Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Village festival

A month ago, I wrote a post about the pagan Plowmen's Festival in the nearby village of St-Jean-en-Royans. [Click here to see this post.] Last weekend, in the neighboring village of St-Laurent-en-Royans, there was a similar annual event known as the Reinage. Few French people understand this curious term. It sounds like the French word reine, which means "queen". So, people imagine that the word reinage simply designates a village festival during which a queen is elected... much like the annual Jacaranda Queen in my native Grafton. This is almost true, but not quite. In fact, the origin of reinage is the Latin term regalis (royal). It's not a purely feminine affair. In pagan times, both a "king" and a "queen", surrounded by "acolytes", were elevated to a brief state of glory in the village. It's not very clear why these fleeting honors were bestowed upon certain adolescents in the community, but it probably had something to do with the celebrated concepts of youth, fertility and (to call a spade a spade) sex, if not debauchery.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the Roman Church got around to edulcorating such pagan rites, the reinage concept was dealt with in a typically efficient religious style. The youthful "king", "queen" and their "court" were named either through merit, or because their parents had paid the Church for this privilege, much like present-day members of the aristocracy financing the coming-out of their daughters at balls for débutantes. Then these charming adolescents were expected to parade around the village collecting money, in the style of today's kids who participate in fund-raising days for charities. Normally, it was planned that this money should find its way up into the coffers of the Church, where it would be used for all kinds of noble purposes. But that's where things often got screwed up. The randy kids, with their hot grubby hands full of filthy lucre, would often redirect a tiny portion of their wealth to the purchase of liquor, just to cool off and sooth themselves after all their regal collecting efforts. And it could happen that things would get out of hand, and the reinage could be transformed into its archaic debauchery.

Be that as it may, at St-Laurent-en-Royans last Sunday, everything was sedate and ecclesiastically correct. The above float was manned by inmates from a local mental asylum. Initially, I thought that the two personages were Caesar and Cleopatra, but I wouldn't swear to that. It's a fact that the gentleman in the male role would often rise from his throne, while I was trying to photograph him, and hurl out "Ave Caesar!" As for his female companion, she was simply thrilled to realize that an unknown guy with a Nikon was intent upon photographing her. Incidentally, my former neighbor Bob, who works in this institution, was dressed for the Reinage parade as a Roman centurion. This was fine, since Bob, in real life, is a massive former rugby champion.

My daughter (who knows much more about France than I do, primarily because she's French) informed me that, nowadays, French youth don't actually give a screw about the cultural references I've brought into the present article (pagan rituals, Christianization, etc). Manya says they were brought up on three cultural pillars, which happen to be comic-strip characters: Astérix and Obélix, Lucky Luke and Tintin. Really, somebody should make me a king or a crazy emperor for a weekend, so that I can catch up on culture...

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