On January 7, 1514, the Parlement of Normandy, the royal court of appeal for that prosperous French province on the Channel coast, issued a decree banning the wearing and owning of masks. “It is prohibited for all persons [...] to wear or purchase any false visage, mask, fake nose or beard, or anything else that disguises the face,” proclaimed the magistrates. They prohibited merchants from selling masks and ordered that all masks be handed in to the authorities, as if they were dangerous weapons. The timing of this decree suggests the court issued it in anticipation of Carnival, the traditional mid-winter festival that preceded the forty-day fast of Lent in the Christian calendar. As they still do in many parts of the world, in Normandy at the time people, especially young men, celebrated by parading the streets wearing costumes and masks. The Parlement, whose duties included regulating public order, evidently felt that by hiding people’s identity, masks created the potential for disorder.
Five centuries later, we are going through our own moral panic about adults wearing masks in public. During the June 2010 meeting of the G20 in Toronto, police deployed a rarely-used law against wearing a disguise with criminal intent - one usually applied to armed robbers - to arrest people wearing bandanas in the protest area. Recently, a Conservative Member of Parliament introduced a private member’s bill to create a law against wearing a mask during an “unlawful assembly,” and the government has said it will support the bill. Since rioting, vandalism, and wearing a mask with intent to engage in a criminal act are all already illegal, this law won’t discourage any further violence. It could potentially, however, be used against a protest that was peaceful but not approved by the authorities. A new bylaw passed by the City of Montreal, meanwhile, does not even make that distinction, banning the wearing of masks at all protests in response to the continuing student demonstrations against Quebec’s proposed tuition hikes.
Canada isn’t alone in its mask panic. In response to widespread riots in 2011, Britain moved to give police the power to remove masks from people wearing them in public. In New York, police revived a little-used law from 1845 that bans mask-wearing at gatherings to arrest several Occupy Wall Street protestors wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Tellingly, the law was first introduced after poor protesters in nineteenth-century New York donned “Indian” costumes of “calico gowns and leather masks” to inflict political violence against the agents of a wealthy landowner who was trying to evict his tenant farmers.
.... during Carnival in sixteenth-century Normandy, maskers felt free to make public satirical comments about the foibles of their fellow-citizens and authorities - whether of the church, nobility or the law - that they would not make so boldly at other times of the year. But this satire could also degenerate into vicious personal attacks, and there was always the threat of riot. Given the genuine potential for rule-breaking that comes with wearing masks, it becomes easier to understand why authorities might have concerns about people wearing them in public. Regulators need to guard against over-reacting, however. Over time, the Parlement of Normandy learned to distinguish between harmless and dangerous masking. Their initial ban was completely ineffectual - not only did masking continue, but masked Carnival celebrations in the city of Rouen, where the court was based, became ever more elaborate. Eventually, the Parlement abandoned its blanket prohibition and instead came to an understanding with the maskers. The magistrates let the Carnival organizers themselves decide who got to wear a mask, making them self-policing. They then focused their regulation on keeping the festivities from going bad, by punishing vicious satirical attacks against individuals, making sure people wearing masks didn’t carry weapons, and keeping the festivities from going on too late into the dark winter nights.