When they found out in the village
That this husband
Had no more courage
Than a mouse
They made a charivari
To mock him...
With great effort
A good lad
from the village, out of fun
Made the song.
The subject of this mid-sixteenth century song, the charivari, is one of the most intriguing events I have come across in my research of Early Modern France. The charivari was a ritual mocking ceremony sometimes lasting as long as a week that could occur for a number of reasons, one of which as the song above describes, was a husband’s failure to consummate his marriage over the course of three days. This startling public outing of an individual’s sexual relations with his spouse challenged my assumptions of what life was like in Early Modern France. I pondered the possibility that any one of my ancestors from that period could have participated in such an event.
The charivari was usually executed by an organized group of young adults, a group that the historian Natalie Zemon Davis labels “Abbeys of Misrule” in her Society and Culture in Early Modern France. These “abbeys” had a particular structure usually meeting annually to elect a leader referred to as a “king” or “abbot” and they had a specific purpose and role both in rural and urban Early Modern France. This position was not merely symbolic as the “Abbé” or “Captain” could, according to Robert Mandrou, order any number of activities “from a gingerbread race or a savage brawl with their opposite numbers from the neighboring village, to the solemn reception of some important visiting personage.” They even had the authority to levy dues at weddings and charivaris.
This is not to suggest that all of the abbeys’ activities were approved of and sanctioned by political and religious leaders. In fact, in 1538 the King of France, Francois I, ordered “’ that henceforth in this and neighboring lands…whether in the guise of abbeys that the young people of towns and villages are wont to form, or in respect of any fraternities or otherwise, there shall be no gatherings, companies or congregations; which abbeys and fraternities…we hereby abolish and suppress….’ ” But these activities were not so easily suppressed as they were part of a long tradition of informal organizing by friends, families and/or professional guilds. They were organized from the bottom up rather than by the elites.
Although there is no extant evidence of such a group in Saint-Jouin –sur-Mer, Davis points out that they were likely prevalent in one form or another throughout Europe. One of the groups for which there is documentary evidence, the “Abbey of Conards” was active in the capitol of Normandy, Rouen, home of the De La Mare family from which Marie De La Mare (b. 1650), wife of Guillaume Regnault (b. 1645), descends.
These Abbeys consisted largely of unmarried men both in urban and rural settings throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. According to Davis, “These Abbeys acted like courts and used their jurisdiction.” Rather than challenges to society and the law, much as we see modern day gangs, these youth groups used their jurisdiction to reinforce social norms and expectations. For example, the primary purpose of marriage was for procreation. The failure of a newlywed couple to fulfill this purpose would result in a response from the community, in the case of our song, mocking encouragement.
Charivari most often occurred within another marriage related scenario, that of a second marriage, especially those with a large age difference. It is easy to understand that a group of single young men might object to someone entering into a second marriage and securing an eligible young woman thus depriving younger unmarried men of an opportunity. If the man was significantly older, it was even more egregious as his ability to procreate may not be as great as a younger man. It was not unusual for the former deceased spouse to be present in effigy at the wedding ceremony. Yet these second marriages did occur though not without remuneration. In some instances the married couple had to pay the village a fee often “at three times the wedding costs.”
The interference of the youth-abbeys extended beyond the wedding as “…the rural youth-abbeys had jurisdiction over the behavior of married people – over newlyweds when the wife had failed to become pregnant during the year, over husbands dominated by their wives, sometimes over adulterers.” The “judgment” of the abbeys could take other forms than singing, such as when these unfortunate targets would be paraded around town or the village sitting backwards on an ass.
In the month of May, it was even possible that the Abbey of Misrule would charivari a man who had beaten his wife as the month of May “was thought to be a period in which women were powerful, their desires at their most immoderate.”
Other notable examples of the jurisdiction of Abbeys included jurisdiction over villagers of their same age including marriageable girls, and “over young strangers coming to court their girls, whom they would fight or hold up for a fine.” This particular situation is intriguing because Susanne De La Haye (b. 1613) was baptized in Gonneville-La-Malet, an adjacent community to Saint-Jouin. I have not been able to uncover a record of the marriage of Susanne and Guillaume Regnault (c. 1610) to determine if she continued to reside in Gonneville-La-Malet but it appears to be a possibility that Guillaume may have had to either buy someone off or fight for his future bride.
These youth groups were part of an alternate tradition that existed within and beneath the culture and order the elites sought to impose. This culture within a culture found expression in multiple “feast day” celebrations such as the Feast of the Ass and the Feast of Fools which is striking for its irreligious parody.
“Neither the priests nor the guardian go into the choir that day. Their places in church are taken by the lay brothers, the menial brothers who collect alms, those who work in the kitchen, the scullery lads, and those who tend garden. They put on any old torn vestments they can find and wear them inside out. They hold their books back to front and upside down, and pretend to read them with glasses whose lenses they have removed and replaced with orange peel. In this attire, they sing neither the usual hymns nor psalms nor masses, but mumble certain jumbled words and shout….”
It would be tempting, since all we have are parish records, to envision a world of a small closely knit village of poor but honorable church going peasants very much following some idyllic historical narrative, very much creatures of their time. Such a view no doubt has some basis in reality but hardly tells a complete story. The transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period in France (and Europe as a whole) was a dynamic time, as disruptive and anxiety ridden as our current time at least comparatively.
What is striking is that these youth groups had an established role in which they could exercise power and authority. In some instances, the youth groups helped spread the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century and certainly played a role in the violence of the Wars of Religion that plagued France in the 16th Century. Through these youth abbeys, young adults did not have to wait to “grow up” in order to have the opportunity to affect the larger society in which they lived.