In the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Nuremberg was home to a Shrovetide Carnival known as the Schembartlauf.
It developed from a privilege to perform a pre-Lenten dance granted by the City Council to the local butchers, as a reward for their loyalty to the council during a 1348 artisan revolt. A group of masked runners, the Schembartläufer, preceded the butchers through the streets to clear the way for their dance.
Their costumes became increasingly lavish, a spectacle in their own right. In 1475, large floats known as Höllen [“Hells”] were introduced to the Carnival parade. Drawn by horses or by the Schembartläufer, the Höllen could take the shape of castles, dragons, houses, giants, ships, or a number of other fanciful forms and were usually burned by the celebrants at Carnival’s end.
Although Wildmen were not unique to the Schembart parade, they played an important role in Nuremberg’s Carnival. As a young boy, Dürer may have been frightened by the Wildmen as they ran through the streets, screaming and occasionally demanding money, dressed in skins, hair, leaves, moss, and other natural materials.
[They] probably represented the vestiges of medieval folkloric traditions that aimed to clear away the “spirit of dead vegetation”, celebrate the rebirth of nature, and remind viewers of the irrational forces in nature.
Top image by Karl Drescher circa 1600 from the Das Nürnbergische Schönbartbuch.
Middle images from a Schembartbücher currently at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Bottom image via Nuremberg Shrovetide Carnival (1449-1539) Schembartsbuch.
Quoted text via Cerise Press.