Charivari - Performances of Violence, Justice and Subversion

Charivari - Performances of Violence, Justice and Subversion

I’ve always been fascinated by the use of performance as a means of seeking justice. Whether that be through art, plays, music, or theatre. Western society has always been strongly performative by nature and has only grown more so with new technologies, the internet, the focus on acting out a persona online versus irl (in real life). The initial strong distinction people made between Online and In Real Life was akin to the way you distinguish between an actor on and off stage. However, that line has long since blurred, and for the best, with people coming to understand that Online is In Real Life.

Part of internet culture is the group mentality that comes with it where each corner has a sort of “village” feel to it. No matter which platform you are on you have “your people”. This is very much a natural part of being human but it is fascinating to watch recreations of village or neighbourhood life acted out digitally where one person makes a faux-pas and then the “village” must either correct that person’s course or purge them.

In the early modern period on through the early twentieth century one of the most distinct forms of correcting behaviour was known as the charivari.

Charivari (aka Skimmington Ride, Stang Ride, Rough Music, Shivaree or Chivaree) was a method of maintaining moral and social norms within society. Through public shaming people who acted outside of what had been decreed as “correct” behaviour, such as punishing adultery or other acts of sexual and social deviance, were punished. While a charivari could be used to punish any range of social “sins” it was most usually focused on “incorrect” marriages. This includes adultery, widows marrying again too soon after a husband’s death, a husband or wife who exceeds the social acceptable amount of spousal abuse, or any other form of deviancy.

The nature of the charivari varied depending on where you were. In England, Skimmington Rides, or Stang Rides, were the most common form of this social censure although the rides were performed elsewhere including France and Germany. A Skimmington Ride involved the guilty parties being placed on a donkey or a pole and carried around the town while being beaten with skimmingtons, which are large wooden ladles. Accompanying this would be loud music, people banging on pots and pans, and singing of various cacophonous songs.

A relief from the Great Hall in Montacute House, Sommerset, England portraying a Stang Ride

A relief from the Great Hall in Montacute House, Sommerset, England portraying a Stang Ride

We have an account of a charivari from Samuel Pepy's Diary date June 10, 1667: the afternoon took boat and down to Greenwich, where I find the stairs full of people, there being a great riding there to-day for a man, the constable of the town, whose wife beat him...

In France, the charvari sometimes took a darker, theatrical turn with the guilty parties being dressed as stags or deer and the villagers, dressed as hounds, would “hunt” them. In some cases animal blood was spilled on the doors of the guilty parties.

There were times when, at the end of the charivari and the guilty had admitted to their crimes, they would be dumped in the local water source as a form of re-baptism back into the community. In other cases it was their effigy that was paraded around and in severe cases, burnt. What was universal was the noise making (hence, “rough music” being one of the names for it), general discord, and deep public humiliation and shame.

What was universal was the spontaneous nature of the charivari and the integral role it played as an act of social cleansing.

Here is an excerpt from the memoirs of Esprit Flechier (1632-1710), quoting an old man who complained about the decay in good conduct of charivari since the days when he used to participate in the them.

…But now all this courtesy [of the charivari] has passed away … All that remains of these old games is a right of exaction, and an imposition of tribute on certain occasions. When a stranger marries a woman from the town, the princes tax him … in order to make him pay for the departure of the nymph whom he carries away. When a widower marries a girl, or a widow a boy, they are taxed according to their condition, for having removed the nymph or young lord who ought to have belonged to some other. These were the only taxes spoken of in past ties. Each enjoyed his goods in peace and owed nothing until his marriage. The imposition was very moderate, a reasonable time was given to pay, and thank God all the taxes were the same! It is true that after a pre-arranged time, people went to collect the sum, and that if payment was delayed a little too long, the custom was that the prince’s officers hurried along to the debtor’s house with a great deal of folly, following their brief, took down the tapestries, disarranged all the furniture, and as was the order of the day, threw everything out of the window. This was done with such good grace that it was an entertainment, and not an act of violence.

Charivaris also had political connotations. When invoked in political situations it was used as a means for those traditionally disenfranchised and with minimal to no access to a political voice to make their sentiments known. Either by acting out on the actual person who warrants their discontent or on an effigy of that person.

These rituals, as violent and shaming as they were, allowed average people of the early modern period to perform a form of justice when they had no access to the justice system. The language of charivari was one of ritual and subversion. It presented an “up-turning” or “inverting” of the world as an act of setting it right again. It was necessary for them to turn the world inside-out, to see the sins of it, to see each other plain, before they could go about setting their lands back in order.

The subversion could be seen in different elements of the public mocking and they ranged from gender swapping, adulterers riding backwards on a donkey or mule (ass backwards), a man being emasculated in some way by his wife, the music being a cacophony instead of pleasant. Charivari is a form of “for the people by the people” justice.

William Hogarth's engraving "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington"

William Hogarth's engraving "Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington"

That said, there were accounts of charivari's going too far resulting in the death of particpants or their accomplaces. Most usually by their own hand due to the shame of it. When living in a small community, a damaged reputation could be drastically life altering. However, as there are few extant records relating to deaths resulting from charivari's, much of what was recorded was hear-say ("I have a friend who knew a guy whose brother killed himself" sort of story). Still, I have no doubt that charivaris resulted in the untimely death of some of the people forced to go through it.

An interesting complication to the charivari as a rural-justice-for-the-powerless view comes to us from Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign. In 1798 a 29-year-old Bonaparte embarked upon the ill-fated Egyptian campaign and at one point during it ordered a charivari to be performed on Boyer, a French surgeon. Although Boyer was innocent of the charge laid against him, that of cowardice, and ultimately he was not made to perform the following order, this event outlines an interesting attempt to use charivari as state/army imposed punishment.

The order given as follows by Bonaparte:

“(Order.) Citoyen Boyer, surgeon, who has been so cowardly as to refuse help to some wounded because they were supposed to be infected, is unworthy of being a French citizen. He is to be dressed in women’s clothes, and paraded through the streets of Alexandria on a donkey, with a board on his back, on which shall be written: Unworthy of being a French citizen - he fears death. After which he is to be placed in prison, and sent back to France by the first ship.”

This order contains expected elements of a typical charivari: swapped gender roles, riding on a donkey, a parade is made of his humiliation, and the cause of his punishment made clear. In this case, by the placard he must wear as opposed to symbolic images or tokens which were sometimes used. What is interesting is that by having Boyer paraded through the streets of Alexandria Bonaparte not only included French soldiers in the act of public shaming but also extended the performance to Egyptians as well.

Bonaparte, ever the master of propaganda and public displays, had the order printed up in a bulletin and shared publicly. While Boyer was eventually exonerated and not made to perform the charivari, the printed nature of the order meant that not only did all soldiers in Egypt read it but also the general public back in France. This meant that even though Boyer was found to be innocent, the charivari in absentia was still experienced by citizens back home at Boyer’s expense. While this can be seen to be merely a simple act of control and humiliation used to maintain order in a rapidly deteriorating political and military situation, there remains a tension between the bottom-up nature of a traditional charivari and the order given in a military setting.

Indeed, Bonaparte, as General-in-Chief of the Egyptian Army, represented the typical authority figure most often on the receiving end of political charivaris. Or, at the least, his effigy would have been at the receiving end. As one who lived through the French Revolution he would have been familiar with the use of the charivari by the powerless against their oppressors. Therefore, his use of the charivari as a form of authoritative, regimented punishment was an act of inversion. He took a subversive form of justice and “legitimized” it thereby robbing it of its power; making the untamable act of anger and justice tame.

I’ve not found any other recorded instance of Bonaparte using the charivari again as a form of punishment. Perhaps it was deemed too parochial as upon his return from Egypt he was desperately trying to fashion himself as a society Gentleman. He was also deeply committed to distancing himself from anything too “provincial” in an attempt to remove the association of Corsica from his identity. Or, perhaps, it was simply that charivari at the end of the day was an unwieldy weapon of control.

Charivaris continued to be practiced well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the more rural areas of Europe. Photographs taken of the 1902 Corby Pole Fair in England show a man being carried down the street on a pole in the Stang Ride fashion. Indeed, incidents of charivari were recorded as late as 1945 - most usually (and rightfully) performed against Nazi sympathizers.

While the charivari has dissipated in popularity - aided by an increasingly interconnected society, a more accessible justice system to right civil wrongs, and in some places the outlawing of such practices - we still maintain some forms of it. Only, they’ve gone digital.

Movements such as #MeToo can be seen as a form of modern charivari. Unwieldy as any movement is, they are a means for those who have little power to enact some form of justice against those who the system in place protects. To invert the traditional balance of power, even if it is only for a little while. Instead of burning the effigy of the king or church, names become hash-tags. Instead of making an abuser or rapist ride ass-backwards on a donkey while being beaten by their victims, they are publicly shamed in a digital forum.

While the internet making the world increasingly smaller it is no wonder that some form of the charivari has erupted and taken on a similarly global approach. As with the charivari, there are detractors to these wide movements. However, those participating in these social movements would argue, just as those who engaged in charivari would argue, it is sometimes necessary to turn the world inside-out, to see the sins of it, to see each other plain, before you can begin to set things back in order with the aim of creating hopefully a more just and compassionate world than existed before.

Discussed: Richelieu and Cats, or, Displays of Opulence

As many of you know, some of my favourite things are dead people, cats, and ridiculous stuff that happened to aforementioned dead people (and cats). Today we're combining all of this to bring you: dead cat people! My personal favourite historical cat person is Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, 1st Duke of Richelieu and Fronsac (more commonly known as Cardinal Richelieu or The Red Eminence).

Richelieu is perhaps best known for his role as antagonist, and occasional ally, in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The historical man had a phenomenal career as not only a prince of the Catholic Church but also as France’s Foreign Secretary and eventual “First Minister” to the Crown.

In his role as First Minister he sought to modernize and centralize the French state – focusing it around the monarchy and Paris as opposed to more dispersed units of power that had existed previously. He worked tirelessly to balance the powers on the European stage, particularly those of the Habsburgs who controlled both the Spanish and Austrian thrones. To that end he, and France, were heavily involved in the 30 Years War and other disturbances on the continent. For better and worse he supported French exploration and eventual colonization of what is now Canada. Richelieu was also the headmaster of the Collège de Sorbonne and worked to modernize the institution. He was also the founder of various intellectual and academic societies such as the Académie française.

While his reputation has been that of a quasi-villain, the historical personage is obviously more complicated. In the end, Richelieu’s policies eventually led the establishment of France’s absolute monarchy – brought to the fore by Louis XIV – and France’s hegemony on the European stage.

However, the most important thing to all of us is that the Red Eminence was a crazy cat man.


Displays of Wealth and Cats 
During his lifetime Richelieu (1585-1642) absolutely leaned into the displays of wealth expected of the upper classes. If you did not live like a nobleman then how could anyone take you seriously?

As Hobbes writes in Leviathan, “For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves at the highest Value they can; yet their Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.”
This was not a world where one’s worth was determined by one’s love and respect of self but by one’s ancestry and rank. Indeed, part of having self-respect was ensuring others were able to see your standing within society and respecting you and your status accordingly. Therefore, how one displayed wealth in the early modern period demonstrated, in a symbolic manner, how one ought to be treated.
An extant letter from a young Richelieu in Paris: “Since I am a bit glorious, I wouldn’t mind showing off more, but for that I would need a lodging [in Paris] where I could be more at ease. What a pity to be a poor noble.” (Richelieu, Lettres, vol. 1)

One way of ensuring that the respect and homage due to one's rank was preserved and not infringed upon was to implement sartorial laws. These laws dictated what each class and profession was allowed to wear. In Florence, for example, only members of certain ranks were allowed to wear kid-leather gloves. Certain colours and fabrics were relegated to certain classes and professions in order to maintain distinction. Sartorial laws were also a means to segregate those perceived as Other from the rest of the population – this particularly impacted sex workers and lepers.
Another manner of displaying wealth was through patronage and charity. Richelieu was a renowned patron of the arts employing, or displaying artwork of, artists such as Philippe de Champaigne, Simon Vouet, and the architect Jacques Lemercier (who designed and built the Palais Cardinal which has been renamed Palais Royal. It houses part of the French government – I believe the Ministry of Culture and the Conseil d’Etat are there but don’t quote me).

With regards to displays of charity – like the Robber Barons of the United States' Guilded Age and Christmas-Time-Only Charity in modernity – it was both a means of securing one’s salvation as well as a means of self-serving display of rank and wealth.


John Donne on excessive displays of charity: 

“In thinks that belong to Action, to Workes, to Charity, there is nothing perfect … there is no worke of ours so good, as that wee can looke for thanks at Gods hands for that worke; no worke, that hath not so much ill mingled with it, as that we need not cry God mercy for that worke. There was so much corruption in the getting, or so much vaine glory in the bestowing, as that no man builds an Hospitall, but his soule lies, though not dead, yet lame in that Hospitall; no man mends a high-way, but he is, though not drowned, yet mired in that way; no man relieves the poore, but he needs reliefe for that reliefe. In all those workes of Charity, the world that hath benefit by them, is bound to confesse and acknowledge a goodnesse, and so call them good workes; but the man that does them, and knows the weaknesses of them, knows they are not good works.” (Donne, Sermons 7, 265) 

[NB: Donne was Protestant (though he was raised Catholic) therefore his views on charity are particular to that school of thought. Catholic and Protestant approaches to acts of charity diverge theologically on what it means for your soul and impact on the afterlife. That said, the above still captures the importance that charity was used to show wealth and rank.]

Donne was not against charity, of course, but he cautioned that overly ostentatious displays of it manifested less civic goodness and duty and more aristocratic ceremonies of display.

This shift on excessive displays of wealth, therefore status, via charity and other civic pageantry is a change wrought about in the early modern period (Medievalists correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is a 16th-17th century shift). And it is one that is more an English phenomenon than French.
Richelieu, throughout his life, very much understood and engaged in opulent displays of wealth which corresponded to his social, political, ecclesiastical and personal identity. Much of this stems from his awareness of the importance of appearance and his previous inability to display himself appropriately: What a pity to be a poor noble.

Informing some of his personal anxiety around wealth was the economic instability experienced by the noble classes due to inflation, warfare, and a bankrupt monarchy. Economic stability and security – and the respectability that came with it – were clear realities in Richelieu’s lifetime. Both in his peers at court but also from his own family’s vacillating fortunes.
Aside from his clothes, which were always immaculate and opulent, his Palais Cardinal is one of the more famous displays of wealth and identity. Richelieu initially purchased l’hôtel de Rambouillet for 90,000 francs in 1624 with the intent to construct a much larger and finer house from it. The planning phase began in 1629, led by Lemercier, and construction commenced in 1633 finishing six years later in 1639. The Palais was equipped with sumptuous apartments, a theatre (Richelieu adored theatre and attended shows regularly), but the crowning glory was the galerie des Hommes Illustres which displayed his exemplary art collection. Included in the gallery were four statues and thirty-eight busts from antiquity and twenty-five portraits (including that of Louis XIII and his own) painted by Philippe de Champaigne and Simon Vouet, among other works.

But do you know what the most important part of the Palais was? The Chatterie. 

Yes, dear readers, Richelieu had a room built and dedicated entirely to his cats. There is no way to say: I Am Very Rich than to dedicate a portion of your palace to your cats.


He enjoyed having the animals around like to watch them “gambol about” on his papers. It is a miracle we don’t have extant documents from his tenure with cat paw prints across them. We know that at least in the 1640s he had fourteen cats. That is a goodly amount of cats to own.

Here are some examples of the names Richelieu bestowed upon his beautiful furry friends:
Racan (a famous poet)
Lucifer (just asking for trouble)
Gazette (why, Richelieu?)
Perruque (means “wig”)
Did he adopt the cats or did they adopt him? Unclear. Irrelevant, really. I’m assuming any time he named his cat something like “Mounard the ferocious” it means they were the sweetest thing on the planet and just wanted cuddles. This is the way of cats.
Sadly we know very little about only a few of his blessed companions. There was a museum in Paris dedicated to Richelieu and his cats but is closed in 2007 which is a loss to the world.

Some Cat Facts: 
Rubis sur l'Ongle liked to scratch everything
Pyrame and Thysbe would sleep together with their paws touching, hence why they were named after the famous lovers.
Serpolet enjoyed sunning himself everywhere.
Soumise was Richelieu’s favourite and just wanted cuddles.
Ludovic le Cruel was the resident rat-killer, very important role in rat-infested 17th century Paris.
Ludoviska was rat-catcher's “mistress” which means we all know what Richelieu walked in on one time.
Mounard le Fougueux was a suck for love but simultaneously capricious so he was one of those cats that was like “pet me, pet me, now I attack!”

Upon his death in 1642 Richelieu left the Palais-Cardinal and his art collection to the Crown (the Crown probably would have taken it anyway) but also in his will was money set aside for the safety and well-being of his cats, including the naming of a dedicated cat-care-taker for them.

Richelieu might have run France but that didn’t stop him from loving his cats. Let that be a lesson to us all.