Winter Festival in Flanders during the Little Ice Age: between playful spirit and political entertainment
During the long and cold winter of 1434-1435, city-dwellers of Arras in the county of Artois decided to build groups of snowmen all over the city. The different themes chosen by the citizens expressed their fears, their playful ingenuity and perhaps their political opinion within a figure of the ‘Grande Pucelle’ who might be an allusion to the captivity of Joan of Arc.
Historians of Modern Times are familiar with that kind of entertainment, thanks to the works of Herman Pleij for the Low Countries and more recently those of Claire Judde de la Rivière about the Snowballs’ Revolt in Murano 1511. Even if there was only sludge, ice skating and snowballs are commonly associated to the months of winter in the medieval calendars, these aesthetic creations in Arras being less numerous for that period and could be considered as a sort of Winter Festival inspired by the Tableaux Vivants and other skits usually played during civic ceremonies. Thanks to the city registers, we know that this original exhibition of snowmen was allowed by the authorities of Arras. There is no sign of political dissent against these snow figures, but rather a chance for historians to hear contemporary opinions and to know more about folk culture in 15th century Artois.
This paper will examine the allegorical significance of all these snow figures and will try to link the various topics chosen by citizens of Arras with the traditional cultural registers of the Low Countries – ranging from biblical and classical antiquity to the immediate local folklore. With a particular look at the streets, markets, and buildings where the shows took place, I will try to understand the social meaning of this original snow festival. Was it a tool for rhetorical societies to express their opinion, even if the weather was bad? Was it an occasion to demonstrate typical folk culture? Or was it the sign of political involvement a few months before the Diplomatic Congress of Arras in September 1435? We will enter into the dance of the Roy de Claquedent, the Captain of the Tournament, the Seven sleepers of Ephesus, to know more about this unique winter game.