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2. Festival books as history

Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly


Excerpted from Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, 'The Early Modern Festival Book: Function and Form' in J.R. Mulryne, Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly and Margaret Shewring (eds.), 'Europa Triumphans': Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2004) vol. I, pp. 5-18.

Most festival books consist of plain unadorned text which narrates the events of the festival. Such books claim to be works of history. Their titles frequently insist on this point: a title such as ‘Recit veritable de tout de qui s’est fait et passé’ (‘True narrative of all that was done and said’) is typical. The implicit claim is that everything that is narrated happened exactly like that and nothing has been left out. A high proportion of festival books are chronicles, which, in an often simple and brief narrative, give the precise date, list the principal participants with their names and titles, describe their costumes and narrate the events of the festival, all without much comment.

In their desire to present factual information, many festival books go in for pages of lists - of who followed whom in a procession, how many were in each group, what they were wearing and what floats accompanied them. The account of the wedding in Florence in 1608 of Cosimo de’ Medici and Maria Magdalena, Archduchess of Austria, for example, ends with 14 pages of lists: of the gentlemen who accompanied Paolo Giordano Orsino to Graz for the proxy wedding; of the young men who held the baldachin over the bridal couple; of the ambassadors representing various princes; and of who took part in each tournament or other event. One could cite many more examples. It is tempting to take festival books at face value, and to assume that their apparently factual quality, their straightforward baldness, is the same thing as impartiality. This would be a grave mistake.

Festival books are not designed like a newspaper report which seeks to get at the truth by presenting matters from all sides, thus hoping to eliminate bias. Early Modern courtly historiography, established in the Empire in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, is meant to be biased, and so are festival books. Official histories were commissioned by a dynasty to demonstrate how the dynasty’s great deeds led up to the present moment and the present ruler, and how his actions amply fulfil the traditions of his house and the promise of his early years.

The purpose of the festival book is to present the festival with a certain slant and to fulfil the aims of whoever commissioned it. The authors of such works see no problem, therefore, in amending or altering events to suit the political purpose of the moment, inventing or expunging from the record participants, paintings, inscriptions and even whole performances. Where the modern scholar has several accounts to compare, these deviations from the truth can be uncovered; otherwise we are thrown back on the one surviving account.

One must ask where the writers of festival books got their information. The author of the account describing the coronation of Henri III as King of Poland in Cracow couches it in the form of a letter, designating himself ‘a French gentleman’. He gives his piece the character of a dispatch, saying that he will pick up where he left off in his last letter. He emphasises throughout that he was there, presumably in the train of Henri, that he saw certain things himself, or that people told him things on the spot, and that his concern is to enlighten interested parties at home. He sees himself as a conduit for information about those elements of the Polish court which look exotic to French eyes (the Hungarian, Cossack or Tartar dress of some of the troops, for instance). His stance is that of the foreign correspondent, the direct witness of events, though this is just as likely to be a fiction to lend verisimilitude to his tale.

These tactics have the misleading effect of reinforcing our modern, unacknowledged, assumption that all such chroniclers had the same access to the festivals they describe as the present-day sports reporter who calls on digital resources in sound and vision, and has a better view even than the guest of honour. But it is questionable whether the author of an account of a tournament or a wedding ever got close enough to see much at all. Etiquette would not have allowed him to hover on the edge of the lists or press close to the bride on her wedding day.

Indeed, festival books were often printed beforehand in order to be distributed at the festival itself. Whatever their titles claim, such works cannot be a description of what happened on the day. In addition, festival books often plagiarise each other, transcribe a common source, or translate each other’s texts, without some of the writers ever having witnessed the event, or even visited the city where the festival took place.

Festival books are works of history, but they tell us more about the political aspirations of the court or other body that commissioned them, than about the actual events of the festival they purport to describe.

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