REVOLUTION AS CARNIVAL


A digression on the revolutionary elements that moved amongst the carnival.

For Bakhtin the carnival liberates, transgresses and subverts, but if the carnival was locked into the official calender of the feudal hierarchy perhaps it could be argued that it was only the spectacle of freedom, it was only a means by which the church and the nobility contained and enervated all subversive social energy. This is far too simplistic, because in the first place the carnival may have been sanctioned by the official feudal Christian culture but the carnival rituals and celebrations carried the syncretic culture of pre-Christian paganism; if the church exploited the carnival as a means to contain dissent, then the carnival also exploited the church as means to persist. Secondly the mediaeval carnival was too unstable and anarchic for the official culture to control and would frequently result in violent social clashes, 1 in mediaeval London the wearing of masks during the celebration of feast days was repeatedly banned in fear that carnival would turn to riot. 2
To consider mediaeval carnival as a cultural form separate from political action is a misconception based on a post 18th century perception of politics as a discrete social activity.3 Carnival was political, as religion was political. Carnival could explode into revolt and revolt could release the carnival, it cannot be reduced to a binary opposition between the serious and the comic, or the grotesque and classic or even the finished and the open, neither can it be contained under the category 'entertainment" or 'leisure', because whilst the carnival was temporary it could also become a subversive means and a political end. The carnival held within it the demand for the carnivalisation of the world.

Whilst Bakhtin celebrates the utopian unofficial comic culture of carnival, it is also possible to track an unofficial utopian millenarian and mystical anarchist tradition that winds from the 13th century through late mediaeval Europe to the Ranters and Diggers of the English Civil War. This tradition is described by Norman Cohn in his book The Pursuit Of The Millennium 4 first published in 1957.
In late mediaeval Europe war, plague and the beginnings of urban capitalism destabilised the age old feudal networks of rural kinship and community. Between 1348-9 almost half the population of England died in the plague of the Black Death, entire villages were deserted , cultivated land ran wild and prices soared. The shortage of labour encouraged free peasants to demand higher wages and serfs to demand their freedom. But the success of these demands was limited by statutes restricting pay and preventing the liberation of the serfs. For the next thirty years the frustrated hope of the common people was turned to a revolutionary anger by oppressive taxes levied by the nobility to wage a futile war against France and by the conspicuous luxury and corruption of the elite ranks of the Church. In 1381 Parliament sanctioned a Poll Tax on every male over the age of sixteen and sparked the spontaneous Peasants Revolt. All over England the common people rose up against the tax and demanded the abolition of feudal bonds and servitude. On the feast of Corpus Christi, one of the principal carnival and pageant days of the mediaeval year, a faction of the revolt led by Wat Tyler marched on London and freed the prisoners of Newgate and Fleet, amongst these was 'the mad priest' John Ball. They then burned the palace of John of Gaunt, who ruled England in all but name and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury. The nobility were forced to agree to the peasants demands and the child king Richard II signed a Charter of Liberty. Soon after the Revolt disbanded the nobility betrayed their agreements, executed the leaders of the Revolt and annulled the Charter .5

Although the demands of the Peasants Revolt were limited and specific there is enough evidence of an anarchist millenarian ideology amongst the leaders for Cohn to cite the Revolt as perhaps the first instance of a social insurrection driven by the hope of a new Golden Age, the millennium, a return to a mythical state of nature in which all men were equal and all property was held in common; a utopia. A particular factor in the millennial character of the Revolt was the support of the new urban classes of London, the 'masterless men' and the mystics who dwelt amongst them:

'.....there existed in London an underworld such as had long existed in the towns of France and Germany and the Low Countries: journeymen who were excluded from the guilds and at the same time were forbidden to form organisations of their own; unskilled workers, worn-out soldiers and deserters; a surplus population of beggars and unemployed - in fact a whole urban underworld living in great misery and perpetually on the verge of starvation, and constantly swollen by the flight of villeins from the countryside. In such a milieu, where fanatical prophetae mixed with the disoriented and desperate poor on the very margin of society, an upheaval which was in any case shaking the whole social structure of the country was bound to make itself felt with cataclysmic force and to produce repercussions of the utmost violence. There it must really have seemed that all things were being made new, that all social norms were dissolving and all barriers collapsing. '6

Moving amongst the mediaeval carnival were agents who believed that utopia was immanent and attainable and none more so than the adepts of the Free Spirit. The heresy of the Free Spirit is first identified around the 13th century as one of the many forms of Christian mysticism prevalent in late mediaeval Europe, although its earliest origins can be traced to a mystical brotherhood of Sufis active at the close of the 12th century in Islamic Spain7 . It was in the 12th century that reforms in the Christian Church began to accelerate the growth of a significant number of wandering priests and mystics who renounced the organised Church and took up a life of voluntary poverty and public preaching in imitation of the life of Christ and the apostles.

'The voluntarily poor formed a mobile, restless intelligentsia, members of which were constantly travelling along the trade-routes from town to town, operating mostly underground and finding an audience and a following amongst all the disoriented and anxious elements in urban society. They saw themselves as the only true imitators of the Apostles and indeed of Christ; they called their -way of life 'apostolic'; and up to the middle of the twelfth century it was for this reason, rather than on account of any peculiar theological doctrines, that they were sometimes condemned as heretics. But from the second half of the twelfth century onwards these multitudes of itinerant 'holy beggars' of both sexes showed themselves ready to assimilate any and every heretical doctrine that
there was.'
8

Early in the 13th century the Church sanctioned the establishment of the mendicant orders of the Franciscans and the Dominions as a means to control the influence of these wandering mystics, but this was only effective until the middle of the century when the orders lost the faith of the common people or even split into extremist factions.

'The heresy of the Free Spirit, after being held in check for half a century, began to spread rapidly again towards the close of the thirteenth century. From then onwards until the close of the Middle Ages it was disseminated by men who were commonly called Beghards and who formed an unofficial lay counterpart to the Mendicant Orders. They too were mendicants - indeed it is probably from their name that the English words ,' beg' and 'beggar ' derive. They frequented towns and ranged through the streets in noisy groups, routing for alms and crying their characteristic begging-cry: 'Bread for God's sake' They wore costumes rather like those of the friars, yet specially designed to differ from these in certain details. Sometimes the robe was red, sometimes it was split from the waist down; to emphasise the profession of poverty the hood was small and covered with
patches. The Beghards were an ill-defined and restless fraternity - running
about the world, we are told, like vagabond monks. At the slightest disturbance they were up and away, splitting up into small groups, migrating from mountain to mountain like some strange sparrows. These self-anointed 'holy beggars' were full of contempt for the easy-going monks and friars, fond of interrupting church services, impatient of ecclesiastical discipline. They preached much, without authorisation but with considerable popular success. They held no particular heretical doctrine in common, but by the beginning of the fourteenth century the ecclesiastical authorities realised that amongst them were a number of missionaries of the Free Spirit.'
9

At its height the Free Spirit was an underground empire of safe houses, secret communities and Beghard groups that covered most of Northern Europe, Italy, France and Spain.
Their heresy was a hybrid of ecstatic Gnostic mysticism, Neo-Platonism, pantheism and millenarian anarchy; its adepts believed that since God had created all things, everything was God, so they were also God(s). They could not sin, they were answerable to no authority, everything belonged to them, all property was to be held in common and some of the adepts believed they had even surpassed Christ in their divinity. The adepts were drawn from every class of mediaeval society and numbered both men and women, indeed they practised a mystical promiscuity and used the sexual act as a sacrament. Although they travelled with the voluntary poor, adepts would also wear noble costume to signify their divinity. Since all creation was their property and they could not sin, adepts could cheat, rob and use violence without remorse. The Free Spirit achieved total liberty and union with God, they became divine.

Cohn traces the heretical tradition of the Free Spirit from the late mediaeval period to its reappearance amongst the Ranters, an anarchist religious sect active during the English Revolution of the 17th century.
Whereas the French Revolution fixed the accession of the bourgeoisie as an act of revolutionary republican humanism , the earlier English Revolution was fought within the context of the conflict between radical Protestant puritanism and the established church of the nobility. And whilst the French Revolution established revolution as a tradition at the core of French politics , the English Revolution culminated in an infinitely flexible social compromise between the bourgeoisie and the nobility.
The puritan tradition properly begins with the Lollards, 'the mutterers', followers of John Wycliffe (1320 - 84) such as John Ball who rode with the Peasants Revolt. As the Protestant puritan culture developed into the Renaissance the puritans proved themselves the avowed and effective enemies of carnival which they deemed to be nothing but Romish superstition and wickedness .10 With the triumph of the puritan Parliament in 1649 the popular culture of carnival was effectively outlawed, the theatres were closed, gaming and gambling were banned, alehouses were closed and even Christmas was forbidden. But the Republic could not suppress the carnival, popular culture simply went underground. Moreover the revolution brought to the common people hope of a new age of liberty and equality, it turned the world upside down, it transposed, overturned and invoked the ambivalent power of the carnival. Amongst the forces unleashed in the brief revolutionary chaos between the outbreak of the civil war and establishment of the puritan Protectorate were a cluster of anarchist sects on the fringes of the puritan movement, most significantly Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers who founded utopian communes on squatted land and the Ranters who proclaimed the total subversion of their society and all its values. Most celebrated of the ranters was Abiezer Coppe who in 1649 published his notorious tract 'A Fiery Flying Roll'11

'As also in falling down flat upon the ground before rogues, beggars, cripples, halt, maimed, blind, &c. kissing the feet of many, rising up againe, and giving them money, &c. Besides that notorious businesse with the Gypseys and Gaolbirds (mine own brethren and sisters) flesh of my flesh, and as good as the greatest Lord in England) at the prison in Southwark neer St. Georges Church.
Now that which rises up from under all this heap of ashes, will fire both heaven and earth; the one's ashamed, and blushes already, the other reels to and fro like a drunken man.Wherefore thus saith the Lord, Hear O heavens, and hearken O earth, Ile overturne, overturne, overturne, I am now staining the pride of all glory, and bringing into contempt all the honourable of the earth, Isa . 23.9 not only honourable persons, (who shall come down with a vengeance, if they bow not to universall love the eternall God, whose service is perfect freedome) but honorable things, as Elderships, Pastorships, Fellowships, Churches, Ordinances, Prayers, &c. Holinesses, Righteousnesses, Religions of all sorts, of the highest strains; yea, Mysterians, and Spirituallists, who scorne carnall Ordinances, &c.
I am about my act, my strange act, my worke, my strange work, that whosoever hears of it, both his ears shall tingle. I am confounding, plaguing, tormenting nice, demure, barren Mical, with Davids unseemly carriage, by skipping, leaping, dancing, like one of the fools, vile, base fellowes, shamelessely, basely, and uncovered too, before handmaids, - .. . It's meat and drink to an Angel (who knows none evil, no sin) to sweare a full mouth'd oath. Rev. 10.6. It's joy to Nehemiah to come in like a mad-man, and pluck folkes hair off their beds, and curse like a devil - and make them swear by God - Nehum. 13. Do thou O holy man (who knowest evill) lift up thy finger against a Jew, a Churchmember, cal thy brother fool, and wish a peace-cods on him; or swear I faith, if thou dar'st, if thou dost, thou shalt howl in hell for it, and I will laugh at thy calamity, &c. '


By all accounts the Ranters howled, laughed, swore, smoked, drank and fucked themselves into universal love and liberty. In their pamphlets and in the songs and tracts of the Diggers it is possible to glimpse the counter culture of the 17th century, the possibility of an alternative English society. Between 1649 and 1650 Digger colonies were established throughout the counties surrounding London and possibly also Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire 12 , whilst the Ranters were scattered throughout the country, amongst the army and principally in London were they numbered many thousands.13 As Christopher Hill observes in The World Turned Upside Down :

'There had been moments when it seemed as though from the ferment of radical ideas a culture might emerge which would be different both from the traditional aristocratic culture and from the bourgeois culture of the Protestant ethic which replaced it. We can discern shadows of what this counter-culture might have been like. Rejecting private property for communism, religion for a rationalistic and materialistic pantheism, the mechanical philosophy for dialectical science, asceticism for unashamed enjoyment of the good things of the flesh, it might have achieved unity through a federation of communities, each based on the fullest respect for the individual. Its ideal would have been economic self-sufficiency, not world trade or world domination. The economically significant consequence of Puritan emphasis on sin was the compulsion to labour, to save, to accumulate, which contributed so much to making possible the Industrial Revolution in England. Ranters simply rejected this: Quakers ultimately came to accept it. Only Winstanley put forward an alternative. Exploitation, not labour, was the curse of fallen (i.e. covetous) man. Abolish exploitation with the wage relationship, and labour in itself, to contribute to the beauty of the commonwealth, would become a pleasure. Coolly regarded, we must agree that this was never more than a dream: the counter-acting forces in society were too strong. It came nearest to realisation in the Digger communities, which might have given the counter-culture an economic base. Their easy dispersal, and the transition from unorganised Ranter individualism to the organised Society of Friends, registers the fading of the dream into the half-light of common day.'

With the establishment of the military Protectorate in 1651 the Digger communes were crushed and the key leaders and writers of the Ranter movement were arrested and forced to recant.

Ironically, although the revolutionary carnival of the Diggers and the Ranters sought to overturn the feudal hierarchy it is with the restoration of the feudal order in 1660 that the popular culture of carnival returns, the theatres are re-opened and festivals recommenced. Throughout the insecure reign of Charles II the state encouraged the popular carnival believing that it would divert the common people from faction and rebellion.14 Moreover the Restoration state deliberately used carnival to construct a mythical context for the return of the King : Charles II returned from exile on May Day and his journey to London was accompanied by Morris-dancing and the raising of long forbidden May-poles 15. But once again it would be a mistake to identify this state appropriation of the carnival as an effective containment of the subversive power of the carnival, this period of tolerance was followed by centuries in which popular culture was feared and suppressed by the English bourgeois state.

Although the tradition of mystical anarchy survived into the 20th century its role in this history is complex and ambivalent. After the Restoration the revolutionary power of British mystical protestantism effectively migrated to America , although a tradition of British millennial mystical communities continued throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century.
In the last quarter of the 19th century mystical millenarianism combined with modern industrial processes to produce a fantastic hybrid mystical 'modernism', perhaps the most striking example of this was 'Jezreel's Tower', a mystical millenium dome. In 1880 James White 16 , also known as James Jersham Jezreel of the Christian Israelite sect wrote what he believed to be God's last message to mankind, 'The Flying Roll'. Jezreel called for a great 'ingathering' of the chosen few at the Israelite community at Gillingham in Kent where they were to build a great sectarian temple, the New and Latter House of Israel. Here the immortal Israelites would await the return of Christ, the millennium, a thousand years of heaven on earth. Jezreel called upon the Israelite brethren of both Britain and America to give up their worldly goods and dedicate themselves to the building of the House and as funds arrived the house was designed and land acquired on Chatham Hill. The House was to be square in accordance with a biblical reference concerning the city of God, its roof would be flat, it was to be built of concrete and steel, there were to be lifts, a modern heating system, gas and electric lighting and the entire ground floor was planned as a vast printing works which could turn out thousands of copies of the The Flying Roll and other Israelite tracts. At each corner of the vast temple would rise a tower, which on special occasions would be illuminated by electric light. But most amazing was to be the vast assembly room :

'It was to be circular in shape like an amphitheatre, was to reach almost to the top of the building and was to accommodate 5,000 people. In the roof of this great room or hall there was to be a glass dome, 94 feet in diameter, and invisible from outside the building. The dome, supported by twelve massive steel ribs was to rise 100 feet above the floor , and in the dome a revolving electric light 45 feet in
diameter was to be the source of light, since the Assembly Room was not to have any windows......[ ]....The tower was to embody a number of remarkable features. Chief of these perhaps, was the circular platform in the centre of the floor in the Assembly Room. It was to be 24 feet in diameter, and capable of being raised by hydraulic pressure to a height of 30 feet. It was to accommodate the choir and the preachers, and was to rotate slowly so that each part of the congregation in the vast circular hall could be faced in turn.'
17

Unfortunately the immortal Jezreel died in 1884 and although his wife, Queen Esther continued the project, building eventually ceased in 1905. The partially completed tower stood until 1961, when it took 13 months to demolish.

As we track the development of Underground Cinema to its first concrete articulation in the counterculture of the 1960s the tradition of the mystical utopian cult appears as a complex component of not only the counterculture but also of popular culture, the Avant Garde and Anti-Art. It is fundamental to the Utopian Socialists of the 19th century, it is a current in Romanticism, in Bohemia, in the mystic Artist of Symbolism and Art For Art's Sake. In the famous letter from the teenage vagrant poet Rimbaud to Paul Demeny of 1871 you can hear the distant echo of the heresy of the Free Spirit :

'I say you have to become a visionary , make yourself a visionary. A poet makes himself a visionary through a long boundless, and systematised disorganisation of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great accursed-and the Supreme Scientist ! For he attains the unknown ! Because he has cultivated his soul........' 18

The vagabond mediaeval mystic haunts 20th century culture, s/he embraces poverty and joins the dispossessed, the masses, the poor, s/he transcends, transgresses and becomes divine, s/he moves amongst the carnival in extravagant costume, s/he is the imitation of Christ. In Paris in the late 50s/early '60s the bohemian Situationists plundered Cohn's study in their relentless theorisation of a revolution in everyday life.19 In late sixties San Francisco a gang of counter cultural activists developed a network of free food outlets, events and crash pads under the name the Diggers as both a homage to the English Diggers and because they could 'dig' it. In 20th century popular culture the wandering mystic reappears as an iconic figure, the cowboy drifter, the lone biker, the mad poet, the beatnik, the surfer, the seeker, the free spirit.

The tradition of the millennial utopian cult thrives in the New World of America drawing on the heritage of European migrant religious sects and communities which had found land and tolerance in the Republic, from the Puritans and Quakers to the Shakers and Doukhobours. In 20th century America the mystical utopian cult hybridised in schism and heresy and diversified into corporate structure, fandom and new technology. In America the pulp science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard became the messiah of Dianetics, pop singer David Koresh led the Branch Davidians into the apocalypse and the Star Trek fans of Heavens Gate recorded their suicide messages on home video.
In the bourgeois imagination of an American counterculture the utopian cult is paradoxical, it is the dream of the divine commune of flower children, Ken Kesey's 'Merry Pranksters' and the nightmare of Charles Manson and his drug crazed Family, it is the worst fear of American parents.
In modern England the spirit of the Diggers and the Ranters persists. In the 1990s all over Britain road activists and eco-tribes set up protest camps around the protection of ancient woodland. At the Twyford Down protest camp of the early '90s, eco-activism and the crusty subculture of travellers and free festival ravers came together to form the Dongas Tribe.
On June the 18th 1999 I ran with hundreds of other masked trouble makers through the streets of the City of London to protest against the brutality of multinational capitalism. In the summer sun we howled and drummed and laughed at the city workers and they laughed at us. We assembled and danced and drank in the 50 ft spray of a burst water main, under Blackfriars Bridge, by the Thames which froze hard enough in 1684 for a vast carnival to be held on the ice, the Great Frost Fair.
The organisers of the J18 carnival handed out paper masks for us to wear in defiance of the Crime and Disorder Act of April 1999 which gives the police new powers of arrest over anyone who does not remove any item which they believe is being worn to conceal their identity.
On the back of the masks it said :

'Those in authority fear the mask for their power partly resides in identifying, stamping and cataloguing: in knowing who you are. but a carnival needs masks, thousands of masks; and our masks are not to conceal our identity but to reveal it. The masquerade has always been an essential part of Carnival. dressing up and disguise, the blurring of identities and boundaries, transformation, transgression; all are brought together in the wearing of masks.'