Skip to main content Skip to navigation


Festival Books: their status, purpose, and value.

It is now generally acknowledged that Festivals in Early Modern Europe were a significant cultural and political force. Their records are of enormous value for historians, art historians, scholars interested in the theatre and costume history, and for musicologists and dance historians. In other words, Festivals touch on every conceivable aspect of social, political and cultural history.

Recognition of their immense value has always been patchy, but recent scholarly enterprises have begun to make their riches available to a wider audience. There are, for example, the two handsome volumes of Europa Triumphans, published by Ashgate in 2004, which assemble key festival texts of the Early Modern period from all countries of Europe and from the new World. And now we have this major undertaking, the digitalisation of some 250 Festival books from the British Library’s collections.

My talk today will be illustrated from those holdings, showing how extraordinarily fertile they are, and what a marvellous resource for the scholar. I shall try to indicate how they might be studied and exploited for a range of disciplines. In date, they span more than two centuries from one of the first printed texts recording the banquet/spectacle arranged for the princely marriage in Pesaro in 1475, a banquet which lasted seven and a half hours and where gods sent the food to the table, to the entry in 1697 of the Elector of Saxony into Cracow. They incorporate many countries and display many national differences and, although the greater preponderance concerns festival events in Italy, the collection includes a range of Festivals throughout Europe. Indeed, every kind of entertainment is represented – royal entries, processions, coronations, weddings, baptisms, funerals, princely journeys across Europe, all described in illustrated books that dwell on jousts, simulated naval battles, castle-stormings, orations, opera, ballets, masks, performances on ice, and fireworks. There are, for example, diverse accounts of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, that most magnificent encounter between Henry VIII and François Ier - a diplomatic extravanganza empty of real political content. There are several pictorial rolls of engravings recording the coronation of Emperor Charles V by the Pope in Bologna in 1530 where the Church had to be guarded by 2,000 Spanish troops and four cannons. If you are interested in princely entries, you will find here Philip of Spain’s magnificent entry into Antwerp in 1549 or William III’s reception in The Hague in 1691; baptisms are recorded in splendour like that of Philip III’s firstborn in Valladolid in 1602; and funerals are encountered in profusion like that of the wife of Philip IV, Senora Dona Isabel de Borbon, celebrated in Madrid in 1645 [Example 1].

 Read the next page