Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Skimington

All schoolchildren know about the scold’s bridle and the ducking stool used to punish women, but they are not told about the skimmity ride.

In Western Europe up until the early Twentieth Century, husbands who were victims of infidelity or domestic violence by their wives would be subjected to ritual public humiliation by their entire community. The practice was known in France as ‘Charivari’, in England as ‘the Skimmington’ or later ‘Skimmity-riding’, in Germany, by a variety of names including ‘Katzenmusik’.

The skimmington in England was a large skimming-ladle, seemingly the weapon of choice of many an abusive wife.

The practice always involved noise and discordant music, and in France and Germany frequently involved animal torture, particularly of cats. ‘Katzenmusik’ literally means ‘cats’ music’, and probably refers to the howls of tortured cats.

The practice also transferred to North America, where it was known as the ‘Shivaree’, a corruption of the French ‘charivari’. Reference

All of these words reward an internet search if you’re interested in finding out more.

In 18th- and 19th-century France, a husband who had been pushed around by his wife would be forced by the community to wear women's clothing and to ride through the village, sitting backwards on a donkey, holding its tail. If he tried to avoid the punishment, the crowd would instead punish the man's closest neighbor--for having allowed such a travesty to occur so close to his own home. This humiliating practice, called the charivari, was also common in other parts of Europe. In Brittany, villagers strapped wife-beaten husbands to carts and "paraded them ignominiously through a booing populace." Reference

This source has a much more feminist perspective.
“In France most charivaris were conducted against husbands who were beaten by their wives; in England many skimmingtons were directed against husbands whose wives had been unfaithful... This…was a shaming ritual. It was an element of popular culture that took place against the wishes of local authorities and without their connivance. Its purpose was twofold: to identify and punish sexual misconduct and to maintain the male-dominated gender system”.

The problem we have in discussing issues such as this is that feminists have got there first. The writer characterises the skimmington as one of the bad things that society did to women. This is truly an astonishing piece of intellectual gymnastics. The husband has suffered twice over; once by being the victim of domestic violence or marital infidelity and again by being the target of ritualised public humiliation. Yet the writer maintains that the charivari is a social instrument for controlling women. Women’s marital infidelity and domestic violence against men is implicitly condoned. I do not imagine for one second that the writer would take the same lax attitude towards the ritualised public humiliation of battered women. However, this is in general a useful source.

The same source continues:
Athough skimmingtons and charivaris differed from place to place, they all contained similar elements. These were designed to invert normal behavior in one way or another. The rough music symbolized the disharmony of a household in which the woman dominated, either by her physical conduct-adultery or husband beating-or her verbal conduct-cursing or abusing her husband or other men. The music was made with everyday objects rather than instruments, and pots and pans were universally present. The "riding" of the husband was another common feature. In many rituals the "husband," played by a neighbor, was placed facing the tail of the horse or donkey to symbolize the backwardness of his behavior. In some, a "wife," also acted by a neighbor, rode behind the man and beat him with a stick or, in England, with the long-handled ladle used to skim cream that was known as a skimmington. In the end, the real husband or wife was captured, the man to ride in shame throughout the town, the woman to be sat on a cucking stool and dunked in water.

Such events of ‘matrimonial lynch law’ took place in the nineteenth century in many parts of the country, especially rural areas. The practice had other names across the country. The practice seems only to have rather vague rules and therefore inevitable variation exists between any one procession and another. However, in all the skimmity processions, the aim was largely one and the same, although the seriousness of the performance was known to vary. But the skimmity ride was rarely a humorous event quickly forgotten by villagers. The intention of the skimmity was, most commonly, to drive the persons out of the area. As Roberts states, ‘the parties for whom they ride never lose the ridicule and disgrace which it attaches’. The most famous account of such an occasion in Dorset is Thomas Hardy’s, in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, where the skimmity ride causes the death of Lucetta Farfrae. In 1882, skimmity riding was made an offence against the Highway Act, punishable by fine and imprisonment. Apparently though, such an event occurred as recently as 1917 in Dorset. Skimmington was certainly common in rural Dorset during the nineteenth century. Reference

In 1832 a Parisian publisher started a satirical magazine called ‘Le Charivari’ which poked fun at the Establishment. The idea was taken up in England, in 1841, and the magazine ‘The London Charivari’ later changed its name to ‘Punch’. Reference

The cuckolded or abused husband was often forced to wear a horned mask, known as the Ooser. This may be the origin of the contemporary practise of holding two fingers up behind the head of one having their photograph taken in order to ridicule them.

A very similar practise can be seen in Hogarth’s illustration ‘Sir Hudibras encounters the Skimmington’. See the figures in the window at the top left of the picture.

The skimmington later became more of an innocuous celebration, in which a raucous group would gather outside the house of a newlywed couple, and refuse to leave until they were given a drink. It may be the origin of the practice of tying tin cans to the back of a wedding car, in order to create discordant noise.

Additional references:

Dictionary definition - riding skimmington

Article in the Journal of Men's Studies


Anonymous said...

Although initially and in its purist form the skimmington was aimed at the transgrsssive cuckold or man-beater there are many examples which could be seen as informal responses to the kind of domestic violence for which the courts system is a poor instrument.

Also the Ooser was a rare variation largely (?entirely} restricted to Dorset.

Anonymous said...

I think what the scholar probably meant when he/she said charivaris/skimmingtons were used to uphold an unequal gender system, was that the idea of the charivari was to shame a husband for failing to control his wife. I think the idea was that if a husband allowed his wife to beat him/run off with another man, he was allowing socially unacceptable behavior. Rather, it is the duty of men to be independent heads of households, and husbands that fail to do so undermine the idea that men should, in fact, be independent heads of households. Therefore, they shamed him publicly for failing to control his woman.
I don't think it would be accurate to say that either men or women held total power in gendered relationships, because you're right, some women clearly did beat their husbands. I think power can be manifested in many different ways, and that any socially mediated relationship (like a marriage) indicates some expected arrangement of power that affects the nature of the relationship, but I don't think it is ever a complete binary (one person having all power, the other person having none). That said, I don't think it would be extreme to say that in general, men had more autonomy in marital relationships than did women (who were always expected to be economic/social dependents on their husbands or fathers, whether or not this meant that they actually had less power than men in individual situations). I think the expectation that they would be subordinate is still important.