From the Middle Ages until the 19-century, charivari was a customary way of censuring community members who transgressed social norms, particularly sexual norms. It is being reprised in the social media age.
The origins of the word charivari are unclear. Different sources suggest it derives from Latin French or Spanish and refers to the parade, the noise, the cooking pot used for banging, or the headache incurred by the ‘rough music’, the term most commonly used in England.
Tackling social deviance
The practice, a noisy parade and gathering, often involving effigies of miscreants, mimes accompanied by bawdy ditties, and costumes representing the ‘sins’ of the accused, was typically undertaken at night outside a malefactor’s house or even place of work (and where his employer lived). It was usually led by young men, though furnished with their pots and pans by women.
The types of social deviance dealt with in this way were wife beating – and husband beating when the man had not stood up to his wife – widowed women remarrying, infidelity, illegitimacy, prostitution, child abuse, or richer men taking a much younger bride. There was little concern for the exploitation of the bride, but young men were protesting the shrinking of the marital pool and the targeted transgressions were often those that threatened their prospects in the marriage market or undermined traditional masculinity.
In the practice of charivari noise was essential, and the banging of pans, ringing of bells and clanging of discordant metal was central to the activity. It drew out neighbours from their houses and ensured maximum harassment and humiliation. The charivari route might take in the houses of others suspected of similar conduct as a warning. It might also last for several nights, depending on the response of the victim.
Its ‘jokey’ nature might lead some to accept the censure and acknowledge their behaviour. Sometimes those attacked might pay off the attackers with money or (even more) wine. Some might be driven out from their homes and occasionally an incident resulted in violence or even death or suicide.
For the workers or the poor, who were generally on the receiving end of landowner’s justice, and whose own complaints or victimisation were frequently ignored, it provided an acceptable way of dealing with grievances and behaviour that disturbed the social or moral order. When the charivari ended, social reintegration often followed, and the matter was closed.
History of charivari
The first known written reference to charivari (in about 1310) is in the Roman de Fauvel French verse, about a horse symbolising vanity and greed who marries a human and whose wedding night the locals disrupt. Charivari was common all over Europe and, later, in the Americas.
In the 17th century the Catholic church and some secular authorities banned the custom. But this was difficult to enforce, especially as the perpetrators, young men, were also responsible for organising the approved religious festivities and processions (carnival, holy week and saints’ days) that took place with great frequency across Europe. Often charivari took place under the cover of these festivities and processions.
Charivari declined due to industrialisation and urbanisation. Social and moral rules and behaviours changed as people moved to the cities and there was less interest in community policing of behaviour. Fragmented communities did not have the same investment in maintaining the cohesion of a small rural community. Once marriage and sexual behaviour was regulated by the state, the desire to censure extra marital sexual activity, dissipated. Night watches, city police forces and street lighting also made it was much more difficult to arrange and execute a charivari.
Remnants of charivari in folk rituals
It did not fully die out and there are remnants in folk rituals today. The most famous incident is in the fictional account of the mayor in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, written in 1884 – by which time the practice was almost extinct in England.
The mayor (Henchard) and Lucetta were previously lovers but are now respectable members of the community, until their long past relationship is exposed. The relationship is revealed in charivari (or Skimmington Ride as it was known in the West Country) through the effigies of both tied on a donkey with their identities made sufficiently clear through dress and appearance. Up until that point the wider population had no knowledge of the relationship.
Through charivari, poor and working people enforced moral standards in the face of state indifference and highlighted the hypocrisy of the upper classes under whose yoke they toiled. However, it was also frequently targeted at outsiders and often had a racial element, particularly in the US. ‘Foreign’ men were seen as a threat to the white man’s rights to young women as sexual or life partners.
Current events – the ‘outing’ of television presenters and MPs for having inappropriate relationships with younger people, the trolling of George Osborne through the circulation of an accusatory email and showering him with orange confetti, are examples of modern-day charivari; the intended public humiliation of people who have broken wider community and social norms.
Men (and it is still primarily men) and youths have gathered in social media spaces and, sometimes, outside homes and workplaces, recruiting an audience on the way who then join the parade of accusers, calling out other suspects along the route.
The intention of many current accusations, as in the past, is to reclaim some of the power working and poorer people have lost to an elite that makes the rules but does not follow them, and who are protected from the consequences of their behaviour. But internet mockery and humour is also often accompanied by psychological abuse, not all of which is commensurate with the behaviour being condemned and can be equally destructive.
Reassertion of masculine power
Just as in the Middle Ages, moral indignation is not only used as a means of community social control but as an attempt to reassert younger men’s marital ‘rights’ in a shrinking relationship market and to exclude other men. The target of much current disapproval is the ‘elite’ older man in a relationship with a younger person. It is assumed the relationship is possible only with the advantage of an excess of power and wealth – the absence of which, and the underlying assumptions about what this means for relationships or sex, many young men are acutely sensitive to.
The popularity of men such as Andrew Tate who glorify in the abuse of women while arguing consent is an outcome of their sexual magnetism, and men from the ‘incel’ movement (involuntary celibate) who attack online – and occasionally in person – women who will not have sex with them, is also reminiscent of charivari. Women rarely engaged in charivari (although might loan their cooking pots) but women were frequently the targets, and assault or rape occasionally resulted.
The hounding of refugees in the media and outside hotels and the persecution of the transwomen are further examples of men’s attempts to reassert proprietorial rights over women and girls’ lives. By accusing all ‘foreign’ men and transwomen of sexual misconduct, irrespective of the evidence, white men hope to ensure their social and relationship exclusion.
In the Middle Ages (until the Black Death) the population of Europe increased rapidly. Food was scarce and, except for the wealthy, people did not marry until their 30s and until they could afford the risk that sexual intercourse might result in pregnancy with more mouths to feed. Young men had a considerable incentive to ensure that, when they were ready and able to marry, other men had not further reduced the marriageable pool of women.
The current inability of many young men with poor economic prospects and low social capital to find either sexual or life partners may be, once again, driving a movement to exclude and punish older, already married or foreign men, whom they see as competition (and the young women or men who have relationships with them). The internet facilitates this new charivari for moralising and social control.