Rough Music

views updated

Rough Music

Rough music, also shivaree, from the French charivari (Abrahams 2002, Flanagan 1940, Johnson 1990), is a form of collective punishment related to sexual or marital behaviors, not always including sound. It also is known in the United States and England as skimmington, a word derived from the skimming ladle (Steward 2002).

Variations of the custom have been recorded in England, France, Italy, Sardinia, Spain, and Geneva during the medieval and early modern periods as well as in colonial North America. It was recorded in Kansas and Kentucky as late as the 1930s and in France well into the 1970s (Alford 1959, Desplat 1982, Johnson 1990, Le Goff and Schmitt 1981).

Typically, it was a procession or gathering by local youth or neighbors performing an unwelcome concert of discordant instruments, kitchen implements, or tools, aimed at newlyweds who had elicited social disapproval, in front of their home. It targeted perceived sexual misconduct, most often when widowers of both sexes remarried (Flanagan 1940, Johnson 1990).

Ridicule could be deflected by the face-saving device of gifts to the performers, usually in the form of drinks or sometimes food and more rarely by the extorsion of large sums of money (Johnson 1990). When the target of the shivaree refused to cooperate, the performance of condemnation would become more aggressive and durable. A testimony by a woman shivaree-target in the 1950s in France stresses the social obligation of the ritual and the impossibiity of ignoring it lest the harassment increase (Le Goff and Schmitt 1981).

In eighteenth-century England and colonial New England rough treatment, without music, could be ritually practiced by women against wife-beating husbands (London in 1734 and Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1734) or against young men for adultery (Boston in 1730) with the tacit approval of the community or under its eyes (Steward 2002). Women were sometimes part of the mob or even led it (Steward 2002). In colonial New Jersey it was a sect of young men who, disguised as women, stripped and flogged adulterous or violent husbands (McConville 2002). In Western states the serenade often marked integration in the community rather than punishment (Johnson 1990) but also gave license to annoy and censure a couple until a gift put an end to the disturbance (Hancock 1995) as in bride-bed rituals. Even benign forms rested on a unilateral community authority over sexuality that could be very intrusive, if not violent (Johnson 1990, Steward 2002).

Divergent gendered assumptions affected male and female targets. The level of violent conflict was related primarily to how insulted the male recipient felt. The expectation that women would endure the ritual without protest is linked to disparaging perceptions of the honor or women or of women having no honor other than the sexual.

Thus, while shivaree sometimes punished violent spouses, it mostly enacted normative and conservative sexual mores regarding remarriage, particularly in Catholic countries. In effect, medieval and early modern societies accepted and even enforced remarriage at the highest rungs of society, and the Church has never condemned remarrying per se. Yet its teachings on chastity and celibacy greatly influenced views of widowhood as removing the surviving partner from the marriage and the permitted system of sexual exchange (Desplat 1982, Johnson 1990), and in more patriarchal societies such as ancien regime Gascony the advocacy of enforced chastity in widowhood was disproportionately directed at women (Desplat 1982). However, in interfering with patrician and bourgeois control of marriage as an economic and social tool, these practices could be socially disruptive, expressing the prejudices or prohibitions of groups with less power within the community against the choices of worthy and important citizens (Desplat 1982, Steward 2002). Thus, the courts of ancien regime France as well as colonial authorities in America took an increasingly dim view of these disputes, adjudicating them more frequently in favor of the plaintiffs.

see also Folklore; Marriage.


Abrahams, Roger D. 2002. "Introduction: A Folklore Perspective." In Riot and Revelry in Early America, ed. William Pencak, Matthew Dennis, and Simon P. Newman. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Alford, Violet. 1959. "Rough Music and Charivari." Folklore 70: 505-518.

Desplat, Christian. 1982. Charivaris en Gascogne: La "morale des peuples" du XVIe au XXe siècle. Paris: Berger-Levrault.

Flanagan, John T. 1940. "A Note on 'Shivaree.'" American Speech. 15(1): 109-110.

Hancock, Norma. 1995. "Shivaree: Folklore in the News." Western Folklore 14(2): 136-137.

Johnson, Loretta T. 1990. "Charivari/Shivaree: A European Folk Ritual on the American Plain." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20(3): 371-387.

Le Goff, Jacques, and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds. 1981. Le Charivari: Actes de la Table Ronde organisée à Paris, 25-27 avril 1977 par l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales et le Centre National de la Recherce Scientifique. Paris: Ecole; Paris and New York: Mouton.

McConville, Brendan.2002. "The Rise of Rough Music: Reflection on an Ancient New Custom in Eighteenth-Century New Jersey." In Riot and Revelry in Early America, ed. William Pencak, Matthew Dennis, and Simon P. Newman. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Pencak, William; Matthew Dennis; and Simon P. Newman, eds. 2002. Riot and Revelry in Early America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Steward, Steven J. 2002. "Skimmington in the Middle and New England Colonies." In Riot and Revelry in Early America, ed. William Pencak, Matthew Dennis, and Simon P. Newman. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

                               Francesca Canadé Sautman