On Septuagesimatide and Carnival

Septuagesima Sunday saw the beginning a period in the Roman liturgical year that is called by various names: Shrovetide, Septuagesimatide or simply Pre-Lent. This is a time of the liturgical year which contains some (but not all) of the penitential characteristics of Lent; it is also the period in which "Carnival" takes place -- a time of merrymaking and the consumption of foods that would be ultimately foregone during the Lenten period itself.

Detail from Pieter Bruegel's "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent", 1559.
For those not familiar, this pre-Lenten period spans three Sundays -- called respectively Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays -- and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day prior to Ash Wednesday when Lent itself begins.

Various liturgical writers attribute the origins of pre-Lent to a desire to fulfill a full forty days of fasting prior to Easter -- since there were non-fast days found throughout Lent. The specific time of its origins is, however, not agreed upon. Various dates around the sixth and seventh centuries are surmised in this regard and according to Duchesne, the fourth Council of Orleans mentions Quinqagesima and Sexagesima at least as early as A.D. 541.

The purpose of pre-Lent seems to be the same in both the Byzantine East and Latin West; it is a period of progressive preparation and movement toward Lent and, ultimately, Easter. One might call it a period of liturgical "weaning" that moved the faithful progressively deeper into the penitential disciplines of the period. Francis X. Weiser, in the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, speaks of this:
The liturgical preparation for the greatest feast of Christianity -- Easter -- proceeds in five periods of penitential character. As the observance of this preparation apporaches the feast, the penitential note grows progressively deeper and stricter. The first period of this season of pre-Lent, from Septuagesima Sunday to Ash Wednesday; the second extends from Ash Wednesday to Passion Sunday; the third comprises Passion Week; the fourth includes the days of Holy Week up to Wednesday; the fifth consists in the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.) In these three days, which are devoted entirely to the commemoration of the Lord's Passion, the penitential observance reaches its peak, until it ends in the glorious and joyful celebration of the Resurrection. (p. 154-5)
Within the Byzantine rite we see this gradual tightening of discipline beginning with Meatfare Sunday (after which meat is dispensed with), followed by Cheesefare Sunday (when dairy products are eliminated) leading to the Great Fast itself. In the Roman rite, the liturgical rites begin to take on a  penitential character with the use of violet vestments and the elimination of the Gloria and Alleluia, leading up to Lent proper with its traditional fast and abstinence.

The Roman Martyrology noting the omission of the "alleluia" as of Septuagesima
In this regard, one can see how something like Carnival developed in relation to this time of the liturgical year, being both a collective 'deep breath' before the rigours of Lent as well as a practical means by which to consume those goods which would no longer be allowed during the Lenten period. It is yet another example of how "cult" informed culture.

"Carnival in Rome" by Johannes Lingelbach, 1650-51

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