Charivari (or shivaree or chivaree, also called "rough music") is the term for a French folk custom in which the community gave a noisy, discordant mock serenade, also pounding on pots and pans, at the home of newlyweds. The loud, public ritual evolved to a form of social coercion, for instance, to force an as-yet-unmarried couple to wed. This type of social custom arose independently in many rural village societies, for instance also in England, Italy, Wales or Germany, where it was part of the web of social practices by which the small communities enforced their standards.
The community used noisemaking and parades to demonstrate disapproval, most commonly of "unnatural" marriages and remarriages, such as a union between an older widower and much younger woman, or the too early remarriage by a widow or widower. Villages also used charivari in cases of adulterous relationships, wife beaters, and unmarried mothers. In some cases, the community disapproved of any remarriage by older widows or widowers. Charivari is the original French word, and in Canada it is used by both English and French speakers. Chivaree became the common spelling in Ontario, Canada. In the United States, the term shivaree is more common.
Members of a village would decide on a meeting place where everyone could plan what was to be done. Those who were to initiate the charivari used word-of-mouth to summon the largest possible crowd to participate, with women helping to organize and lead. After forming their plan, the charivari group would usually proceed by foot to the home of those they were acting against, making as much noise as possible with makeshift instruments and loud songs, and begin their assigned actions.
The custom has been documented back to the Middle Ages but it is likely that it was traditional before that. It was first recorded in France, as a regular wedding activity to celebrate the nuptials at some point after the vows had been taken. But charivari achieved its greatest importance as it became transformed into a form of community censure against socially unacceptable marriages; for example, the marriage of widows before the end of the customary social period of formal mourning. In the early 17th century at the Council of Tours, the Catholic Church forbade the ritual of charivari and threatened its practitioners with excommunication. It did not want the community taking on the judgment and punishment of parishioners. But the custom continued in rural areas.
The charivari as celebration was a custom initially practised by the upper classes, but as time went on, the lower classes also participated and often looked forward to the next opportunity to join in. The two main purposes of the charivari in Europe were to facilitate change in the current social structure and to act as a form of censure within the community. The goal was to enforce social standards and to rid the community of socially unacceptable relationships that threatened the stability of the whole.
In Europe various types of charivari took place that differed from similar practices in other parts of the world. For example, the community might conduct a stag hunt against adulterers by creating a mock chase of human "stags" by human "hounds". The hounds would pursue the stags (that is, those who were committing the adulterous relationship) and dispense animal blood on their doorsteps. European charivaris were highly provocative, leading to overt public humiliation. The people used them to acknowledge and correct misbehaviour. In other parts of the world, similar public rituals around nuptials were practised mostly for celebration.
Humiliation was the most common consequence of the European charivari. The acts which victims endured were forms of social ostracism often so embarrassing that they would leave the community for places where they were not known. Sometimes the charivari resulted in murder or suicide. Examples from the south of France include five cases of a charivari victim's firing on his accusers: these incidents resulted in two people being blinded and three killed. Some victims committed suicide, unable to recover from the public humiliation and social exclusion.
It is possible that the blowing of car horns after weddings in France (and indeed in many European countries) today is a holdover from the charivari of the past.
In North America
Shivaree has been practiced in much of the United States, but it was most frequent on the frontier, where communities were small and more formal enforcement was lacking. It was documented into the early 20th century, but was thought to have mostly died out by mid century. In Canada, charivaris have occurred in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic provinces, but not always as an expression of disapproval.
The early French colonists took the custom of charivari (or shivaree in the United States) to their settlements in Quebec. Some historians believe the custom spread to English-speaking areas of Lower Canada and eventually into the American South, but it was independently common in English society, so was likely to be part of Anglo-American customs. The earliest documented examples of Canadian charivari were in Quebec in the mid-17th century. One of the most notable was on June 28, 1683. After the widow of François Vézier dit Laverdure remarried only three weeks after her husband’s death, people of Quebec conducted a loud and strident charivari against the newlyweds at their home.
As practised in North America, the charivari tended to be less extreme and punitive than the traditional European custom. Each was unique and heavily influenced by the standing of the family involved, as well as who was participating. While embellished with some European traditions, in a North American charivari participants might throw the culprits into horse tanks or force them to buy candy bars for the crowd.
All in fun – it was just a shiveree, you know, and nobody got mad about it. At least not very mad.
This account from an American charivari in Kansas exemplifies the North American attitude. In contrast to punitive charivari in small villages in Europe, meant to ostracize and isolate the evildoers, North American charivaris were used as "unifying rituals", in which those in the wrong were brought back into the community after what might amount to a minor hazing. In some communities the ritual served as a gentle spoof of the newlyweds, intended to disrupt for a while any sexual activities that might be under way.
In Tampa, Florida in September 1885, a large chivaree was held on the occasion of local official James T. Magbee's wedding. The party, reportedly "the wildest and noisiest of all the chivaree parties in Tampa's history," was attended by "several hundred" white men and lasted "until near daylight." The music produced during the chivaree was reportedly "hideous and unearthly beyond description." See See Kyle S. Vanlandingham, “James T. Magbee: ‘Union Man, Undoubted Secessionist and High Priest in the Radical Synagogue,” Sunland Tribune 20, no. 1 (1994): 7-23.
In the American film It's a Wonderful Life, two of protagonist George Bailey's friends sing mockingly outside the window of the old house where George and his wife Mary are spending their wedding night.
Charivari would later be taken up by composers of the French Baroque tradition as a 'rustic' or 'pastoral' character piece. Notable examples are those of the renowned viola da gamba virtuoso Marin Marais in his five collections of pieces for the basse de viole and continuo. Some are quite advanced and difficult and subsequently evoke the title's origins.
The British period instrument/early music ensemble, Charivari Agréable (founded in 1993), states that their name translates as, "'pleasant tumult' (from Saint-Lambert’s 1707 treatise on accompaniment)".
Importance of noise
The use of excessive noise was a universal practice in association with variations in the custom. Loud singing and chanting were common in Europe, including England, and throughout North America. For an 1860 English charivari against a wife-beater, someone wrote an original chant which the crowd was happy to adopt:
Has beat his wife!It is indeed upon my life!
Has beat his wife!
It is a very great shame and disgrace
To all who live in this place
In Europe the noise, songs, and chants had special meanings for the crowd. For adulterers, the songs represented the community’s disgust. For a too-early remarriage of a widow or widower, the noises symbolized the scream of the late husband or wife, and his or her disapproval of the new marriage.
The origins of the word charivari are likely from the Roman caribaria, meaning "headache", or from the Greek kerebaria—keras (head), barys (heavy)—for the effect of the cacophony on the hapless couple or person. In any case, the tradition has been practiced for at least 700 years. An engraving in the early 14th-century French manuscript, Roman de Fauvel, shows a charivari underway.
Perhaps the most common usage of the word today is in relation to circus performances, where a 'charivari' is a type of show opening that sees a raucous tumble of clowns and other performers into the playing space. This is the most common form of entrance used in today's classical circus, whereas the two and three-ring circuses of the last century usually preferred a parade, or a 'spec'.
Charivari was sometimes called "riding the stang", when the target was a woman who had been accused of scolding, beating, or otherwise abusing her husband. The woman was made to "ride the stang", which meant that she was placed backwards on a horse or mule and paraded through town to be mocked while people banged pots and pans.
The charivari was used to belittle those who could not or would not consummate their marriage. In the mid-16th century, historic records attest to a charivari against Martin Guerre in the small village of Artigat in the French Pyrenees for that reason. After he married at the age of 14, his wife did not get pregnant for eight years, so villagers ridiculed him. Later in his life, another man took over Guerre's identity and life. The trial against the impostor was what captured the events for history. In the 20th century, the events formed the basis of a French film, Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982) and the history, The Return of Martin Guerre, by the American history professor Natalie Zemon Davis.
With the charivari widely practised among rural villagers across England and Europe, the term and practice were part of common culture. Over time, the word was applied to other items. In Bavaria, charivari was adopted as the name for the silver ornaments worn with lederhosen. It was derived from the metal pans and implements celebrants used for noisemaking in a charivari.
In parts of the midwest US such as Kansas in the mid 1960-1970s, shivaree customs continued as good natured wedding humour along the lines of the musical Oklahoma!. Rituals include wheeling the bride about in a wheelbarrow or tying cowbells under a wedding bed.
Charivari is also used in Philippine Criminal Law as defined in Article 155 of the Philippine Revised Penal Code; it is defined as a medley of discordant voices and is penalized under the article as an alarm and scandal.
- Palmer, Bryan D. (2005). "Discordant Music: Charivaris and Whitecapping in Nineteenth-Century North America". Crime and Deviance in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press. pp. 48–49. ISBN 1-55130-274-8.
- Gunn, Rex (1954). "An Oregon Charivari". Western Folklore 13 (2/3): 206–207. JSTOR 1520617.
- Longmore, George (1977). The Charivari or Canadian Poetics. Ottawa: The Golden Dog Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-919614-18-3.
- Johnson, Loretta T. (1990). "Charivari/Shivaree: A European Folk Ritual on American Plains". Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20 (3): 371–387 [p. 379]. JSTOR 204083.
- Johnson (1990), p. 375.
- Johnson (1990), p. 379.
- Alford, Violet (1959). "Rough Music or Charivari". Folklore 70 (4): 505–518 [p. 510]. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1959.9717197. JSTOR 1258223.
- Le Goff, Jacques; Schmitt, Jean-Claude, eds. (1981). Le charivari. Paris: École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. p. 141. ISBN 2-7132-0754-1. (French)
- Palmer (2005), p. 51.
- Johnson (1990), p. 382.
- Johnson (1990), p. 387.
- All about us, from Charivari Agréable's official website.
- Palmer (2005), p. 49.
- Johnson (1990), p. 376.
- Davis, Natalie Zemon (1983). The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-76690-3.
- Thompson, E. P. (1993). "Rough Music". Customs in Common. New York: New Press. pp. 467–531. ISBN 1-56584-003-8.
- Davis, Natalie Zemon (1975). Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0868-1.
- Greenhill, Pauline (2010). Make the Night Hideous: Four English-Canadian Charivaris, 1881-1940. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-1-4426-4077-1.
- Muir, Edward (2005). Ritual in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 106–112. ISBN 0-521-84153-4.
- Moodie, Susanna (1854). Roughing It In The Bush. Richard Bentley. Chapter XI: The Charivari