|Hudibras and the Skimmington (1721-26) - William Hogarth
How different are we to our ancestors? I’ve had that debate with fellow authors and audiences a number of times since I started writing historical fiction and I think the answer is a great deal and very little.
The way in which a woman like me, born in England to English parents in 1973, understands the world is going to be very different to the way in which a woman born in 1473 understood the world which surrounded her. Most obviously, aside from the discoveries and innovations of the last 500 years, I had access to the same education as my brothers, I had the legal rights necessary to set up an independent household and make my own decisions about children and marriage. I also, like many of my generation was brought up on the atheist end of agnostic. Of course the world looks very different to me.
But I think our emotional lives are not very different to those of our ancestors. We still love, struggle, fear and celebrate, experience pain and pleasure. Even if the changing culture might alter how we express and share those emotions, personally I believe human nature in all its diversity and complexity which underlies those expressions hasn't altered much since we started pressing our hands onto the cave’s wall and leaving our mark there.
|Cave of Pettakere, Bantimurung district (kecamatan), South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Hand stencils estimated between 35,000–40,000 BP and Shoreditch Graffiti 2018
I was forcefully reminded on these debates reading Edward Palmer Thompson’s article on Rough Music (Folklore, Vol. 103, No. 1, 1992) the other day. Rough Music, (also know as charivari or skimmington inter alia) is the name given to the tradition, common throughout Western Europe from the Early Modern period onwards of publicly mocking a violator of societal norms. It often involved a parade, street theatre, rhymes, sometimes the burning of an effigy, and was always accompanied by a crowd, normally mixed, making an unholy row by hoots and hollers and the banging of pots and kettles. In early modern times, it seems it was mostly used to humiliate couples where the man was known as ‘hen-pecked’, though in the nineteenth century it was often used to humiliate men known to beat their wives or children. Adulterers, those of loose morals, or widows and widowers thought to have remarried too quickly were often also victims, as were those suspected it seems (peering though the bowdlerised and purposefully vague accounts) of being gay. Unfair trade practices could also be a justification.
Hudibras and the Skimmington (1721-26) - William Hogarth
The noise and pantomime could go on night after night and though some victims were taken from their houses and dunked in ditches or ponds, the aim was humiliation more than violence. People seemed to regard it as their right to punish a wrong-doer in this way. It was seen as a valid expression of community feeling, a punishment, a warning, a way of policing and reenforcing standards and expectations. At times it seems to have become a way of bullying the price of a drink out of the newly married. It was common for centuries and in Folklore (Vol 91, No 1 1988), you can even find an example from 1940. The writer’s lodger had a habit of undressing without closing the curtains and the locals showed their disapproval by standing outside the house, shouting and screaming and banging saucepans and kettles.
Thanks to changes in the law and shifts in societal norms, a woman born in Darlington in 1973 has no reason to fear, or need the help of, rough music. The law is on my side, by and large. But now we find ourselves in an age where there is another sphere where the law seems unwilling or unable to reach, not the domestic space but a virtual one.
Jon Ronson wrote a superb book in 2015 So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, expressing his uneasiness with the twitter mobs who seem to get such pleasure from finding someone to condemn and making a lot of noise about it. It’s well worth a read, and also interesting to look at in our post Brexit post Trump world. Ronson seems most concerned by a sort of left-leaning mob eager to condemn racism, or the sins of people like Jonah Lehrer. In other words, they were condemning crimes I would also also condemn. He though was discomforted by the self-congratulatory glee of some of these pile ons, and I find them discomforting too. Now a reenergised right wing search out remoaners, libs, feminists and snowflakes and though the targets are different, the glee looks familiar.
Then of course there are the hate filled threats of violence so many, especially women, experience on twitter. I can’t help noting all those cases of women being punished for not accepting their husband’s authority in the history, and also note that even if rough music rarely involved direct physical violence, it threatened it with its effigies and rituals of shunning. Think of the photoshopped images passed out online and you'll see the equivalence. Many of the twitter users who are most foul in their abuse hide their identities, many don’t see the need. Some of those participating in rough music went masked, most did not. It was a an exercise in community bonding as well as a way to punish. The participants joined in to show they were moral, right-thinking people and, I’m sure, gained confidence and a sense of identity from looking right and left and seeing their friends around them, just as, I’m sure, many on twitter piling onto some celebrity or private individual for saying the wrong thing, do the same.
E. P. Thomson wrote his article in 1992, those far off days when something like twitter was unimaginable. I had to keep reminding myself of that as I read these last lines of his article as they seem to resonate so strongly in 2018. This is a man who thinks he is writing about something which no longer happens, but it seems to me new technology has given us the opportunity to fall back on old ways.
“… rough music could also be an excuse for a drunken orgy or for blackmail. It could legitimise the aggression of youths, and (if one may whisper it) youths are not always, in every historical context, protagonists of rationality or of change. I make the point strongly, arguing in a sense with part of myself, for I find much that attracts me in rough music. It is a property of a society in which justice is not wholly delegated or bureaucratised, but is enacted by and within the community. Where it is enacted upon an evident malefactor-some officious public figure or a brutal wife-beater one is tempted to lament the passing of the rites. But the victims were not all of this order. They might equally be some lonely sexual non-conformist, some Sue Bridehead and Jude Fawley living together out of holy wedlock. And the psychic terrorism which could be brought to bear upon them was truly terrifying: the flaring and lifelike effigies, with their ancient associations with heretic-burning and the maiming of images - the magical or daemonic suggestiveness of masking and of animal-guising-- the flaunting of obscenities-the driving out of evil spirits with noise.
Rough music belongs to a mode of life in which some part of the law belongs still to the community and is theirs to enforce. To this one may assent. It indicates modes of social self-control and the disciplining of certain kinds of violence and antisocial offence
(insults to women, child abuse, wife-beating) which in today's cities may be breaking down. But, when we consider the societies which have been under our examination, one must add a rider. Because law belongs to people, and is not alienated, or delegated, it is not thereby made necessarily more 'nice' and tolerant, more cosy and folksy. It is only as nice and as tolerant as the prejudices and norms of the folk allow. Some forms of rough music disappeared from history in shadowy complicity with bigotry, jingoism and worse. In Sussex rough music was visited upon 'pro-Boers' including William Morris's close friend, Georgie Burne-Jones. In Bavaria the last manifestations of haberfeldtreiben were linked to mafia-like blackmail, anti-semitism and, in the final stage, to ascendant Nazism. For some of its victims, the coming of a distanced (if alienated) Law and a bureaucratised police must have been felt as a liberation from the tyranny of one’s ‘own’.
Next time you see a twitter storm whipping through your timeline, listen out for the sound of clattering pots and pans. Yes, we are very different. Yes, we are still the same.