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Part 8

These festivals were marvels of organisation achieved through collaboration and remarkable coordination of artists, poets, musicians, choreographers, fencing masters, noble and professional performers, and – of course – administrative experts. Today, there is not time to study the value of Festival books for the history of music and dance. They are formidably important, and these three images from the ballet performed in Celle in 1653 will provide a taste of the kind of activity spectators enjoyed – grotesque as well as noble dancing. The first [Example 31] presents dancers disguised as bears performing a torch dance; the second [Example 32] shows the grotesque dancing and costume of four fools; the third [Example 33] depicts the Grand Ballet of twelve soldiers engaged in a kind of Pyrrhic dance.

Although it is true that in Early Modern Europe festivals were obvious examples of conspicuous consumption by the upper echelons of society, creators and narrators of these events rarely saw them as straightforward reflections of established hierarchies. Antoine de Laval, for example, writing an account of Henri IV’s entry into Moulins in 1595, was as much preoccupied with the projection of his own scholarly image as with an explanation of the symbolism devised for the king’s benefit. He complained at the necessity of translating his Greek and Latin texts into the vulgar tongue so that “common” readers – “common” is his word - might penetrate his meaning. In masks at court, when a king like James I did not perform himself, courtiers strove to impress him with their ingenuity and skill. They lobbied for attention, demonstrating their loyalty, and sometimes (like the Duke of Buckingham) they succeeded in gaining favour through their superlative dancing. Most records list the names of participants so that the community at large might recognize their important status at court.

During royal entries, power relations were made plain through time-honoured gestures and words. Although coronations might be regarded as proof of dynastic continuity, entries were more complex. The chief performers demonstrated a balance of power between the monarch who, through the symbolism exalting his name and deeds, received recognition of his authority, and the citizens (the merchants who had usually paid for the splendour) who filed in great numbers before the king demonstrating their strength and a desire that their civic privileges be renewed.