Sunday, 24 February 2008

Skimmity Riding

This was known across the West Country as "rough music", Skimmity Riding, Riding the Stang, The Skimmington and by various other names across Europe. It was even imported to North America with emigrants and was known there as 'Shivaree' (a mutation of the French word 'charivari'. It officially became an offence under the 1882 Highways Act. The victim of this humiliating practice was the cuckolded husband, or one who was beaten by his wife or was a wife-beater himself, or one who was perceived to have married too soon after losing a partner, or an old man taking a young girl as a wife, adultery, illigimacy, and louche behaviour generally. The name derives from the abusive wife's choice of weapon, a large skimming ladle known as a Skimmington. Yet in Cumberland, Westmorland and parts of Yorkshire, this custom was a New Year's tradition. The act of riding the Stang was apparently a chance for the working classes to manhandle their superiors.

The ceremony would take place after sunset, when the participants - out to display their displeasure at a man (or indeed woman) who had overstepped the boundaries of decency or propriety, would crowd outside the victim's house, making an unholy racket with whatever they could find - bells, horns, tin pans. Sometimes effigies of the offender(s) might be made and tied onto a donkey or on a pole (known as the Stang). If an adulterous couple, they might be tied face-to-face, as if kissing.

With many thanks to a modern Bridport blogsite:

"It appears that skimmity rides continued to hold ground throughout 19th-century Dorset. An account given in the Bridport News from November 1884 describes a ‘skimmerton-riding’ that had recently taken place in Whitchurch Canonicorum in West Dorset. It is described as follows:

‘On Wednesday, the 5th inst., this usually quiet parish was in a state of some excitement, owing to a demonstration of a peculiar character, not immediately connected with the day, which, however, was selected for the purpose by the superior judgment of the promoters. About six o’clock in the evening, just as darkness began to reign, a strange noise was heard as of the sounds of trays and kettles, and it was soon found that a “skimmerton-riding” was in progress, such a thing not having been known for years in this parish.

Three grotesquely attired figures were to be seen escorted by a procession consisting of persons dressed in various queer and eccentric costumes, and who paraded the parish, also visiting Morcombelake and Ryal. The figures alluded to appeared to the villagers to represent three personages who were very well known to them, there being a male and two females, whose past conduct had caused them to be made the subject of this queer exhibition.’

The account goes on to describe how two female characters were conveyed about on the backs of what are described as celebrated ‘Jerusalems’, which certainly seemed pretty well to enter into the joke, for one of them particularly ‘displayed his innate agility in a surprising manner’. One of the females was represented as having an extraordinary long tongue, which was tied back to the neck, whilst in one hand she held some note-paper, and in the other a pen and pen-holder. Those forming the procession were liberally ‘wetted’ at the various inns and, after their perambulations were concluded, they repaired to a certain field where a gallows was erected, and on which the effigies were hung and afterwards burnt, having previously been well saturated with some highly inflammable liquid.

The report concludes: ‘Nearly two hundred people assembled in the field, and a flaming light was maintained by torches. The extraordinary proceedings terminated with a fight, in which black eyes and bloody noses were not absent. However, the Riot Act was not read, the military was not called out, and the crowd dispersed about midnight, when the village resumed its wonted quietude.’ "

You may also care to pick up your copy of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, where a skimmity-riding also takes place in Chapter 36.


mrsnesbitt said...

I studied Far from the Madding Crowd for my Lit O level. Wonderful.

Great to see you have your blog!

Bovey Belle said...

Hi Denise - great to see you here. As you can see, I am really enjoying writing and sharing things that interest me over the ether. I never read any Thomas Hardy until I left school and began to educate myself as I wanted to . . .