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Popular Culture of Europe Throughout the Ages

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Popular Culture of Europe Throughout the Ages Popular culture always has, and will remain, a telling aspect of the mindset of the masses throughout history. It is best defined by PhilosophyNow as the vernacular or people’s culture that predominates in a society at a point in time. The popular culture of Early Modern Europe can largely be classified as a shift from rowdy and vulgar celebrations to a more educated form of enjoying oneself. In the 1800’s, the formation of a mass society accompanied the growing literary movement, while post-WWI Europe experienced the gradual growth of mass media after numerous technological advancements, and later, a global movement towards rapid Americanization. In the mid-1300’s, the disease known as the Black Death was progressing rapidly throughout Europe. As more and more bodies were infected, the European masses began to live each day as if it were their last. This took place in the form of “sex crazed and alcoholic orgies” (Spielvogel 307). In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a description of the popular reaction to the plague is featured: “Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would baulk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and reveling incessantly from tavern to tavern” (Boccaccio 3). Although the most prominent scares of the Black Death began to fade away in the later years of the 14th century, the need for a rowdy form of enjoyment was still prevalent. Europe experienced a so-called ‘Golden Age of Theatre’ in the 16th and early 17th centuries and quickly spread to all classes of society. According to The Globe Website, London theatres saw between 10,000 and 20,000 people a week, primarily due to the cheap admission cost of a single penny. The group of attendees that bought the cheapest tickets available were known as ‘groundlings’, due to their seats in the yard around the stage (“Audiences”). According to the renowned English playwright William Shakespeare (and multiple other sources), the groundlings were quite the rambunctious group. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the groundlings’ behavior is described as “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise” (Shakespeare 137).
The rampant festivals, primarily through the Catholic Church, also characterized early Modern Europe. The most prominent festival would be Carnival, which was celebrated in the weeks preceding Easter. Carnival was a time to release tensions and relax, as people drank, ate, and engaged in sexual activity excessively (Spielvogel 530). This is exemplified in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. On the left side of the landscape (Carnival side), we see drunkards and stupidity; on the right (Lent side), we see donations to the poor and an emphasis on Church (Pieter Brueghel the Elder). However, as the Protestant Reformation occurred and new denominations quickly eliminated the veneration of saints, Protestant reformers began to attack these Catholic festivals (Spielvogel 395). As recalled by Baltasar Rusow, a Lutheran pastor, a saint’s feast day festival in sixteenth-century Europe entailed “disorder, whoring, fighting, killing, and dreadful idolatry” (Rusow). As the condemnation of these sin-filled festivals rose and Gutenberg’s printing press increased in efficiency, the common people of Europe began to seek a more dignified culture. At the turn of the 18th century, taverns became the chief gathering place of the European masses. As the “counterpart to salons” (Roessler and Miklos 23), taverns not only sold alcoholic beverages, but they also “spread ideas of reform…[and] extend[ed] political life and culture” (Roessler and Miklos 46). The prominence of taverns was a significant step towards the exchange of ideas between the neighborhood men. Accompanying the rise of taverns was a dramatic increase in literacy for commoners. As the cost of paper decreased and printing machinery became more refined, cheap reading material became readily available (“The Development”). The staple literary matter for the lower and middle classes consisted of chapbooks (short books with a variety of subject matter) and broadsides (single sheets of paper that contained ballads and pictures) (“Chapbooks”). The first newspapers also originated during this time, such as the Times of London (“The Development”). As more and more commoners began to read the same printed material, the origins of a mass society began to arise. The late 1800s saw the first mass-circulation newspapers, such as the Evening News and the Daily Mail, and the first specialty magazines (ex. Family Herald). Whereas early newspapers contained lengthy political editorials, these news sources were filled with gossip and easily understood analyses. Also during this time, improved transportation and new working hours allowed for the expansion of mass leisure, as the masses took railroads to nearby beaches and music halls. European society also saw the rise of organized sports in the 19th century, as multiple sports, such as soccer and rugby, became professionalized and commercialized for mass audiences (Spielvogel 721). As factory workers received weekends and evenings off from their jobs, the various matches and games were scheduled “to be convenient to the work week” (Freeman 127). The 19th century emphasis on mass society, with emphases on literacy and leisure, indirectly led to the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in the 1900s. As European economies prospered in the post-WWI years, a new popular culture soon began to develop alongside a consumer society. The flapper uniform of short skirts, makeup, and ‘bob’ hairstyles began a transition to a less restrictive status quo for women’s fashion, while the genre of jazz music grew rapidly and gave birth to a more provocative form of dancing. However, perhaps the most important development of the 1920’s was the growth of mass media, specifically the massive expansion of cinema and radio (“The Roaring Twenties”). The totalitarian regimes of Germany and Italy quickly utilized these technologies to spread their messages. According to BBC, 16 million radios were introduced across Germany by 1942, in addition to the 100 Nazi films being produced each year (ex. Triumph of the Will). Another key facet of Hitler’s propaganda was the annual Nuremberg rally, where he inspired thousands of people to follow his ideas (“Changing Life”). His outstanding speaking skills brainwashed the masses into believing he was “a Messiah” with their “faces transformed into something positively inhuman”, according to an American journalist in Berlin (“Adolf Hitler”). Both Hitler and Mussolini implemented mass leisure agencies to gain popular support and tighten their control over previously uncontrolled activities (Spielvogel 829). For example, the Italian Doplolavoro sponsored tourism at reduced prices, such as to the beach, the mountains, and many more locations. By 1937, it is estimated that there was more than three million participants (Myers). Following World War II, an increase in wages with shorter working hours led to a greater market for mass tourism, as around 100 million tourists crossed European boundaries yearly (Spielvogel 900). Another significant change to European popular culture in the post-WWII era was the Americanization of Europe. This is best seen in the realm of music, as the genres of rock-and-roll and hip-hop first originated in the United States, but quickly spread around the globe (Spielvogel 906). The popular culture of Europe has evolved greatly over the centuries. What began first as a time of drunken festivals soon transitioned into a greater sharing of intellectual ideas through literary means. In the 19th century, a sense of mass society began to develop, which soon gave way to the growth of mass media, and later, rapid Americanization.

Works Cited
"Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)." Kirkwood Community College. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2015.
"Audiences." Shakespeare's Globe. The Shakespeare Globe Trust, 2013. Web. 23 May 2015.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. Stories of Boccaccio (The Decameron). Ed. G. Barrie. N.p.: n.p., n.d. GoogleBooks. Google, 23 Feb. 2007. Web. 23 May 2015.
"Changing Life in Germany." BBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2015.
"Chapbooks: Definitions and Origins." Massachusetts Institute of Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2015.
Delaney, Tim. "Pop Culture: An Overview." Philosophy Now. N.p., 2007. Web. 23 May 2015.
"The Development of the Modern Newspaper." Center for History and New Media. George Mason University, n.d. Web. 23 May 2015.
Freeman, William H. Physical Education, Exercise and Sport Science in a Changing Society. N.p.: Jones & Bartlett, 2013. GoogleBooks. Google. Web. 23 May 2015.
Myers, Patrick. "Daily Life Under Mussolini." Dickinson College. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 May 2015.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. 1559. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. BBC. Web. 23 May 2015.
"The Roaring Twenties." History.com. A&E Networks, 2010. Web. 24 May 2015.
Roessler, Shirley Elson, and Reny Miklos. Europe 1715-1919: From Enlightenment to World War. N.p.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. GoogleBooks. Google. Web. 23 May 2015.
Rusow, Baltasar. "DBQ Document 2." (1500s): n. pag. Rpt. in 2000 AP European History Free Response Questions. N.p.: n.p., n.d. College Board. Web. 23 May 2015.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Folger Digital Texts. Folger Shakespeare Library. Web. 23 May 2015.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009. Print.

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