Festive Culture, Humor, and the Social Control of Gender in Early Modern England

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 4:50 PM
Room M101 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Susan D. Amussen, University of California, Merced
Festive Culture, Humor and the Social Control of Gender in Early Modern England

Since the early 1970s, historians have recognized the role of shaming rituals such as skimmingtons and charivari as tools of social control, as well as their particular significance in enforcing gender norms.   In England, while they could serve as tools of economic or political criticism, skimmingtons most often targeted  failed patriarchs – generally men who allowed their wives to cuckold or beat them – and unruly women.   Yet the drama of skimmingtons has hidden the role of less dramatic and ritualized kinds of festive social control: the records of the English courts include pranks and verse libels that played a similar role.   The people who hung horns on a front door, and those who distributed and sang verse libels in local alehouses, all participated in festive social control.   All of these used humor – often mean-spirited - to mock those whose lives in some way represented an inversion of expected social order.   At the same time, the appearance of these rituals in court proceedings underlines their contentious nature: they reflect not local agreement, but local conflict.   This presentation will use evidence from ecclesiastical and criminal courts, as well as the Court of Star Chamber to argue that attention to these varied forms of festive culture, and particularly the deployment of humor, are key tools used by neighbors to shame and discipline each other.

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