Rough Music and Charivari: Letters Between Natalie Zemon Davis and Edward Thompson, 1970–1972
In 1971 Natalie Zemon Davis published a seminal article in the pages of Past and Present, entitled ‘The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France’. A study of the carnivalesque rituals of mockery through which communities displayed disapproval of moral and social infractions, the essay opened a revealing window onto the festive customs through which unmarried young men publicly humiliated and regulated the sexual and marital behaviour of their neighbours. It also demonstrated the transmutation of these ludic rites into vehicles for social and political protest in urban environments. A year later, a piece on the English counterpart of charivari commonly known as rough music or the skimmington ride appeared in the pages of Annales . Written by Edward Thompson, the leading left-wing historian and founding member of this journal, this too examined the social function of the practice of parading offenders accompanied by cacophonous banging of pots and pans. It illuminated the role of this form of plebeian street theatre in publicising scandal, compelling compliance with accepted norms, and criticising unpopular authority figures and underlined its quasi-judicial character. Frequently reprinted and constantly cited, both of these essays have become classics of twentieth-century historical writing. They stand alongside two other equally famous Past and Present articles written by these scholars during the same interval of years: Thompson’s ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ and Davis’s ‘The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France’. Providing compelling new templates for the study of symbolic action and collective behaviour, they are among the most widely read and downloaded essays in the journal’s archive.