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© The Battle Between Carnival and Lent
Oil painting by Pieter Brueghel Flanders, 1559
Photograph courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Carnival, Carnaval, Carnevale - What is the origin of these words and the rowdy festivals associated with them? The earliest mention of a Carnival celebration is recorded in a 12th-century Roman account of the pope and upper class Roman citizens watching a parade through the city, followed by the killing of steers and other animals. The purpose was to play and eat meat before Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Catholic Lent - the forty-day fast leading up to Easter. The Latin term carnem-levare - to remove oneself from flesh or meat - was used to refer to the festival.

The pre-Lenten celebration grew in popularity over the next few centuries, spreading to other European cities and rural communities. Italians eventually shortened the name to Carnevale - flesh farewell - and the word was translated into Spanish and Portuguese as Carnaval, into English as Carnival, and into German as Karneval. Other terms are also used for the festival such as the English - Shrove Tide (fasting time), the German - Fasching (fasting), the Swiss-German - Fasnacht (night before fasting), and the French - Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). All of these names allude to the feast before the fast and many 16th and 17th-century celebrations included a mock battle between Carnival and Lent which symbolized this transition.


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