Carnival represents in many ways a diversion period in the sense that it diverts, distracts the individual from his daily worries as well as his regulated life. The time of carnival is a very special moment in the social life when, in the old times, rules were smashed into pieces to be literally lived “the other way round”.
The time of carnival was not a social disorder period or a return to the non differentiated state of the original chaos, but rather a new social order, a “reverse” order where “what is up is like what is down” and conversely. During this period of time, the role of the King or Bishop was given to an idiot or a criminal who ruled over the kingdom or the church at odds with common laws. When carnival was over, the idiot went back to his village and the criminal returned to prison or to the gallows if he was not pardoned. In order to prevent excess, the clergy himself took part in these grotesque pranks inside the church. So, on the occasion of the medieval Donkey festival, the clerics decked the animal out sacerdotal garments and introduced him all the way to the altar. The beast was the object of smutty jokes as well as tokens of respect usually reserved to the ecclesiastic authorities. At times, during the Mad festivals, in the Middle Age, the population practiced a reversal of function, age, sex or social code (wearing cloths inside-out, sitting on animals back to front, profaning the sacred, mocking the authorities, inversion of masculine and feminine roles 1 etc.) which turned the world completely upside down in a limited space and time period.
All these codified practices were aimed at funnelling inferior tendencies of the being, operating an effective catharsis and liberating repressed passions. Without any authority setting limits, a real disorder could have happened with the risk of the situation degenerating into an explosion of impulses, which could have ended in murder. All the more so since the population was wearing disguises and masks allowing them, in principle, to remain anonymous. In fact, the masquerades contributed to the reverse practices. Each person chose indeed, subconsciously, a disguise and a mask which best reflected his or her inferior tendencies. Far from hiding one's face, the mask let appear, on the contrary, the true face of the individual. The person thereby showed a real facet of himself or herself hidden under the different masks in accordance with social norms. The mask (from the Latin “persona”) in fact dissimulated the various appearances of the social character and revealed the real personality of the individual.
These festivals, which had a parodical and blasphemous feature, were not only accepted, but officially recognized. The Church nevertheless condemned on several occasions the scandals and the festival length was shortened in the course of centuries. By the end of the Middle Ages, it no longer had the former spontaneity it once had. Curiously, an explosion of witchcraft manifestations rose then, out of proportion with the preceding periods. The carnival festivals had a strange tie with the witch “Sabbath” where everything was also undertaken upside down. These manifestations were from that moment considered as satanic by the Holy Office and sounded the death knell to the tolerance of practices of a reversal world accepted since antic time.