Carnival in Paris, Marie-Antoinette and the French Revolution
Today is Mardi-Gras, Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lent.
Before the French Revolution it was the occasion for bawdy, sometimes lewd masquerades. Raucous parades filed through the streets of Paris, like the promenade du bœuf gras (“fat ox parade.”) A young boy, called “King of the Butchers” with a gilt crown, sword and scepter, rode the ox at the sound of violins, fifes and drums, surrounded by butchers in drag.
Social barriers, good taste and all rules of acceptable behavior fell by the wayside. The Church remonstrated strenusouly, in vain. The great writer Louis-Sebastien Mercier, who gives us the best snapshots of everyday life in Paris at the end of the 18th century, bemoans the obscenity of the parades.
A young Marie-Antoinette, lost in a whirlwind of entertainments at the beginning of her husband’s reign, would not miss the costume balls of the Paris Opera during the Carnival season. She would drive from Versailles in a private carriage, mingle freely with the crowd, and dance the night away, her identity thinly disguised by a mask and black domino.
The Queen’s incognito Parisian escapades provided the pamphlet industry with ample fodder, fueled the rumors spread about her supposed depravity, and damaged her public image. But she did not realize it yet. Before long Marie-Antoinette would no longer set foot in her own capital for fear of being heckled and booed…
A few years later, the beginning of the French Revolution was marked by an uneasy coexistence of the monarchy and newly elected institutions, but already the Carnival exuberance did not agree with the tone of austerity of the times. All Mardi-Gras celebrations were banned for indecency as early as 1790. The revolutionary Municipality of Paris had no trouble enforcing restrictions the Church had advocated in vain.
Carnival festivities did not resume until 1799, at the beginning of Napoleon’s reign, though in a more subdued form than under the Ancien Regime. The “fat ox” had to wait a few years longer, until 1805, to be allowed again, and knew various eclipses during the 19th and 20th centuries. But It always regained its foothold and is now part of the Carnival celebrations in Paris.