In this regard, when wage levels fell in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the standard of living for laborers and cottagers in England declined precipitously and they were compelled to use the majority of their cash, garden crops, and milk just to buy bread and clothing (Kulikoff 2000:19). Not surprisingly, many of these workers found it almost impossible in some cases to even survive, even with the entire family - including young children - working as hard as possible (Kulikoff 19).
In some cases, laborers (but not their families) were paid in food and drink as part of their wages and some likely kept fowl or a pig, and cottagers, of course, produced much of their own food; nevertheless, poor landless families ate bread and porridge, on occasion supplemented by milk, ale, cheese, eggs, or cheap meat, a diet that was far removed from the same level enjoyed by the contemporary gentry or even medieval peasants, who enjoyed puddings, butter, cheese, fish, and meats of all kinds (Kulikoff 19). Even during periods of plenty, many laborers and their families experienced malnutrition; in times of paucity, though, others simply died of starvation while some resorted to stealing food or joining in food riots (Kulikoff 19).
In his book, the Truth of History, Mccullagh (1998) reports that, "Historians do not always distinguish these two different kinds of functional understanding, and consequently it is sometimes difficult to interpret their statements" (p. 194). According to Semenza (2003), "The highly complex skimmington rituals temporarily destabilized gender roles at Whitsun and other holidays [and was] often marked by a lack of restraint, by a sanctioned unruliness or discordia concors that is perhaps best described by the term 'carnivalesque'" (14). Likewise, in his discussion of the charivaris in France in the late Middle Ages, Mccullagh notes that the "Abbeys of Misrule" parodied various authorities in riotous parades and carnivals; during these events, municipal magistrates and other authorities were mocked, and husbands were beaten by their wives (Mccullagh 194). In reality, though, such events provided a number of social functions, including the view of the carnival as "a prepolitical safety valve for the members of a structured, hierarchical society," noting the social function served by these gatherings (Davis 1975:103 cited in Mccullagh at 194).
Likewise, Mccullagh reports that "the carnival is always a primary source of liberation, destruction, and renewal of the social order," and emphasizes that these carnivals were run by male adolescents and that they frequently focused upon marriage relations. In sum, these events served a number of functions, including the following:
They gave the youth rituals to help control their sexual instincts;
They allowed the participants some limited sphere of jurisdiction or 'autonomy' in the interval before they were married; and,
They socialized them to the conscience of the community by making them the raucous voice of that conscience (Mccullagh 195).
In his book, Crowds, Culture and Politics in Georgian Britain, Rogers (1998) reports that some view the crowd phenomenon in the Skimmington riots as being:
Rebellious, but traditional, resisting economic innovation in defence of custom, defending its rights as free-born Englishmen, contesting the symbolic authority of a self-assured patriciate. The resilient and robust character of Crowd interventions was predicated upon the libertarian inheritance of the seventeenth century, itself a source of gentry rule, and upon plebeian control of the labour process within a vigorous manufacturing sector. It was this space of self-regulation, untrammelled by the intrusions of church and state, that allowed for a relatively autonomous and vibrant plebeian culture. (Rogers 16).
This perspective has the advantage of relating the diverse forms of collective action to the formative experiences in plebeian life and to the prevailing structures of dominance in 18th century English society; however, the crowd actions "resonate the full pulse of customary definitions and expectations; the skimmington, for example, or the bread riot, with its legitimizing notion of the moral economy" (Rogers 16).
According to Wood (1999), "We misread early modern popular politics if we define it on the basis of riot and 'disorder' alone. Similarly, we misread riot if we see it solely as a product of a 'traditional' plebeian culture threatened by the insidious creep of modernization. It is notable that crowd actions and riot in the Peak possessed few identifiable...
Unlike in the fens and the West Country forests, the rising in the Midlands in 1607, or the rather more closed local culture of the Yorkshire valley of Nidderdale, there are no elements of symbolic inversion to be found in the ordering of crowd protest in the Jacobean and Caroline Peak. "We find no references to men dressed as women; no use of maypoles or football; no militia-style organization, or mysterious 'Captain Pouches' leading and organizing resistance. There are no mocking rhymes, burnings in effigy or exaggerated threatening letters" (Wood 265).
According to Wood, there is a discernible pattern evident in the crowd behaviors that took place in the Peak; however, he emphasizes that there was no clearly defined ritual involved:
At the same time as advancing their cause at Westminster courts, tenants and miners might organize a crowd to march on to and sometimes around the boundaries of a disputed manor or common. Cattle might be led onto commons, or lead ore dug, in symbolic assertion of customary rights. Similarly, opposition to such rights had by James' reign acquired a particular, and very obvious, form. Cattle would be driven off commons, and boundary markers removed. The stowes which marked a free miners' possession of a mine-working would be removed, and sometimes publicly burnt. If a miner was found working underground, earth would be cast in upon him; however, none of this is particularly noteworthy because the miners and tenants of the Peak did have traditions, and these were central to their collective and individual senses of identity. (Wood 265)
Such traditions - and even some occult practices -- were noted throughout the literature review, but a consistent theme that emerges is the importance of such collective social practices to address perceived wrongs at every level of society, from the humble home where an older man might marry a too-young bride or to local magistrates that become unnecessarily officious in their behaviors. In sum, this author concludes, "These traditions were vested in notions of law and good order which connected in custom. Theirs was a rather less colourful tradition than that in the fens or forests; but it was perhaps a rather more public, organized and assertive one" (Wood 265). Certainly no less colorful was the role played by women in these events, and their centrality to the theme of skimmington and rough music makes an analysis of their part in these events all the more important, and these issues are discussed further below.
The Role of Women. The role of women in skimmingtons and rough music accompaniments changed over the years, largely in response to the types of social conflicts that were emerging around them. According to Abramovitz (1988), "Neither the ideology of women's roles nor the social welfare system are static nor do they operate in isolation. Both are part of and reflect changes in the wider social order" (4). What remains unclear in the various functions served by women is whether the historian is simply noting certain functions served by the charivaris, or making the further suggestion that the charivaris occurred because they served these functions; this same constraint is applicable a function of "sexual inversion," that is, switches in sex roles,...in literature, in art, and in festivity' in pre-industrial European society (129) where she notes that "anthropologists generally agree that they, like other rites and ceremonies of reversals, are ultimately sources of order and stability of a hierarchical society. They can clarify the structure by the process of reversing it" (130).
Others, though, challenge this interpretation of the function of sexual inversion (Mccullaguh 195). According to this author, "I want to argue that the image of the disorderly woman did not always function to keep women in their place. On the contrary, it was a multivalent image that could operate, first, to widen behavioral options for women within and even outside marriage, and, second, to sanction riot and political disobedience for both men and women in a society that allowed the lower orders few formal means of protest" (Davis 130). There is an indication from this view that Davis believes that the participants in these riotous events acted as they did more from a desire to achieve the functions noted above and points out that "the stimulus to inversion play was a double one -- traditional hierarchical structures and disputed changes in the distribution of power in family and political life" (Davis 150).
The centrality of women to the practice of skimmington and the use of rough music is also discussed by George (2002), in his essay, "Skimmington Revisited." In this regard, the author reports that, "It's in England's west country…
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