The two primary freedoms the masquerades offered, permission to hide one's
identity and license to act in ways contrary to convention, gave the upper and
lower classes the unique opportunity to co-mingle. Such interaction was one
of the carnivalesque qualities of the masquerades, but it played itself out
differently and had different implications from the carnival .
Carnivals were festivals highly prevalent in continental European nations since the Middle Ages, and were associated with holidays and other important celebrations. Their main purpose was to provide a period of license to off-balance the self-deprivation of Lent. During carnivals rich women were permitted to walk the streets infested with the lower echelons; gentlemen could visit pubs and brothels otherwise reserved for the lower and middle classes. Consequentially, the fine line between the classes was blurred during carnival. However, since the carnivals encompassed much of the city, from ballroom to back room, the classes still maintained a sense of turf. The wealthy could indulge in the lower lifestyle of the poorer population, then retreat back to the safety of their turf where the poor could be excluded. Because the class lines were not blurred beyond recognition, social commentary took on a symbolic, ritualistic character at the carnivals . One could walk the streets, for example, and witness a poor man dressed as a gentleman engaged in a satirical display of gentility, but his class identity would not be in question. In this way the carnival was a medium for the release of the emotions originated from class inequality in an environment that temporarily lifted the rules of engagement between the classes while maintaining clarity of economic identity.
Not so at the English masquerades of the eighteenth century. Often referred to as "carnivals behind closed doors", the masquerade offered a much more intimate opportunity for the classes to engage themselves on a personal level that did not require the revelation of one's economic status . Advertisements often gave the impression that the masqued events were to be elite-exclusive, but they were also published in journals and papers targeted to the general population. Moreover, tickets were sold at prices within the range of the lower class, meaning that once hidden behind a costume the rich and poor became indistinguishable. While the image of the masquerade as a gathering of the genteel was promoted, the reality of the social mixing was both universally understood, and desired by masquerade goers. Instead of providing an environment that allowed the opportunity to openly critique the rich, as did the carnivals, the masquerade offered the chance to walk among them. Open commentary would render the main attraction of the masquerade, ambiguity, essentially void. Kings and royalty, prostitutes and pimps, simultaneously attended masquerades, making for wonderful fodder for gossip.
Not only did all social groups mix, they were allowed to interact, flirt, tease and act in ways that under normal circumstances could lead to punishment, disgrace, and even open violence. This is not to say that the mixing of the classes at masquerades never led to such events. While mostly isolated to continental European masquerades during festivals, there are reports of fights and riots, even massacres that originated at masquerades . This implies that the class divisions still remained even during times of license. Not knowing the class identity of fellow masqueraders often instilled great anxiety in members of the upper class. For example, an honorable gentleman's wife or sister might bring shame upon herself by associating, knowingly or not, with a lower class man. Mothers were protective of their sons who were sure to encounter prostitutes at the balls. Of course these facts were cause of fear to some, and the source of great excitement to others who enjoyed the ability to engage themselves with those from whom they would otherwise be forbade. This is especially true of masquerades in the first half of the eighteenth century before there was a conscious effort, constituted mostly of raising ticket prices, to limit access to the poor, but even then the presence of prostitutes remained a given.
Times of license in the eighteenth century always implied a certain amount of intermingling between the classes, but the masquerade offered the unique opportunity to do so on a personal level. As seen in the carnival, such ambiguity only worked to reinforce the divisions once the masks came off and everyday life resumed in that the attendants knew that only under such circumstances could these liberties be taken. However the blurring of the social lines, even if only temporarily, further moved English society toward the singular popular culture that accompanied the rise of the middle class.
1. Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: the Carnivalesque
English Culture and Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986, 34.
2. Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. London: Temple Smith, 1978, 180.
3. Castle, 34.
4. Burke, 204.