Masquerades and the 18th Century Society
Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis
Keywords:18th century society, masquerades, social classes
The paper offers an enquiry into masquerades as a social phenomenon. The peculiarity of masquerades—public events that emerged and were popularised in the 18th century—is that they provided different social classes with a unique opportunity to have fun together. The paper aims to research the structure of the 18th century society and identify the social changes that fuelled the demand to transcend the limits between so- cial classes through this particular form of entertainment. By drawing on memoirs, fiction, and press reports, the paper analyses the function and social reception of masquerades. Even though the popularity of masquerades could be regarded as a sign of democratisation and diminishing of class barriers in society, these barriers remained very much present and obvious to everybody. Because the identities of people behind masks were unknown and participants were not permitted to bring any status-related attributes (such as weapons or servants), masquerades were creating an illusion of social equality. Yet this equality was rather ephemeral—the person’s status was still often recognisable nonetheless and the aristocracy was not even attempting to hide it. The masquerade security forces were allowed to use their judgment and punish the wrongdoers according to their class. It is worth noting that, as masquerades were gradually gaining popularity, they were also subjected to “stratification”: they adapted to the financial situations and demands of various social groups and, while becoming accessible to the poor, masquerades also introduced even greater social divisions. Masquerades were attractive primarily due to the unrestricted exploration of the possibilities of anonymity. They were based on the natural tendency to create illusions and tricks, which some saw as part of a controlled social game, while others saw them as a chance to hide their social status. The paper also concludes that, due to the mass character and the capacity to draw crowds from all social strata, masquerades were also used as tools of soft power: for example, in Vilnius, masquerades used to be organised by the officers of the Russian army deployed in the city at that time. This also served as a reason for debates about patriotism and treason.