In Europe in the 15th through 18th centuries, important events in the life of a noble or royal dynasty, such as marriage, the birth or christening of an heir, a coronation, or a funeral, were celebrated by mounting a festival. Festivals also occurred when a prince made a formal entry into a city, either at home or abroad. The term festival refers as well to the artistic elements that accompanied and commemorated these occasions, such as:
*theatrical, operatic or ballet performances
*equestrian, aquatic or firework displays
*temporary architectural constructions
And among other things, the festival was commemorated with a BOOK. That is right, a festival book. We will get back to the book portion of this later.
The Festival itself
Courts, the principal focus of authority in the Late Renaissance and Early Modern periods, sought to express and shore up their evolving identities by mounting public shows on significant occasions such as marriage, the birth of an heir, a princely funeral. These shows were intended to ratify a courts beliefs, underpin its social structures, and certify its legitimacy (often in doubt in those times). They also kept the nobles engaged and entertained (keeping them close at hand and out of courtly mischief) and the lower classes entertained and enriched (as the spectacles were very public and people paid for goods and services provided). By design or consequence, the typically expensive festival provided a short-term boost to the local economy, and stimulated artistic endeavor and achievement. In fact, some cities and areas had their own annual festivals to ensure their place in the world and that their city was prosperous.
Most elaborate of the festival parts was usually the staged "entrance" of the Noble of note. Military triumphs, a form of entry recalling Classical triumphs, feature a procession through the streets of a city in which a military victor is honored by the populace and shows off his spoils. Bridal entries were similar. They showed off the bride to be (usually) some of the family, and a little of the wealth or military might associated with the bride.
Sometimes entrances became internal. The parade as we know it came to be in this time period. They were full of people in colorful (though heraldic) costuming, the presenting of important people on carriages or moving platforms, musicians playing in the parade, small shows were played out on moving carts, and so on. That sounds familiar doesn’t it? Well this is the origin of what you see every holiday.
Festivals often had ceremonial portions that were held at the local church. However while the actual reason for the festival (the baptism, the marriage, or funeral) was there, it usually was the "short part" of the proceedings. The rest lasted (or proceeded it) anywhere from an entire day to a week depending on the event, the people involved, and the local purse strings.
Public, and usually large, pieces of art were often commissioned for such events. This was most popular in Italy, but was found in other places as well. The unveilings of these pieces were often the center pieces of many festivals. Mock buildings were often created as well, so that famous events could be echoed or a theme could be produced (if the festival was in celebration of an ambassador from The East, they would often try to emulate those buildings temporarily).
Various shows and contests were part of the festival. They were there to entertain and distract (to fill in that awkward gap between the church ceremony and the formal dinner). In addition to stage shows and musical performances, exhibitions of skill, riding, martial prowess, dance, and so on were also provided. Martial demonstrations were especially important to impress foreign dignitaries who might have designs on the location. Actual contests were prominent. Races on foot/ boat/ hoof, Archery, and anything else you could think of were done. This way you could get the people involved, entertaining everyone and fostering good will between the higher and lower classes.
Festival performance required large resources: performers, expertise, time for rehearsal and preparation, and money. Some festivals proved threadbare, because hastily set up for lack of warning, or because of poor financial backing, or the weather ruined them. Characteristically, however, they were spectacular, costly and when held outdoors - had casts of thousands. (Servers, entertainers, builders, you name it, they were used).
Firework displays, while often celebrated by a court, were sometimes staged by a town to celebrate an event of national importance. Technical treatises instruct pyrotechnicians in how to make firework figures move by means of mock propulsion, and many displays feature a fiery dragon moving across the sky or angel or dove of peace soaring overhead. Most consist wholly of, or at least embody, a combat on land or sea, or else appear in close conjunction with the tournament. These things do not have to be technological. Pyromancers and alchemists can easily get into the act.
Note: From the late 17th century, the illumination became the pre-eminent means by which a town marked such events. In an illumination the principal buildings of the town are picked out in lights, special structures such as obelisks and arches are built out of wood and illuminated, and emblematic transparencies are lit from behind.
Indoors, noble festivals (for example, court masques in England, ballet de cour in France, Florentine intermedi) called on people with a wide variety of talents, including: sophisticated musical skills, skills in writing libretti (poetry/ verse), composing of music, movement skills and dance (choreography was big in those days), skills in devising and preparing scenography (setting the scene for the festival), directorial experience and abilities (those people in charge, part director, part executive, part slave driver, the corago of Florentine festivals or the Master of the Revels in England). These were of course invitation only events, but they were just as important to the courts of the times.
Professional and amateur aristocratic performers took part in both indoor and outdoor events. Architects and designers of arches of triumph, that is to say temporary structures in imitation of triumphal arches in Rome and elsewhere, were needed for outdoor occasions, and painters to decorate them. DiVinci, Arcimboldo, Buontalenti, and other notables have notebooks full of designs for their parts of the festivals.
Now back to this book thing, and why it was important
Festival books were printed accounts of these occasions, issued by or with the approval of court, city or religious authorities. They were often customized with the arms of a noble house (royal/ princely), hand-colored illustrations or a fine binding. The books usually offered eye-witness accounts of the festival, sometimes embellished with moral or philosophical reflections - though at their simplest they may just be a list of names and events. They range from lavish folios to inconspicuous pamphlets. Some were even published in other languages. (We know this because thousands of festival books, referring to thousands of festivals, have survived to the modern day).
Renaissance and Early Modern festivals needed a record. The point of a Festival and its entertainments was the courts self-presentation. Additionally they served to cement of alliances and confirm in sacred or secular terms of its continuing structures. In short, to show the world who they were and that they were great in all things.
Such purposes were best served by the making and distribution of printed accounts, thus countering the ephemeral nature of the events themselves. Festival books were produced from the late 15th century, soon after the invention of printing. Their quality did range from the lavishly-produced (sometimes with hand-colored illustrations), to plain and relatively cheap pamphlets. The territories of the Holy Roman Empire, where printing and engraving reached a high level of expertise at an early date, produced particularly elaborate volumes.
Ideally, The books offers an accurate and detailed account of the festival, with precise documentation of iconography and inscriptions, inclusive lists of participants in order of precedence, and step-by-step unfolding of processions, presentations and shows. (Note: Some were written and printed before the festival took place to serve as a program.
Festival books were usually published to honor the court or city which hosted the festival. As official publications, they tell us about the image the authorities wanted to project and offer us insights into inter-state alliances, rivalries and other political circumstances. They provide the names and relative standing of prominent courtiers and citizens.
They are there as memory making devices, to make sure that down the years the noble might remember "appropriately" the event of the past. These books were often translated into other languages and sent to foreign heads of state. Sometimes to let them know the "news" of said events, other times to just show off. In fact these books often caused rivalries to occur, as various courts tried to outdo the other.
Okay, as a gamer why should I care about the books or any of this.
Festivals are a great way to have your setting come alive. The events of the nobles show a flow of history and that the world is still moving around the player characters.
Festivals, with the amount of money that changes hands are great opportunities for the wily or the artistic.
In addition to creating a colorful background, they can directly impact the game by creating interesting situations and environments. Imagine a chase scene involving a festival (and what happens if you make a mess of things) or a possible assassination during the fireworks, all while people are wearing colorful costumes and masks.
The books, for characters, are mostly color pieces.
You can see them in the shelves in various libraries. You can also tell who is important by which books they have (as they are important enough to be given books AND invited to said events). Sure it would be a casual mention in the description, but any good player (or character with appropriate courtly/ heraldic skills) will catch the clues and be appropriately impressed.
Of course they can be used in scenario and as the expected information vectors.
They can be props in scenarios. You might be the courier that has to bring the book to a far away relative. (The powerful relative will be angered to war if certain proprieties are not followed. So now someone is going to be hunting you down to make sure a doctored book arrives at his doorstep). Notes can be hidden in them (and then ... misplaced). Certain ones can have sentimental value (and possibly incriminating notes in the margins), causing a group of agents to be chasing the books thief across the continent. Courtly adjuncts may be charged by their highnesses to duplicate the grandeur of other place’s events in the books, just so they can show they are not to be outdone (thus poor players are pressed into service). Your caravan might be waylaid or rerouted because of such an event. The options for motivation are endless.
My favorite is based on the historical. Someone noted that his cousin had been slighted by being put at a "lower table" unbefitting his rank. After reading the book, he brought his troops to ready and marched to "avenge this stain against his blood’s honor". Really. People do take these things this seriously. So should your characters, as many NPCs will.
These books, like the commissioned artwork, are there to explain various parts of the history. You find the right book; you can find vital pieces of information. You see the artwork, you find out why the two countries are allied (because of a marriage a century ago).
For the GMs and players, these books (and many of them are online) can give you a great insight as to how these historical people lived and celebrated. To a modern reader, they tell us about the artistic styles of the period: its literature, theatre, visual arts and music (the entertainment and culture), and its scenography and architecture (how various things and buildings should look). Reading them we learn something about economics (who paid for what and how much certain things costed), social organization (who was who), and the luxury trades. Note: festival books do not always provide an accurate record of events. These are reminders (and short reads) that tell us a great deal about these times and people.
While not the first souvenirs made to commemorate a given event, these books did make a lasting impression. They helped to form lasting memory of the event (preferably the one the sponsors of the festival wanted). However, in addition to books, various wood cuts and small carved plaques were sold. Other things like mugs and plates were painted, colored, and carved to remember the events. While this sounds quite modern to those of us in America, in the United Kingdoms Nicknacks dealing with coronations and marriages are still big business.