Music & Skimmington Riots
An Analysis of the Skimmington and Rough Music Riots in England and Colonial North America
The winds of revolution were already in the air and there was still clear evidence in the late 18th and early 19th century that when enough people believe they are being treated unfairly, they will react with a vengeance to set things right. Indeed, this is just what happened during the Skimmington Riots and the so-called rough music accompaniments that took place in England and Colonial North America, which events were largely crowd phenomena that were highly influenced by the tradition of charivaris in France in the late Middle Ages (Mccullagh 1998:194). To determine precisely what happened during these social conflict events and why, this study provides a critical analysis of recent historic writings on concerning the history of crowd violence, the effect of colonial laws, or the lack of laws on such incidents, the role of women and society and culture’s effect in the colonies. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Crowd Violence in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries. According to Kouzmin and Rosenthal (1997), there are distinct similarities between various categories of exceptional circumstances that can be used to consider disasters, riots, and terrorist actions, for example, as social crises. “If it is accepted also that crises may be viewed usefully as ‘occasions for decision,'” they suggest, “then an approach especially designed to deal with the decision-making and management aspects of crisis situations would seem to be quite appropriate” (277). The classic definition for crises appears to be particularly appropriate in this regard: “A crisis is a situation that, threatens high-priority goals of the decision-making unit, restricts the amount of time available for response before the decision is transformed and surprises the members of the decision-making unit by its occurrence” (Kouzim and Rosenthal 277). Indeed, the relationship between a crisis and the events that took place during the Skimmington and Rough Music Riots certainly satisfied this definition, as discussed further below.
The desire to protect the community, ritual misrule, and antiauthoritarianism modified notions of popular resistance during the late 17th century (Gilje 15). Opposition to intrusions upon a community, whether in the form of enclosures, market conditions, or whatever, helped to bind the village together and could thus reinforce the bonds of hierarchy within the community. Ritual misrule on festive holidays often served a cathartic function, channeling disruptive urges into socially accepted paths; however, some elements of antiauthoritarianism persisted even in the most benign of customary riots and the most innocuous of popular festivities (Gilje 15). For example, during the dynamic and turbulent social conditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, these same elements emerged time and again and served to intensify any existing levels of social animosity (Gilje 15). According to this author:
The domination of those elements was always short lived. During the 1640s and 1650s, rioting and misrule helped to topple the Stuart dynasty and contributed to the call for a new order. The confused world that emerged so disrupted the older notions of hierarchy and community that almost all England welcomed the restoration of the Stuarts. Despite the joy of a return to a “merry England,” the tradition of resistance did not lie far under the surface as the popular support for Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685 and the success of the Glorious Revolution attest. (Gilje 15)
According to Tiederman (1997), “Unlike British politicians of the previous generation, the men who had come to power in the 1760s were legalistic in outlook and dedicated to ‘the consistent enforcement of law as an end in itself.’ In 1766, for example, when high prices caused food riots in England, the government suppressed them harshly with military force” (99). Despite these harsh measures, rioting continued its importance in England during the 18th century, even if these social upheavals were no longer regarded as a serious threat to the established order (Gilje 15). Nevertheless, in London especially, riotous crowds remains politically relevant from the early to the closing decades of the 18th century; therefore, the Sacheverell riots, which targeted dissenter churches and whig institutions, were manifestations of popular support for tory policies in 1710 (Gilje 15). Likewise, protests against an excise bill in 1730 caused Sir Robert Walpole to cancel the initiative, and in 1733, anti-Gin Act riots resulted in an initiative designed to limit alcoholic consumption becoming untenable (Gilje 15). According to this author, “In 1753 riots convinced officials not to pass a law designed to make naturalization easier for Jews. Most significant, starting in the 1760s there was a series of disturbances, first celebrating John Wilkes and then turning to general issues of reform, that signaled an awakening of greater political consciousness among Londoners” (Gilje 15).
The types of rioting that took place throughout the rest of Britain, though, were characterized as being much more traditional in its purposes and context; for example, numerous riots took place in opposition to the transport of grain and bread outside of a region simply because it might find a higher price somewhere else (Gilje 15). Nevertheless, such rituals of communal regulation, however, served a wide range of social purposes: “For instance, the charivari or rough music — ranging from banging on pots and pans to rail riding, effigy burning, and mock murder — practiced against newlyweds when there were great discrepancies of age, might also be utilized against sexual deviants, wife beaters, or someone who violated an agreement with fellow laborers” (Gilje 15). Likewise, riots took place in rural parts of England concerning labor issues: “Collective bargaining by riot” first emerged early in English history and continued throughout the 18th century (Thompson 50).
While the sorts of English rioting that took place in the 18th century were an extension of the same forms as in the past, the intensity of overt challenge to political authority, and even the level of violence, diminished; this was attributed in part to the emergence of the so-called “political stability of Georgian England” as well as being a function of the acceptance of social hierarchy and a deferential world view (Plumb 67). Nevertheless, Gilje emphasizes that, “Repeated cases of rioting, however, indicated that conflicts recurred. Within the villages and across the countryside some men pursued new notions of market economics and others, often resorting to popular disorder, reasserted older values” (15). According to Gilje, the process of crowd action intended to defend traditional rights and practices provided these social conflicts with a more robust form and attributed more clearly defined values than had existed in the tumultuous world of the past; furthermore, the more recent rioting confirmed the legacy of rebellion and social disorder as a legitimate means to a worthwhile end. In this regard, Gilje suggests that, “Modified in the eighteenth century as it may have been, that tradition was evident in the contrasts between plebeian and patrician culture, especially in the counter-theater of the plebs” (Gilje 16).
The traditions of using a collective social action to thwart the status quo was not uniquely “American,” per se, but was rather the inherited tradition of the Old World; for instance, Gilje cites Thompson’s findings that during this period in history, whenever a group of people “parodied the gentry, celebrated a mock election, or riotously assumed the power of the courts and humiliated an offender of local custom, it asserted an antiauthoritarianism that had deep roots in the social soil of England. In some areas antiauthoritarianism was pervasive. The Kingswood colliers near Bristol sustained a reputation for lawlessness throughout the eighteenth century, and certain areas of the coastline were infamous for the aplomb with which the locals, in defiance of authority, pursued the plundering of wrecked ships” (Thompson 382 cited in Gilje at 16).
English rioting combined nonviolent and violent traditions. There was, however, a shift from seventeenth-century tumult, which included many examples of both types, to the eighteenth century when more limited activity was likely. In both centuries there remained a strain of antiauthoritarianism in rioting (Gilje 16). There was much going on during this period in history, though, and many poor people apparently believed that some type of violent action was called for given the dire circumstances of their plight. According to Daunton (1995), “Food riots have been interpreted as an outbreak of popular frustration when high food prices coincided with high unemployment. The actions of the crowd must be understood in terms of the beliefs which provided legitimization. The ‘moral economy’ of the poor was based upon ‘a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community'” (Thompson 79 cited in Daunton at 327).
During the 19th century, for example, social conflict typically emerged over issues such as wages through the action of striking; by contrast, in the 18th century, such social conflict generally assumed these forms over issues such as the increasing prices food through the medium of the food ‘riot’, which was a “disciplined response with clear objectives” (Daunton 328). In this regard, when wage levels fell in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the standard of living for laborers and cottagers in England declined precipitously and they were compelled to use the majority of their cash, garden crops, and milk just to buy bread and clothing (Kulikoff 2000:19). Not surprisingly, many of these workers found it almost impossible in some cases to even survive, even with the entire family – including young children – working as hard as possible (Kulikoff 19).
In some cases, laborers (but not their families) were paid in food and drink as part of their wages and some likely kept fowl or a pig, and cottagers, of course, produced much of their own food; nevertheless, poor landless families ate bread and porridge, on occasion supplemented by milk, ale, cheese, eggs, or cheap meat, a diet that was far removed from the same level enjoyed by the contemporary gentry or even medieval peasants, who enjoyed puddings, butter, cheese, fish, and meats of all kinds (Kulikoff 19). Even during periods of plenty, many laborers and their families experienced malnutrition; in times of paucity, though, others simply died of starvation while some resorted to stealing food or joining in food riots (Kulikoff 19).
In his book, the Truth of History, Mccullagh (1998) reports that, “Historians do not always distinguish these two different kinds of functional understanding, and consequently it is sometimes difficult to interpret their statements” (p. 194). According to Semenza (2003), “The highly complex skimmington rituals temporarily destabilized gender roles at Whitsun and other holidays [and was] often marked by a lack of restraint, by a sanctioned unruliness or discordia concors that is perhaps best described by the term ‘carnivalesque'” (14). Likewise, in his discussion of the charivaris in France in the late Middle Ages, Mccullagh notes that the “Abbeys of Misrule” parodied various authorities in riotous parades and carnivals; during these events, municipal magistrates and other authorities were mocked, and husbands were beaten by their wives (Mccullagh 194). In reality, though, such events provided a number of social functions, including the view of the carnival as “a prepolitical safety valve for the members of a structured, hierarchical society,” noting the social function served by these gatherings (Davis 1975:103 cited in Mccullagh at 194).
Likewise, Mccullagh reports that “the carnival is always a primary source of liberation, destruction, and renewal of the social order,” and emphasizes that these carnivals were run by male adolescents and that they frequently focused upon marriage relations. In sum, these events served a number of functions, including the following:
They gave the youth rituals to help control their sexual instincts;
They allowed the participants some limited sphere of jurisdiction or ‘autonomy’ in the interval before they were married; and,
They socialized them to the conscience of the community by making them the raucous voice of that conscience (Mccullagh 195).
In his book, Crowds, Culture and Politics in Georgian Britain, Rogers (1998) reports that some view the crowd phenomenon in the Skimmington riots as being:
Rebellious, but traditional, resisting economic innovation in defence of custom, defending its rights as free-born Englishmen, contesting the symbolic authority of a self-assured patriciate. The resilient and robust character of Crowd interventions was predicated upon the libertarian inheritance of the seventeenth century, itself a source of gentry rule, and upon plebeian control of the labour process within a vigorous manufacturing sector. It was this space of self-regulation, untrammelled by the intrusions of church and state, that allowed for a relatively autonomous and vibrant plebeian culture. (Rogers 16).
This perspective has the advantage of relating the diverse forms of collective action to the formative experiences in plebeian life and to the prevailing structures of dominance in 18th century English society; however, the crowd actions “resonate the full pulse of customary definitions and expectations; the skimmington, for example, or the bread riot, with its legitimizing notion of the moral economy” (Rogers 16).
According to Wood (1999), “We misread early modern popular politics if we define it on the basis of riot and ‘disorder’ alone. Similarly, we misread riot if we see it solely as a product of a ‘traditional’ plebeian culture threatened by the insidious creep of modernization. It is notable that crowd actions and riot in the Peak possessed few identifiable ritual elements” (265). Unlike in the fens and the West Country forests, the rising in the Midlands in 1607, or the rather more closed local culture of the Yorkshire valley of Nidderdale, there are no elements of symbolic inversion to be found in the ordering of crowd protest in the Jacobean and Caroline Peak. “We find no references to men dressed as women; no use of maypoles or football; no militia-style organization, or mysterious ‘Captain Pouches’ leading and organizing resistance. There are no mocking rhymes, burnings in effigy or exaggerated threatening letters” (Wood 265).
According to Wood, there is a discernible pattern evident in the crowd behaviors that took place in the Peak; however, he emphasizes that there was no clearly defined ritual involved:
At the same time as advancing their cause at Westminster courts, tenants and miners might organize a crowd to march on to and sometimes around the boundaries of a disputed manor or common. Cattle might be led onto commons, or lead ore dug, in symbolic assertion of customary rights. Similarly, opposition to such rights had by James’ reign acquired a particular, and very obvious, form. Cattle would be driven off commons, and boundary markers removed. The stowes which marked a free miners’ possession of a mine-working would be removed, and sometimes publicly burnt. If a miner was found working underground, earth would be cast in upon him; however, none of this is particularly noteworthy because the miners and tenants of the Peak did have traditions, and these were central to their collective and individual senses of identity. (Wood 265)
Such traditions – and even some occult practices — were noted throughout the literature review, but a consistent theme that emerges is the importance of such collective social practices to address perceived wrongs at every level of society, from the humble home where an older man might marry a too-young bride or to local magistrates that become unnecessarily officious in their behaviors. In sum, this author concludes, “These traditions were vested in notions of law and good order which connected in custom. Theirs was a rather less colourful tradition than that in the fens or forests; but it was perhaps a rather more public, organized and assertive one” (Wood 265). Certainly no less colorful was the role played by women in these events, and their centrality to the theme of skimmington and rough music makes an analysis of their part in these events all the more important, and these issues are discussed further below.
The Role of Women. The role of women in skimmingtons and rough music accompaniments changed over the years, largely in response to the types of social conflicts that were emerging around them. According to Abramovitz (1988), “Neither the ideology of women’s roles nor the social welfare system are static nor do they operate in isolation. Both are part of and reflect changes in the wider social order” (4). What remains unclear in the various functions served by women is whether the historian is simply noting certain functions served by the charivaris, or making the further suggestion that the charivaris occurred because they served these functions; this same constraint is applicable a function of “sexual inversion,” that is, switches in sex roles,…in literature, in art, and in festivity’ in pre-industrial European society (129) where she notes that “anthropologists generally agree that they, like other rites and ceremonies of reversals, are ultimately sources of order and stability of a hierarchical society. They can clarify the structure by the process of reversing it” (130).
Others, though, challenge this interpretation of the function of sexual inversion (Mccullaguh 195). According to this author, “I want to argue that the image of the disorderly woman did not always function to keep women in their place. On the contrary, it was a multivalent image that could operate, first, to widen behavioral options for women within and even outside marriage, and, second, to sanction riot and political disobedience for both men and women in a society that allowed the lower orders few formal means of protest” (Davis 130). There is an indication from this view that Davis believes that the participants in these riotous events acted as they did more from a desire to achieve the functions noted above and points out that “the stimulus to inversion play was a double one — traditional hierarchical structures and disputed changes in the distribution of power in family and political life” (Davis 150).
The centrality of women to the practice of skimmington and the use of rough music is also discussed by George (2002), in his essay, “Skimmington Revisited.” In this regard, the author reports that, “It’s in England’s west country (i.e., Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon) that the name most frequently associated with the Charivari custom emerged:
Riding Skimmington’ or ‘Skimmington’ was the term particularly associated with a beaten husband. Although these processional devices were also known as ‘Riding the Stang’ and other terms, it is unclear whether these other terms referred to Charivari customs that were aimed particularly at beaten husbands. Thus it is probably as ‘Riding Skimmington’ that the Charivari against a beaten husband was most known, and the word ‘Skimmington’ became a name of derision for the beaten husband as well as for the processional humiliation, while ‘Mrs. Skimmington’ denoted the abusive wife. ‘Skimmington’ derives from the skimming ladle used by women in the west country in the process of making cheese and was often depicted as a “useful weapon” for assaulting their husbands. For instance, an English stone church engraving, surviving from around 1200 a.D., shows a woman hitting a prostrate man with just such a ladle. (George 111)
The connection between domestic implements and the symbols used are clear. According to Oates (2003), “The association of cheese with womanhood sheds light on various customs, including the cheese ladle that symbolised a domineering wife in ‘skimmington rides’ and the ‘groaning cheese’ provided at a childbirth” (205). Beyond the use of a ladle, there were a number of other symbols involved there were important parts of a skimmington. According to George, “An accompaniment by ‘Rough Music,’ which was the clanging of pots, pans, and bells with the raucous playing of musical instruments, was central. The procession itself usually featured a posse of armed men with animal horns, a symbol of cuckoldry (the assumption being that the beaten husband was also being ‘cuckolded’), as well as a mocking commentary upon the victim or victims” (112). In addition, Hammerton (1992) describes “rough music” as being “a noisy custom of popular protest intended to demonstrate collective disapproval of local offences against communal norms. On the basis of many accounts such as these historians have constructed an interpretation of the nature of English rough music rituals in the nineteenth century which has evolved to the point of uncritical repetition. According to this view, late 18th century England experienced a change in the intended targets of local popular justice exercised through such rough music rituals from nagging or violent wives and adulterers to those who beat their wives; no matter what its precise origins, the shift is frequently viewed as part of a wider growth of community intolerance towards violence generally and domestic violence in particular (Hammerton 15). “At the general level,” the author concludes, “evidence of an absolute decline in violent crime during the nineteenth century, while problematic in its origin, reflected the change. A more critical climate of opinion also opposed and abolished ritualized violence associated with aristocratic privilege and male codes of honour, such as dueling” (Hammerton 15).
Likewise, George cites an early reference to a Skimmington in London as being: “1562, Shrove Monday, at Charing Cross was a man carried of four men, and before him a bagpipe playing, a shawm, and a drum beating, and twenty links burning about him. The cause was, his next neighbour’s wife beat her husband;…” (italics in original) (112). Some other instances of the practice are found in the historical literature as well. Clerical records at Waterbreach in Cambridgeshire in 1602 report the example of a wife that allegedly beat her vicar-husband and a riding ensued; in addition, official records from Suffolk show that a Skimmington took place in 1604 and another is recorded in Marsden (Wiltshire) in 1626 when the woman had not only severely beaten and scratched her husband (thereby ensuring that the matter came to public attention), she also promised that she would “make an end of him” and his daughter from a former marriage (George 112). According to this author, “Seemingly some 150 people, including two gentlemen and the wife of the squire, attended a riding in Aveton Gifford in Devon in 1738. In most cases these actual records of beaten husbands and the attendant Skimmington exist not by virtue of the personal facts of the case in themselves, but because of some other more notable factor. The unofficial lay nature of Skimmington processions obviated against routine official record, although there is good reason to assume they occurred frequently” (Underdown 116 cited by George at 112).
A larger body of evidence drawn from other contemporary historical sources, however, supplements these records. References to the phenomenon of the Skimmington can be found quite copiously, indicating a widespread knowledge of the phenomenon; there is some etymological evidence concerning the term that is revealing as well, and the term, “Skimmington’s” inspirational namesake is situated in English countryside:
At the Great House of Montacute, which was built around 1600 in Montacute, Somerset, an original plaster facade in the Great Hall depicts a woman hitting her husband overseen by a neighbor and then a procession with the husband ‘Riding.’ The National Trust now owns this house, which was prominently shown in a recent film of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ whereby the plaster frieze and its battered husband and ‘Riding’ provide the backdrop in one scene. The house is open to the public and the frieze can be viewed. (Rogers 37 cited by George at 112)
The names used to describe the Skimmington and Rough Music Riots are also highly meaningful. For example, in various preindustrial communities throughout England and Europe, groups of young men (known as charivaris in France) frequently gathered together in order to harass those community members that had violated sexual norms by surrounding their homes and creating a racket with horns, pots, cowbells, and the singing of profane songs, an activity termed “rough music” (Odem 1995:45). The term “skimmington” was subsequently used to refer to collective communal actions that were undertaken to right a social wrong; however, the term “skimmington” also has other meanings as well. For instance, the term has been used to describe a ritual action against that is taken against a selected target: “To ‘ride skimmington’ was to take part in a demonstration against the skimmington in the pejorative sense. And the riots were headed by leaders who adopted the name’ Skimmington’ in the case of Williams, ‘Lady Skimmington’ in the case of the trio of leaders in Braydon. Skimmington briefly becomes a folk hero, similar to Robin Hood or to ‘Captain Cobbler’ and ‘Captain Pouch’ in earlier peasant uprisings, regarded as able to redress all sorts of popular grievances” (Sharp 129). In other words, these actions were skimmingtons (demonstrations) that were headed by Skimmington (Williams and his counterparts) against Skimmington (Mompesson and company). In this regard, Todd (1995) suggests that, “We here encounter a rich complex of associations. A skimmington is something undesirable: the leaders defiantly assume the name, as if to restore the subverted moral order by inverting it yet again. In Braydon, where Skimmington was also a lady, we recognize the further element of gender inversion. The three Braydon leaders dressed themselves in women’s clothes, and were eventually punished by having to stand in the pillory so attired” (213).
Such rituals of social inversion were also commonplace in other parts of Britain during this period in history; in a series of reversals of the social norm, the ordinary world was turned topsy-turvy by enclosers and protesters symbolically turned it upside-down again by “dressing as women, parodying the titles and offices of their social superiors in order to turn it right side up” (Todd 213). The prominence of women in enclosure and grain riots has been well documented and represents yet another indication of the rejection of the submissive ideal. According to Todd (1995), “Female rioters were often joined by men disguised in women’s clothes. The practice had protective purposes, but it also involved elements of ritual inversion, and appropriately ritualized punishments were sometimes inflicted; however, while inversion rituals were known in other parts of England, nowhere were they as prominent a feature of the local culture as in these western wood-pasture regions” (213). The implications of the prevalence of these social practices would become clear soon: “The greater sense of individual identity expressed in the ‘domestic’ skimmington ritual, the tension between individual and community reflected in stoolball, both helped to mould the character of the Skimmington riots” (emphasis added) (Todd 213).
The Effect of Colonial Laws, or the Lack of Laws. The circumstances most likely to provoke popular political action, and in which the behavior of different regions can best be compared, were ones involving an immediate threat to subsistence, such as the encroachment on common rights by enclosing landlords, or the failure of magistrates to enforce protective market regulations (Todd 1995:210). In fact, the importance of food and other necessities of life became the focus of social conflict that did not square with what the prevailing rule-makers wanted in Colonial America. The Boston Tea Party, for example, is proof positive that Colonial Americans would resort to acts of social unrest notwithstanding any laws on the books to the contrary if these laws did not balance with their version of what was fair and equitable in a land of otherwise plenty. In this regard, Hunter (2001) suggests that the “Eighteenth-century English food riots were another element of Georgian urbanity imported to Boston” (104).
According to Scholliers (2001), “The cultural meanings and functions of tea — itself purely a product of British colonialism – in colonial America that can provide even more evidence of its centrality to life at the time and thus the catalyst for boycotts, riots, and even revolution” (). In several instances, like the attacks on Andrew Belcher’s ships and warehouses in 1711 and 1713, crowd actions followed the same pattern as protests in English provincial towns and market centers described by historian E.P. Thompson (Hunter 2001:104). Citing Thompson’s analysis, Hunter explores the working out of what he denotes as a “moral economy” in food riots and crowd actions throughout England in the 18th century: “The ‘mobs’ or crowds followed a common pattern of behavior that avoided wanton destruction in an effort to focus on specific targets, such as granaries, flour mills, tax collectors, merchants, and markets. The crowd attempted to enforce what it perceived as a basic right of the working poor to a supply of food at a reasonable price. Often rioters paid merchants or millers for the grain or flour they took at a price reflecting the crowd’s sense of fairness” (105). From the perspective of Thompson and like-minded researchers, the moral economy in Colonial America involved a process of changing “customs and usages” based on nonmonetary norms expressed “in resistance to the economy of the ‘free market'” (Hunter 105). Clearly, then, the moral economy at this time as understood by the common people of Boston, like Sewall and Mather’s concerns for a “moral order,” therefore represented a form of negotiation over the authority of polite and commercial culture (Hunter 105)
In the Puritan communities of 17th century Massachusetts, a mixture of bountiful food supplies, a system of “warning out” strangers who might become a financial burden to the town, and a strong sense of community among all who were subject to God’s mysterious hand prevented market crises that might have motivated people to act on the ideas of a moral economy (Hunter 105). Likewise, in 18th century Boston, as economic conditions deteriorated, a growing emphasis on visible wealth and new values reconfigured community alignments. Crowds took action as one response; during periods of dearth, conflicting economic needs operated in what must have appeared to have been a no-win situation for the poorer members of society. “The popular belief that every person had a right to food at a price he or she could afford opposed the profitseeking goals of the merchants who controlled most of the economic resources. Like cloth workers in London, poorer Bostonians protested with a loud voice against the effects of new values that accompanied the growing ascendancy of a polite and commercial society. The streets fashioned by elite merchants had become contested terrain in the ongoing cultural negotiations” (Hunter 105).
According to Todd (1995), the English traditions held that jurisprudence was the most appropriate course of action in some cases. “In all kinds of community the first resort when customary rights were threatened was legal action: a petition to the justices, or a lawsuit with costs financed out of a common fund” (210). In the event this approach did not achieve the desired goal, this author notes that there might be a gradual escalation of violence (i.e., verbal or written warnings, sporadic damage to property) and cites the example: “When a resentful inhabitant of Ramsbury, Wiltshire, was being escorted to the House of Correction he burst out ‘that he hoped to see Ramsbury so in fire upon some of the best of the parish there'” (Todd 210). Depending on the circumstances, though, if a sufficient number of people were convinced that there was no justice in the courts, a chain of small-scale, isolated incidents might become sufficiently serious to warrant a social initiative on the level of a riot (Todd 210).
For example, enclosure riots erupted from time to time throughout the country; however, there are some notable differences between those of the arable and those of the wood-pasture areas, which reflect the respective cultural issues involved. In this regard, Todd reports that, “The political distinctiveness of the wood-pasture districts is clearly evident in the disorders which began in the western counties in 1626. The riots were provoked by the Crown’s sale of royal forests to courtiers and entrepreneurs who hoped to profit by enclosing and ‘improving’ hitherto underutilized forest land” (210). Yet there remained some fundamental issues involved for those that did not own land or that sharecropped for survival, again pointing to the importance of food in assessing the actions of these people: “Although these were not, as sometimes pictured, totally arbitrary enclosures — agreement was reached with neighboring manorial lords, and propertied farmers were compensated with leases from the new proprietors — the landless artisans and cottagers who swarmed in these woodland areas lost their rights of common almost completely” (Todd 210).
According to Todd, the impact of these escalating social conflicts was a serious breakdown of law and order: “Gillingham Forest erupted in 1626, and sporadic rioting there reached a climax two years later when the sheriff of Dorset had to retreat after finding the rioters too numerous and well armed to be dispersed” (210). The author also reports less violent disorders occurred in Neroche Forest, in south-west Somerset, in 1629; however, in the spring of 1631, more serious conflicts took place in the Forest of Dean, and these events were quickly followed by similar ones in the Wiltshire forests of Braydon, Chippenham and Melksham and by at least one such incident in Selwood (Todd 210). Likewise, the arrest of John Williams did not end the troubles in Dean; enclosures were still being destroyed in July 1633, and following an cessation of violence, there was more rioting by coalminers in 1637 (Sharp 55 cited by Todd at 211).
A common theme that emerges in all of these riots is that villagers of middle and lower rank came together to protest violations of their traditional rights by outsiders: “The ‘class’ nature of the forest risings should not be exaggerated. The targets were not local gentlemen and farmers, but the clique of courtiers and Londoners intent on disrupting the forest community in the name of improvement and private profit” (Todd 211). Besides the laborers that had become involved, the only local people to experience adverse consequences from these events were collaborators such as the servant of Sir John Hungerford; this individual became an informant for the authorities and was forced to watch his house burn down in retaliation (Todd 211). The common people’s actual adversaries, though, were not the local landed elite even though the majority of the rioters were, by any measure, people of little wealth or status: “Gentlemen and yeomen had access to the courts if they were dissatisfied with their compensation, and were naturally reluctant to combine in riot with the disorderly poor, about whose ‘lewd lives and conversations’ they had been complaining for years” (Todd 211). The gentry even went so far as to lay down some guidelines for their own staff: “One respectable Dean householder kept his doors locked to prevent his servants joining the rioters. Yet even propertied farmers suffered from the enclosures. They received secure title to their now enclosed lands, but they also lost common grazing rights and were likely to be paying heavier poor rates to support their dispossessed neighbours” (Todd 211). These members of the gentry were also disinclined to overly worry about the losses suffered by such outsiders, who were after all the primary beneficiaries of these processes of disafforestation; in some cases, the elite held strong views about these issues and were experiencing local pressure to take part in the riots. According to Todd, “Of the seventy-four people convicted in the Gillingham outbreaks twenty-one were yeomen or husbandmen, an impressive number in proportion to the social composition of a forest community” (212). According to Todd, “The ambivalence of propertied opinion is clearly shown by the half-hearted measures taken by the local authorities to restore order. Repeated Council instructions to JPs and deputy-lieutenants to ‘take better care for the peace of the country’ produced only foot-dragging and excuses. The militia and the posse comitatus, composed of local men reluctant to fire on their poorer neighbours, were clearly unreliable” (212). Likewise, the position of the local municipal authorities can be discerned from the Gloucestershire justice of the peaces’ account on the events that took place Newland: “They agreed that popular resentment against Skimmington’s captors was behind the riot, but excused it as unpremeditated and as a response to the two forest officers’ provocations. The western gentry regretted violence and riot, but they were distinctly unhappy about having to do the Council’s dirty work” (Todd 212).
While the people that participated in the Skimmington riots were largely cottagers and poor artisans, their efforts were fueled more by localism than by class divisiveness: “Here were we born and here we will die,” the Gillingham men declared when the sheriff confronted them (Todd 212). Indeed, these citizens were acting on long-held traditions that supported their forcible defense of natural rights: “In Dean the name ‘Robin Hoods’ had been applied to participants in a 1612 outbreak. But the Dean men had a strong sense of legitimacy, and when they burned timber that the Earl of Pembroke had unjustly cut, they did so to shouts of ‘God Save the King!'” (Todd 212).
This mixture of conservatism and rebelliousness can be more readily understood if the connotation of the terms used is examined. According to Todd, the use of the term “skimmington” in association with the riots is highly relevant: “The word served in north Wiltshire as a symbol for other kinds of threats to the well-being of a community besides those presented by assertive women. In 1625, when the men of Wilton invaded the neighbouring parish of Burbage ‘with a jest to bring skimmington there’, it was invoked as a pretext for a festive inter-village brawl, analogous to a football match” (212). In this view, a skimmington was something that was undesirable that was brought into the village by outsiders; like an unruly woman, such invasive acts must be confronted and resolved through communal action (Todd 212). Therefore, “The application of the term to the riots is logical enough. The disafforesting courtiers’ antisocial behaviour is inspired by the spirit of ‘skimmington’, and is resisted by appropriately ritualized actions. At Mailescott in Dean in March 1631 the ‘burying of Skimmington’ was proclaimed” (Todd 213). Likewise, a number of rioters destroyed hedges and filled in ore pits sunk by the despised Mompesson; in fact, this individual had his effigy ceremonially buried in one of the pits dug by the rioters and the agent of another projector was warned that the rioters would return on May Day ‘to do him the like service’ (Sharp 1980:129 cited in Todd at 213).
Society and Culture’s Effect in the American Colonies. When the colonialists established themselves in the New World, it is little wonder that they brought many of their religious beliefs, longstanding traditions, values and social practices with them from England and Europe. Therefore, as Gummere, Jones and Sharpless (1911) emphasize, “The beginnings of our American colonies are, for the most part, inextricably bound up with the history of the differentiation and development of great religious movements in England and on the continent of Europe. The tiny commonwealths, brought hither in sailing vessels of the seventeenth century, were begotten in religious faith, and were formed and shaped by zealous men to whom some peculiar type of religion was dearer than country, more precious even than life itself.” (3). This great American “melting pot” did in fact become the product of its part over the years in ways that profoundly affected the composition of society and the prevailing culture. In this regard, Fogleman (1996) reports that, “It was not merely the presence of large numbers of ‘foreign born’ that transformed much of colonial America into an immigrant society. Indeed, the eighteenth-century immigrants and their progeny permanently altered the ethnic and demographic patterns of the colonies in directly visible ways” (3). The implications of these fundamental shifts in demographic composition became abundantly clear in short order: “By the time independence was declared and a war fought to preserve it, nearly half (south of New England, more than half) of this rapidly growing, diverse population was either born in the Old World (Europe or Africa) or descended from eighteenth-century immigrants” (Fogleman 3).
As noted above by Gummere and his colleagues, while life itself is precious, there were some profound economic consequences involved in the decision to emigrate to the New World. According to Abramovitz (1988), “Poverty, including poverty among women, was not absent in the American colonies. Despite the availability of land and high wages relative to Europe, the new arrivals did not escape the social and economic problems that plagued them in the Old World” (75). Likewise, although class stratification was less pronounced in the American colonies that it had been in Europe, was still readily discernible early on, particularly in urban areas. “In Boston, in 1687, the richest 15% of the population owned 52% of the taxable wealth. By 1771, the top 15% owned about two-thirds and the top 5% owned some 44% of the wealth. In Philadelphia the concentration of wealth was even more pronounced, while in less developed areas the gap closed somewhat” (Abramovitz 75). Initially the harsh conditions of immigration and settlement left most settlers impoverished; although some ventured to the New World bearing resources provided by the English crown, many arrived ill, indentured, enslaved, or without any means of support (Abramovitz 75). Further, natural disasters, warfare, and epidemics as well as normal life events such as old age and illness made many others poor and by the mid-seventeenth century, poverty had become a high risk for the unskilled and semi-skilled city dweller, the landless tenant farmer, and the husbandless woman (Abramovitz 75).
In this environment, it is not surprising that social unrest would become concentrated as people became increasingly disenchanted with the hardships they were enduring. Moreover, the laws governing their behavior – even when they did have the resources to do so – were harsh and rigid and the consequences of breaking these laws could be severe. According to Bonomi (1988), “Drinking and gambling on the Lord’s Day were tolerated virtually nowhere. Quaker magistrates imposed fines for working or carrying guns on the Sabbath. The churchgoers of New York were reputed to be less solemn and more sociable on Sundays than the Calvinists of Boston” (6). Likewise, even large cities such as Boston, had laws on the books that were strictly enforced that prohibited any type of traffic through the city on that day, “unless it be to or from church or other urgent and lawful occasions”; in fact, Gilbert Livingston, a member of one of the colony’s most powerful families, was once indicted for just being out in public driving his wagon on the Sabbath (Bonomi 6).
Distinctly absent from the more contemporary accounts of how people reacted to these laws and those who violated them were accounts of rough music episodes and the like. As noted above, the use of rough music and skimmington to admonish those who were believed to have violated social customs and norms was commonplace throughout England and comparable practices were used in the American colonies for some time. The use of these social tools is a clear reflection of how people viewed their daily lives in the American colonies and what social mores were evinced in the process. In this regard, Lightfoot, Martinez and Schiff (1998), “In considering the construction of social identities in pluralistic settings, it is important to examine a suite of different daily practices, since the ordering of some kinds of activities may be undertaken in a routine, almost subconscious manner, while others may be consciously manipulated to broadcast social relations and identities” (199). It appears that as the use of traditional approaches such as rough music and skimmington remained popular over the years, there were also codified versions that took their place in the form of laws that affected the use of such rituals in urban settings. According to Abramovitz (1988), “The colonial poor laws and their growing inability to serve the changing needs of the rapidly developing market economy paved the way for poor law ‘reform.’ The resulting redefinition and less tolerant view of poverty, the attack on outdoor relief, the rise of institutions, the removal of children from the home, and the activities of private charity organizations” were clear indications of these processes in action (5). Nevertheless, the legacy of charivaris and rough music remained sufficiently ingrained that it would emerge when the times called for them. According to Breen (2004), “In an unsettled political environment, colonists invented what might best be described as rituals of consumer protest. This surge of creativity comes as something of a surprise. Historians have long been aware that the Reform Protestant societies planted in North America lacked the kind of rich folk culture that one associates with early modern Catholic Europe” (257). Although they may not have had enough time to develop a “rich folk culture” on the level of their predecessors in the Old World, the colonists still managed to reinvent some rituals and adopt others to their immediate needs. According to Breen, “Within that customary world, peasant communities celebrated in the appropriate manner saints’ days that structured the annual calendar. The highlight of the year may have been Carnival, held just before Lent, when the normal expectations of gender and class were often suspended” (257). Like their counterparts in the Old World, the old standby of “rough music” could also be pulled from the New World repertoire of social remedies: “When people strayed from the conventions of the community — for example, when an old man took a very young wife — they could find themselves targets of charivaris, highly threatening expressions of what was known as ‘rough music'” (Breen 257). Emigrants from European that ventured to the New World seemed largely to have discarded such expressions of traditional life; however, when they were confronted with a political crisis within their communities, colonists quickly devised popular rituals which like the charivaris of Europe attempted to shame those who defied the collective will of the community. According to Breen, “Although in general form the rituals of consumer protest may have drawn upon knowledge of similar events in Europe, they did not in fact have much to do with religion. These were secular, market-inspired occasions intended to articulate the community’s commitment to non-importation. Shaming mechanisms dramatically separated friends from enemies and thus made it ever harder for ordinary people to remain neutral in the cause of liberty” (257). Moreover, some elements of charivaris and rough music persisted in other ways throughout the American colonies as well. In this regard, Gottlieb (1994) reports that:
There is a theory that at one time a charivari (or Katzenmusik or rough music or mattinata or shivaree) was part of all wedding celebrations. By the fifteenth century it was becoming limited to weddings that were considered vulnerable to criticism, like remarriages — which, of course, were very common. Still, elements of the charivari persisted as a feature of all weddings, even in parts of the United States, where groups of young men would sometimes sing raucous songs and make loud noises outside the bedrooms of newlywed couples. (81)
Like the comparable practices in England in years past, the American version of the charivari was characterized by loud noise, ridicule, and obscenity, and if the charivari itself was no longer an inevitable part of the wedding, those elements survived either by being incorporated into the wedding procession, or by becoming part of the wedding feast (Gottlieb 81). As for erotic language and sexual explicitness, which could easily be transformed into obscenity or interpreted as such, they had a certain appropriateness for a rite of passage that was also a fertility rite: “Ridicule fitted both aspects of the rite. It helped to confuse malevolent spirits, and it also went along with sexual innuendo. Charivaris, processions, and the songs and verses at wedding feasts mocked and teased the couple, especially if the bride was suitably reluctant and innocent. The archetypical wedding was the first wedding of young people, and this set the ritualistic pattern, even if remarriage was extremely common” (Gottlieb 81). The theory that charivaris were originally part of all weddings has yet to explain how they shifted their focus to “atypical” ones; it looks as though the shift was still going on in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Gottlieb 81). Colonial municipal authorities that attempted to alter the manner in which weddings were celebrated were ambivalent about some of these gestures and rituals: “Everything was not equally condemned as disrespectful or pagan. For a long time the priest’s nuptial blessing was held to be necessary for a virgin bride but not for a widow, and not even for the groom or the marriage itself; this suggests that the blessing’s function was to protect the bride in her passage from maidenhood to womanhood, a notion that is not particularly Christian” (Gottlieb 81).
The research showed that the term “skimmington” was originally used to denote a beaten husband or a nagging wife, but later became associated with episodes of social conflict that erupted over various perceived injustices, including violent confrontations over policies the general public considered unjust and unfair. The research was also consistent in showing that while these practices may not have been adopted wholesale or across the board in the American colonies, their use was sufficiently common that historians have recorded a number of instances wherein “rough music” and “skimmingtons” were used to right perceived social wrongs. In reality, although these practices may have diminished in the intervening years, comparable practices exist today wherein people come together to collectively voice their wrath over social issues they perceive as unfair and harmful and the legacy of these social activities can be seen in the First Amendment rights that Americans enjoy to peacefully assemble to make such protests today.
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Breen, T.H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Daunton, M.J. Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Davis, Natalie Zemon. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.
Fogleman, Aaron Spencer. Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
George, M.J. (2002). “Skimmington Revisited.” The Journal of Men’s Studies, 10(2), 111.
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