Bakhtin and the Carnival

Breviary of “Rabelais and His World”

(Leer en español)


(Jump to the table of contents / Jump to the breviary)

In 1965, after thirty years of waiting, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was finally able to publish, in Russia, his masterful study of the series of five novels by Rabelais known as Gargantua and Pantagruel. The study was entitled The Work of François Rabelais and the Popular Culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Творчество Франсуа Рабле и народная культура средневековья и Ренесudoсансurania, Khudozhestvennia literatura, Moscow).

In France, it was first published in 1965 under the title L’œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Âge et sous la Renaissance (Gallimard, Paris). Not long after, MIT released the English translation, by Hélène Iswolsky: Rabelais and His World (1968). The Spanish version had to wait almost twenty more years. La cultura popular en la Edad Media y el Renacimiento: El contexto de François Rabelais (Popular Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: The Context of François Rabelais) appeared in 1987 (Julio Forcat and César Conroy, trans., Alianza Editorial, Madrid).

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Perhaps no work of art better prefigures Bakhtin’s ideas than this.

Rabelais and His World proposed a new approach to the work of the Frenchman “as embodying the essence of carnival, ‘a boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations opposed [to] the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture.’” For the Russian philosopher, scholar, and literary critic, carnival life humorously mirrored the official culture. In doing so, it upset state ideology and liberated the people, even if only temporarily, from a repressive system and from “élite cultural practices” (Michèle Lacombe).

Other Russian and European thinkers had previously dealt with the social phenomenon of carnival and made important propositions about it, including J.W. Goethe, Vissarion Belinsky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Wolfgang Kayser. But Bakhtin was the first to study it systematically and to devise a framework for the interpretation of a series of fundamental dualities (seriousness-laughter, sacred-profane, continuity-change, aristocracy-people, rigor-freedom, soul-body, etc.) based on the carnavalesque. Thus, Bakhtin shed an indispensable light on the work of Rabelais, renewed the field of Renaissance studies, and delivered a unique lens and a most useful set of tools to cultural, literary, and art critics.

Erudite, insightful, generally interesting, and of remarkable prose, Rabelais and His World is not, however, a clearly organized or easily outlined book. To produce it, Bakhtin “brought together the many notebooks he had filled on Rabelais throughout the late thirties” and presented the work as a thesis in 1940 to obtain a diploma at the Maxim Gorky Institute of Literature. Bakhtin had to wait eleven years for the ruling. Although some of the synods wanted him to be awarded the title of doctor, the committee, for rather ideological reasons, ultimately favored a lesser degree (Michael Holquist). The random genesis of the work perhaps serves to explain what could be repetitive and scrambled in it.

Mikhail Bakhtin in the 1920s.

As part of research into Juan José Arreola’s narrative, I recently condensed Rabelais and His World. Since it may be of use, especially for students and scholars of cultural studies and literature, and because I believe that the book is of general interest, I am posting the result here. It is not so much a summary as a brief exposition of the subject, oftentimes using Bakhtin’s own words. A synthesis, in other words, that aims to reflect the original ideas accurately while making them more accessible. A breviary, at best.

The breviary is preceded by a responsive table of contents that, in addition to hyperlinking to the different sections, seeks to function as a synopsis of sorts, a condensation of the work to its minimum expression: compendium of the compendium. In parenthesis, the reader will find the page number of Rabelais and His World (trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984) where any words that I quote or paraphrase may be found.


+Rabelais and the culture of folk humor explain each other. +At the center of the culture of folk humor are carnivals. +Carnivals were the reverse of serious rituals. +Comic forms were not always profane. +These forms were closely related to those of the spectacle (although they were, in essence, different).

+Circumstances of change lead to a festive perception of the world. +The official sphere opposed change but had to tolerate festivities. +During carnival the dominant system stopped working.

+Also characteristic of the culture of folk humor is grotesque realism (the festive images of the body that eats, drinks, defecates, and copulates). +Grotesque realism degrades and, in doing so, renews. +Laughter also degrades and renews. +And laughter liberates, although temporarily. +In grotesque realism, death is a means of regeneration. +In contrast to the classical idea, the grotesque body is incomplete, it is open to the world, of which it is part. +Belonging to the Middle Ages, grotesque realism persisted.

+The language of carnival was made up of marketplace elements and colloquial speech. +Other carnavalesque forms of expression were abuse, the crowning of the clown, games, and madness.

Félix Bracquemond, Portrait of Rabelais, 1868. I like it for all the mischief in his face.


Rabelais and the culture of folk humor explain each other. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin sets out to reassess Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532 – c. 1564), the series of five novels by the French Renaissance writer, through the analysis and deep understanding of the culture of folk humor. This culture, says the Russian critic, is the main source of Rabelais’ images, so reviewing it is essential to understanding him. Rabelais’s entire system of images and worldview, Bakhtin says, comes from that source. (p. 3)

Rabelais’s work, in turn, casts a powerful retrospective light on the development of the culture of folk humor. Gargantua and Pantagruel “[…] must serve as a key to the immense treasury of folk humor which as yet has been scarcely understood or analyzed.” (p. 4)

At the center of the culture of folk humor are carnivals. Bakhtin places the origin of the culture of folk humor in the Middle Ages. It is, he explains, a thousand-year tradition that found its greatest literary expression in the work of Rabelais.

The heart of the culture of folk humor, its inner meaning, and its historical focus reside in the carnivals of the medieval European city. Made of complex parades and processions, among other elements, carnivals were ritual spectacles. So were the comic performances in the marketplace and the burlesque ceremonies that were related to carnivals. Ritual spectacles not in the religious, magic, or devotional sense, but in the customary: they had a tradition, they were repeated, they were practiced.

Carnivals were the reverse of serious rituals. At that time, “[…] nearly every Church feast had its comic folk aspect. […] Such, for instance, were the parish feasts […]. A carnival atmosphere reigned on days when mysteries and soties were produced. This atmosphere also pervaded such agricultural feasts as the harvesting of grapes […].” Mimicked by clowns and buffoons, “civil and social ceremonies and rituals [also] took on a comic aspect […].”

Comic and popular, these multiple festive manifestations were clearly different from “[…] the serious official, ecclesiastical, feudal, and political cult forms and ceremonials” (p. 5). To understand this is to understand one of the primordial attributes of the culture of folk humor: carnivalesque celebrations “[…] built a second world and a second life outside officialdom, a world in which all medieval people participated more or less, in which they lived during a given time of the year.” The carnival and its various expressions were a change in key, reality itself in its festive and jocular deviation. The comic reverse of the same object. This duality, this “[…] two-world condition […],” is key to comprehending medieval cultural consciousness and the culture of the Renaissance (p. 6). Bakhtin cannot explain the historical development of European culture without considering the laughing people of the Middle Ages.

André Derain, Mardi Gras, p. 191 of Pantagruel (Paris, Albert Skira, 1943).

Comic forms were not always profane. This double face of the world, of course, is not unique to that culture. It goes back to primitive societies, which added to the cults of serious tone and organization others of a comic nature that laughed at the gods. The difference is that in those early ages, both forms of worship were official and sacred. The equivalence persisted, until the consolidated state and class structure of later centuries rendered it unviable. “All the comic forms were transferred, some earlier and others later, to a nonofficial level. There they acquired a new meaning, were deepened and rendered more complex, until they became the expression of folk consciousness, of folk culture.” Such were the Roman Saturnalias, and such was the medieval carnival. (p. 6)

The forms of carnival were closely related to those of the spectacle (although they were, in essence, different). Another fundamental feature: on account of their sensuous and playful character, carnival forms clearly evoked the artistic forms of the spectacle. And the medieval spectacle, in turn, drew on the culture of the folk humor and was, to a certain extent, one of its elements. But these correspondences do not amount to an identification. “[…] The basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life.” In other words, the people at the carnival, with their masks and costumes, in the midst of the music and the torches, did not give a show: they plunged into a comic and festive phase of existence, rich in spectacular elements, but ultimately vital.

[…] Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. Such is the essence of carnival […]. (p. 7)

The same can be said of clowns and fools, who were not actors playing roles: they “[…] remained fools and clowns always and wherever they made their appearance […]”, even outside the carnival season. “They were the constant, accredited representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life […].”

“Carnival—Bakhtin concludes—is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter.” (p. 8)

Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen (?), Laughing Fool, c. 1500.

Circumstances of change lead to a festive perception of the world. Feasts also have a philosophical significance. Far from obeying the mere physical and mental need for rest, the satisfaction of which is not festive by itself, the feast relates to “[…] the highest aims of human existence, that is, […] the world of ideals.” Without the sanction of this world, feasts are impossible. The feast maintains an essential relationship with time, “[…] either to the recurrence of an event in the natural (cosmic) cycle, or to biological or historic timeliness.” Especially propitious are the periods of crisis, the moments of fracture, there where the normal trajectory of the natural world or of social life is altered. The circumstances of “[…] death and revival, of change and renewal always led to a festive perception of the world. These moments, expressed in concrete form, created the peculiar character of the feasts.” (p. 9)

The official sphere opposed change but had to tolerate feasts. The renewal and festive perception that moments of crisis brought with them had no place in the institutional sphere, which, on the contrary, “[…] sanctioned the existing pattern of things and reinforced it.” In official feasts—whether state-sponsored, feudal, or ecclesiastical—the relationship with time had a formal character, “[…] changes and moments of crisis […]” were a thing of yesterday. “[…] The official feast looked back at the past and used the past to consecrate the present. […] It asserted all that was stable, unchanging, perennial: the existing hierarchy, the existing religious, political, and moral values, norms, and prohibitions.” In official feasts, the established truth, the truth that was presented as eternal and indisputable, triumphed. “This is why the tone of the official feast was monolithically serious and why the element of laughter was alien to him.” Deformation and betrayal of gaiety, of its real nature. “But this true festive character was indestructible; it had to be tolerated and even legalized outside the official sphere and had to be turned over to the popular sphere of the marketplace” (p. 9). The institutional discourse itself excused it: “Such a gay diversion is necessary ‘so that foolishness, which is our second nature and seems to be inherent in man might freely spend itself at least once a year […].’” (p. 75)

During carnival the dominant system stopped working. “[…] carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.” This suspension “[…] was of particular significance. Rank was especially evident during official feasts; everyone was expected to appear in the full regalia of his calling, rank, and merits and to take the place corresponding to his position. It was a consecration of inequality. On the contrary, all were considered equal during carnival.”

This cessation of hierarchical relations in the days of carnival gave rise to a “[…] special type of communication impossible in everyday life,” a variety of marketplace language, both verbal and gesticular, that allowed no distance between people in contact and liberated them from “[…] norms of etiquette and decency […]” (p. 10). The carnival experience denied all things established and completed, it opposed “[…] all pretense at immutability, sought a dynamic expression; it demanded ever changing, playful, undefined forms” (p. 11).

André Derain, illustration taken from “Comment Panurge gagnait les indulgences, mariait les vieilles et eut des procès à Paris,” ch. 17 of Pantagruel (Paris, Albert Skira, 1943).

Also characteristic of the culture of folk humor is grotesque realism (the festive images of the body that eats, drinks, defecates, and copulates). Bakhtin uses the concept of grotesque realism to refer to the images of the material and bodily principle, that is, the images of the human body in relation to “[…] food, drink, defecation, and sexual life” (p. 18). Grotesque realism highlights the all-popular festive and utopian aspect of said principle. “The cosmic, social, and bodily elements are given here as an indivisible whole. And this whole is gay and gracious. In grotesque realism, therefore, the bodily element is deeply positive.”

The most important themes in grotesque realism are “[…] fertility, growth, and a brimming-over abundance.” But not in respect to this or that individual in particular, but to the “[…] collective ancestral body of all the people.” The images of bodily life are gay and festive because of that abundance and that all-people’s element; they are alien to “[…] the drabness of everyday existence. The material bodily principle is a triumphant, festive principle, it is a ‘banquet for all the world.’” (p. 19).

Grotesque realism degrades and, in doing so, renews. The ruling principle of these images is “[…] the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity” (p. 19-20). Degradation equalizes, suppresses hierarchies, exhibits the carnal condition of all men. But it doesn’t stop there. The earth, Bakhtin reminds us, behaves as a dual element: it gulps down and at the same time gives birth, devours the grain and makes it germinate, decomposes the body and fertilizes. Degrading is “[…] to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs […]” (p. 21).

Laughter also degrades and renews. Laughter does no different: to place at ground level, to lay bare, to give flesh and body. And by degrading and giving body, it regenerates, it vitalizes. “The people’s laughter which characterized all the forms of grotesque realism from immemorial times was linked with the bodily lower stratum” (p. 20). It was also unrestricted. It pointed “[…] at the whole world, at history, at all societies, at ideology” (p. 84). Each part of this laughter, even the smallest, existed as a function “[…] of a whole comic world” (p. 88).

And laughter liberates, although temporarily. Medieval laughter, at the same time, maintained an “[…] indissoluble and essential relation to freedom” (p. 89). It was framed in the provisional suspension of the official order, of its far-reaching constraints and class and moral compartments. And it also exalted the popular truth, which opposed the institutional truth or at least differed from it. “The serious aspects of class culture are official and authoritarian; they are combined with violence, prohibitions, limitations and always contain an element of fear and intimidation. […] Laughter, on the contrary, overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations” (p. 90). It liberates people from censorship, both external and internal; “[…] it liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power” (p. 94). Did medieval laughter prevail? Yes and no. The fear and suffering associated with religious, social, political, and ideological forces were formidable. “The consciousness of freedom, on the other hand, could be only limited and utopian. […] Freedom granted by laughter often enough was mere festive luxury.” (p. 95)

Gustave Doré, illustration for Gargantua, volume of Œuvres de Rabelais (Garnier Frères, Paris, 1873).

In grotesque realism, death is a means of regeneration. Unsurprisingly, death does not have a negative connotation in this system. It is not a refutation “[…] of life seen as the great body of all the people but part of life as a whole—its indispensable component, the condition of its constant renewal and rejuvenation” (p. 50). The images of grotesque realism bring together the two extremes of change and growth: “[…] that which is receding and dying, and that which is being born; they show two bodies in one […].” (p. 52)

In contrast to the classical idea, the grotesque body is incomplete, it is open to the world, of which it is part. In its archaic stage, grotesque realism dealt with natural cycles and changes. The elements of its images were “[…] the changing seasons: sowing, conception, growth, death.” As the centuries go by, however, cyclical logic gives way to the logic of historical time. Grotesque images become the artistic and ideological means to express a strong awareness of history and historical change.

But even at this phase, they are ambivalent, they are contradictory. They refute the classic notion of the consummate, complete man, untainted, so to speak, by “[…] all the scoriae of birth and development” (p. 25). Life is shown in its double and contradictory character, that of birth and death complementing each other. Life “[…] is the epitome of incompleteness. And such is precisely the grotesque concept of the body. Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world […].” (p. 26)

Belonging to the Middle Ages, grotesque realism persisted. In the Renaissance, the expansive, inexhaustible, and ever-laughing force that dethrones and regenerates mixed “[…] with its opposite: the petty, inert ‘material principle’ of class society.” And in the last three centuries, the entire sphere of literary realism has not ceased to house “[…] fragments of grotesque realism, which at times are not mere remnants of the past but manifest a renewed vitality” (p. 24). The grotesque impulse of carnival consecrates inventive freedom, permits the combination of a variety of different elements and their reconciliation, and liberates from the prevailing worldview (p. 34).

André Derain, Pantagruel, in Pantagruel (Paris, Albert Skira, 1943).

The language of carnival was made up of marketplace elements and colloquial speech. We mentioned earlier that carnival had its own language, a living repertoire of verbal forms that made people equal. What did the carnival language consist of? Bakhtin distinguishes between two types of elements:

  1. The market elements, that is, the colloquialisms typical of this public place—the shouts or voices of street vendors, which he calls cris de Paris, and the announcements made by healers and medicine sellers during fairs. “The cris de Paris were composed in verse and were sung in a peremptory tone.” (p. 153)
  2. Those encompassed by the term billingsgate, that is “[…] certain forms of familiar speech—curses, profanities, and oaths […]” (p. 153). Here, the transit from flattery to revilement is normal and does not suppose any contradiction. In praise there is irony and ambivalence. In offensive language, warm and flattering notes. “The dual image combining praise and abuse seeks to grasp the very moment of […] change, the transfer from the old to the new, from death to life.” (p. 166)
François Desprez, illustrations from Les Songes Drolatiques de Pantagruel ou sont contenues plusieurs figures de l’invention de maitre François Rabelais, book attributed to Rabelais (Richard Breton, Paris, 1565).

Other carnavalesque forms of expression were abuse, the crowning of the clown, games, and madness. Carnival culture manifested itself in other ways as well. Representations in which a person was beaten to a pulp only to see them at the end “resurrect” were common. “Abuse is death, it is […] the living body turned into a corpse. It is the ‘mirror of comedy’ reflecting that which must die a historic death. But in this system death is followed by regeneration […]”, and abuse, by praise (p. 197-198).

In carnival, likewise, the king is the clown. The crowd strips his effigy of the atire and paraphernalia that announce and, in a way, produce his alleged high status, and displays him in unflattering, even ridiculous guises. Literally or figuratively, he is a transvestite, in the exact sense of the word. “The abuse […] is equivalent to a change of costume, a metamorphosis. Abuse reveals the other, true face of the abused, it tears off his disguise and mask. It is the king’s uncrowning.” (p. 197)

Equally common were games and allusions to them. “Games are closely related to time and to the future.” Not only do they free the players from “[…] the bounds of everyday life […],” but their accessories, such as dice and cards, are usually “[…] the accessories of fortune-telling […]” (p. 235). We should mention here as well parodical prophesies (p. 394). Other characteristic elements: jokes, which are amusement; madness, which is inverted truth—festive wisdom that exists on the margins of law and restrictions (p. 260); the masks that disrupt and invert identities; the dances that merge them; the nicknames that unfold them and that always contain “[…] a nuance of praise-abuse” (p. 459); fire, which burns and leads to rebirth, and hell, “[…] symbol of the defeated evil of the past.” (p. 391)


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