15. Charivari and Shame Punishments: Folk Justice and State Justice in Early Modern England
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chapter 15 Charivari and Shame Punishments: Folk Justice and State Justice in Early Modern England Martin Ingram Introduction hile historians of social control in early modern Europe have naturally devoted much attention to punishment, the coverage has been uneven. There has been a great deal of emphasis on the death penalty (in all its forms and manifestations from hanging to breaking on the wheel), and on the search for alternatives to capital punishment, such as transportation, from the seventeenth century onward. There has likewise been much interest in workhouses and houses of correction, which with their ostensible purpose of reforming as well as simply punishing the offender may be seen as precursors of the modern prison.1 A theme that received considerable if unsystematic attention among historians and jurists in the nineteenth century but has only recently begun to be studied in depth by modern scholars is that of the shame punishments that were very frequently meted out by early modern authorities.The pre-Reformation Catholic Church and the church of the Counter-Reformation used public penance—involving such features as penitential garb, the bearing of a candle in procession, and an act of contrition before the image of a saint—as a means of disciplining sinners . Protestant churches for their part employed either a modified form of penance or analogous procedures of congregational confession.The various forms of church discipline were supposed to be primarily medicinal rather than retributive, rituals of repentance, reconciliation, and reintegration rather than simple punishments , but in practice their impact was often not much different from the shame penalties imposed by the secular courts.2 Foremost among these was the pillory, found in various forms all over Europe. Basically a device for exposing the offender in public, it sometimes involved a pair of wooden boards with holes to lock the head and hands in position, but there were many variants.The stocks, a pair of boards to hold the legs, were rather 288 W Spierenburg_Vol_1_Ch_15_2nd.qxd 6/22/2004 2:49 PM Page 288 similar but were often used as a holding device rather than as a punishment. Other implements were the cucking-stool, a means of ducking the offender (in England most commonly a female) in water, and a large whetstone or millstone that offenders had to carry in the German punishment of Steinetragen. Plainly these penalties were not simply shame punishments in that those subjected to them also endured a degree of physical pain, or at the least acute discomfort, and indeed public exposure was often associated with corporal punishments such as whipping, branding, blinding, and the cutting off of nose or ears. Expulsion from the community, or at least loss of civic rights, was also a frequent concomitant. Moreover, a feature of such punishments was maximum publicity and exposure. It was common, for example, for offenders to be paraded round the town before and after their period of exposure on the pillory; often drums were played, trumpets were sounded, or pots and pans were vigorously beaten to attract the crowd and mark the ignominy of the offender with cacophony.3 Such usages are highly reminiscent of charivari, a topic that has in fact received far more historical attention than official shame punishments. The phenomenon may be briefly defined as a set of popular customs, variants of which have existed in many parts of Europe and over many centuries down to the recent past, which characteristically involved a noisy, mocking demonstration usually 289 Chapter 15: Charivari and Shame Punishments Plate 1 Riding the Ass, from Claude Noirot, L’Origine des Masques (1609), repr. Paris 1838, in C. Leber, ed., Collections des meilleurs dissertations, notices et traités particuliers relatifs à l’histoire de France, vol. 9. Reference (shelfmark) 237 b.56. By permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Spierenburg_Vol_1_Ch_15_2nd.qxd 6/22/2004 2:50 PM Page 289 occasioned by some anomalous social situation or infraction of community norms. If in form these customs had affinities with official shame punishments, they also embodied elements drawn from more festive contexts and in fact shaded off into a variety of popular customs associated with Carnival, Maytime, and other calendrical rituals. Often they were associated with youth groups and with festive associations such as Abbeys of Misrule. Charivaris varied greatly in scale and elaboration, while the mockery they invoked could range from mild and good hearted raillery to fiercely hostile derision. On occasion large numbers of people took part, and the proceedings could escalate into...


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