to let off some steam before the onslaught of the hard work necessitated by the arrival of Spring. They were informal, relaxed occasions that gathered together family and friends and the wider community. It was a time for merrymaking, feasting, drinking and for playing bouts of competitive games, such as those discussed in a recent post.

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Mardi-Gras celebrations in Breton cities were more widely regarded by the locals as a period of license and officially-tolerated disorder. Although in the eastern town of Dol, it was the day that the bishop invited all the beggars of the country to feast within the precincts of the cathedral; a long-held practice that was, sadly, only discontinued by the Revolution.

More generally, the spirit of carnival prevailed: social conventions were temporarily cast aside, roles were reversed; men dressed as women, the poor in the fashion of the well-to-do, sailors dressed as agricultural labourers and vice versa. Through costume and disguise, one’s station in life could be momentarily forgotten and overturned. The mask of anonymity allowed one a mischievous opportunity to harangue and poke fun at authority and to those who normally wielded it.

Popular parades often gave rise to parodies of religious processions but such outrages were tolerated by the religious and civil authorities, even if they reproached the excesses of the multitude or the ridicule of which they were the victims. In the 19th century, some local authorities in Brittany tried to gain control over these celebrations with the organisation of official cavalcades and approved organising committees; measures that ultimately proved successful across the region by the turn of the century.

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A rather curious ritual was noted at carnival time in eastern Brittany in the latter half of the 19th century and seems to share similarities with ones recorded in parts of England and Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, young men crafted the body of a horse from a ladder and the rings of a barrel, this skeletal frame was then covered with a decorated cloth. While one man supported the weight of the horse’s body, the other held the neck and head and pulled strings that snapped the sharp jaws open and closed.

The horse, known as Bidoche, was led noisily from house to house, dancing to the sound of myriad instruments as it crossed the community. Sadly, we no longer know the meaning behind this ritual or even its purpose but the practice seems to have died out towards the end of the century under the weight of municipal concerns for public order and safety.

Carnival - Mardi Gras - Easter traditions - Brittany - France
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Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

165 thoughts on “Carnival Chaos and Lenten Sacrifice

  1. I love reading about the food traditions of Brittany. Your Farz Buan sound a lot like something we have here called Funnel Cakes. You can usually get them at amusement parks and fairs 🙂 I also never knew why Lent was 40 days long, so thanks for sharing that!

    Liked by 2 people

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