Charivari was a ritual used by medieval and early modern Europeans to chastise community members who failed to conform to social expectations, especially sexual ones. Examples included a widow who remarried, a wife who beat her husband, or a couple who failed to have children. In France, where this term originated, teenage boys and young unmarried men usually led such rituals. The youths would parade through the streets, making rough music by banging pots and pans, shouting mocking insults, and sometimes threatening violence. If the victim of the charivari handled the situation effectively by paying off the youths with wine or money, the ritual usually ended peacefully and the matter was laid to rest.

Until the nineteenth century, most Europeans thought charivari was a legitimate and effective means to curb social deviance. It allowed the community to vent complaints against the victims publicly, but it also provided the opportunity for a peaceful resolution of a potentially explosive situation. In premodern communities, the pressures on individuals to conform to social conventions was high, and failure to conform could lead to long-standing feuds between families or among neighbors. Charivari could diffuse such tensions before they became disruptive. The loud and discordant music, the costumes, and the use of effigies to mock the victim signaled that charivari, like the traditional celebration of Carnival each year just before Lent, was a special "timeoutside-of-time" in which everyday taboos about speaking out against one's neighbor were temporarily lifted. There was an element of teasing playfulness in charivari, which made it more difficult for the object of the joke to take offense and helped to diffuse the hostility of the shouted insults. For some, the ritual may have also had magical power to eliminate evil spirits from the community. Although the victims of charivari were shamed by the ritual, it also served to re-integrate them into the community. Only in the mid-seventeenth century did some victims begin to see charivari as inherently abusive, and to lodge formal complaints against it with church or city officials.

Charivari offered youths the opportunity to assert some authority over the community expectations about courtship and marriage. By chastising those who deviated from the norm, young men reminded everyone who was allowed to marry whom and under what circumstances. In Sardinia, informal groups of teenage boys often harassed adulterers and remarried widows. They were encouraged to do so by married women, who often provided the boys with the pots and pans needed for the noisy procession. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English youths participated in rough music rituals against women who beat their husbands and led attacks on local brothels during Lent. Male rivals were also victims of charivari: in 1590, all the male youths living in the German community of Burglen confronted a young man who had just moved into the village with loud music and insults because the outsider threatened their marriage prospects. On occasion, the victims refused to accept the sanction of the charivari, and the situation could get violent. Such was the case in 1668 when Florie Gallo, a Lyon widow who had just remarried, publicly insulted the employer of the young journeymen who had made her the victim of a charivari. Gallo refused to be shamed by her re-marriage, and her audacity sparked a second charivari against her, during which her young husband was shot and killed. Overall, charivari encouraged youths to feel that they had a role in enforcing social norms, specifically those that maintained a favorable male marriage market, even as they transgressed everyday norms of violence and propriety while undertaking the ritual.

As early as the sixteenth century, both church and secular authorities formally outlawed charivari. In practice, however, local authorities were often reluctant to prosecute male youth groups that performed the ritual. Unlike gangs in modern cities, early modern youth groups were often sanctioned by city officials to organize Carnival festivities and to participate in Christian religious processions. That these same groups also initiated charivari after a night of drinking at the local tavern did not lead city officials to outlaw them. Even when youths did cross the line and transformed charivari into gang rape or violent assault, judicial officials were often quite lenient when sentencing them. The youths might be kept in prison for a few days or sent to a house of correction to reform their morals, but they were rarely condemned to the usual sentences for assault. Instead, the authorities preferred to turn a blind eye to youthful infractions whenever possible. By not punishing these youths severely, the authorities avoided creating a sub-class of delinquent young men fundamentally alienated from the values of the community.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the practice of charivari gradually declined in Europe, first in the cities and then in the countryside. Whereas in the sixteenth century, charivari was both a shaming and a healing ritual, three centuries later state officials and middle-class city dwellers saw the practice as fundamentally disruptive and uncivilized. Literate Europeans began to draw sharper lines between church activities and popular culture and no longer sanctioned youth groups that participated in both. There was also less need for the community to regulate sexual norms because marriage was now unequivocally administered by the state, whose officials reached into every town and village. By the late nineteenth century, newly established police forces patrolled the city streets of Europe, preventing youths from ritually harassing victims but also replacing them as the upholders of social norms.

See also: Early Modern Europe; Medieval and Renaissance Europe; Rites of Passage; Youth Culture.


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