From Sacred Rites to Secular Pleasures

Something was lost--and something gained—when festivities were kicked out of church and into the streets.

The following is an excerpt from 'Dancing in the Streets' by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The festivities that crowded the late medieval calendar can be understood as the fragments of what might have been a more joyous and participatory religion. People once danced, drank, feasted, and performed dramas and burlesques within their churches; now they did so outside those churches in the festivities that still clung to, and surrounded, each holy day. Scholars often mark the transition with a change in terminology--using the word ritual for events held in the context of religious observance and the lighter-weight term festivity for those outside of it.

Inevitably, something was lost in the transition from ecstatic ritual to secularized festivities--something we might call meaning or transcendent insight. In ancient Dionysian forms of worship the moment of maximum "madness" and revelry was also the sacred climax of the rite, at which the individual achieved communion with the divinity and a glimpse of personal immortality. Medieval Christianity, in contrast, offered "communion" in the form of a morsel of bread and sip of wine soberly consumed at the altar--and usually saw only devilry in the festivities that followed. True, the entire late medieval calendar of festivities was to some degree sanctioned by the Church, but the uplifting religious experience, if any, was supposed to be found within the Church-controlled rites of mass and procession, not within the drinking and dancing. While ancient worshippers of Dionysus expected the god to manifest himself when the music reached an irresistible tempo and the wine was flowing freely, medieval Christians could only hope that God, or at least his earthly representatives, was looking the other way when the flutes and drums came out and the tankards were passed around.

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Barbara Ehrenreich
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