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By Danièle Cybulskie
Medieval writers tended to love allegory, explaining the most complicated theological concepts in more concrete terms to make them more easily understood, or poetic terms to make them beautiful and memorable. Occasionally, though, a medieval writer will go completely bananas with allegory. The results can be hilarious.
The Book of Good Love is a fourteenth-century poem written by Archpriest Juan Ruiz of Spain which covers a wide range of topics. The over-arching theme is that worldly love is unworthy, while “good love” – love for God and for holy living – is the only kind worthwhile. Ruiz adds in songs, dialogues with Love and Venus, serious explanations of Christian concepts, and, just for fun, a knock-down, drag-out battle between Sir Carnival and Lady Lent which gives a whole new meaning to the words “food fight”.
During Lent, medieval Christians were meant to live simply and eat simply, with an emphasis on seafood instead of red meat and treats. And this, friends, is where the fun begins.
Ruiz (as narrator) receives a copy of a letter from Lady Lent addressed to Sir Carnival in which she lets Sir Carnival know that as soon as Mardi Gras is over, she will attack him and defeat him, ridding good Christians of his bad influence. Ruiz warns Sir Carnival, who begins to gather his forces:
In his vanguard he had ranged excellent foot soldiers: Hens and Partridges, Rabbits and Capons, Ducks domestic and wild, and fat Geese were mustered near the embers. They bore their lances like front-line men, huge skewers of iron and wood. For shields they had platters: at any proper feast, they are the first course. After these shield-bearers came the bowmen: salted Geese, Mutton Loins, fresh Legs of Pork, and whole Hams. And following them came the knights: Beef-quarters, suckling Pigs and Kids, gamboling and squealing. Then came the squires: many Cream Cheeses that ride and spur dark wines…. Sir Bacon came in a full pot with many a Corned Beef, Rib and Pork Loin. They were all ready for the fierce battle.
Carnival, true to form, has a huge feast with his army, eating and being entertained by jesters, accompanied by his sergeant-at-arms: Wine. The company falls into a contented sleep, getting their beauty rest before they’re to fight.
Suddenly, at midnight, Lady Lent appears, yelling out, “God be our strength!” She has brought with her a vicious army of seafood and greens, and the battle begins.
First to wound Sir Carnival was white-necked Leek, hurting him so badly that he spat phlegm, a fearful omen…. Salty Sardine came in to help and wounded fat Hen by throwing herself into her bill and choking her, and then she cracked Sir Carnival’s helmet. Great Dogfish charged the front line, while the Clams and the Cuttlefish guarded the flanks. The fighting was chaotic and confused, and many good heads were split open. From the coast of Valencia came the Eels, marinated and cured, in large crowds; they struck Sir Carnival in midchest, while Trout from Alberche hit him in the jaw. Tuna fought like a fierce lion; he rushed Sir Lard and hurled insults, and if it had not been for Corned Beef, who warded off the lance, Tuna would have wounded Sir Lard through the heart. From the region of Bayona came many Sharks, killing the Partridges and castrating the Capons…. Red Lobsters flocked from Santander, emptying their heavy quivers and making Sir Carnival pay heavily…. Dogfish, a tough ruffian, went about madly, brandishing a mace slung from a belt, with which he banged Pig and Suckling in mid-forehead, and then ordered them salted down in Villenchón salt. Squid showed the Peacocks no quarter, nor allowed the Pheasants to fly away; the Kids and the Deer he tried to strangle. With his many arms, he can fight many opponents.
Carnival is finally confronted with Salmon, who (Ruiz says) he might have defeated, “but giant Whale came at him, embraced him, and threw him down on the sand.”
The captured Carnival is carted away to jail, where he is guarded by Sir Fast and sentenced to penance which involves both humility and humble food (“when the lentils begin to taste good, you must stop eating them”). Lady Corned Beef and Sir Lard are not so lucky: they are hanged as “just punishment for their deeds”. Carnival languishes in jail until Palm Sunday when he escapes as he is being escorted to mass. He is soon welcomed back in the company of Sir Love in celebration of Easter, while Lady Lent slips out in the guise of a pilgrim.
Ruiz is obviously playing here, and he would have expected readers to enjoy the silliness of this epic battle while taking in the lesson as to which foods are acceptable during Lent, and which are not. Between the battle and Carnival’s escape, Ruiz spends a significant amount of time explaining the importance of penance and how it works. He seems to be using a classic teaching technique: grab the student’s attention with something entertaining and then redirect that attention to an important lesson.
That said, the battle between Sir Carnival and Lady Lent is epic silliness, and something that is completely in keeping with a medieval sense of humour: outrageous, slightly sacrilegious, and over-the-top.
For even more of Carnival versus Lent (and yes, there’s more!), check out The Book of Good Love by Juan Ruiz. This translation is by Rigo Mignani and Mario A. Di Cesare.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder