Rough Music and Charivari: Letters Between Natalie Zemon Davis and Edward Thompson, 1970–1972

by Prof. Alexandra Walsham, University of Cambridge (Past & Present Co-Editor)

The post that follows below is the first two paragraphs of  Prof. Walsham’s introduction to the correspondence. It appears in Issue 235, pp. 243-262  

In 1971 Natalie Zemon Davis published a seminal article in the pages of Past & 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 publicizing scandal, compelling compliance with accepted norms, and criticizing 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 & 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.

The correspondence between Davis and Thompson printed below offers new insight into the historical moment that produced these landmark essays. “What Zeitgeist is [it]”, asks Thompson in his letter of 29 April 1970, ‘that has led two or three of us independently to start examining the same problems and asking related questions?’ Part of the explanation for this curious convergence of interests lies in the climate of intellectual enquiry in which they were both researching and writing. Their mutual fascination with the customs of charivari and rough music reflected their shared scholarly and political commitment to finding fresh ways to study the lives of illiterate rural villagers and ordinary working people in pre-modern Europe without sentimentalizing them — their determination, as Thompson memorably remarked in the introduction to The Making of the English Working Class, to rescue them from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.

…these letters offer insight into the contours of academic culture and the nature of intellectual exchange in an era before the advent of the internet. They are evidence of how collaboration and the cross-fertilization of ideas and perspectives occurred before email and social media revolutionized the speed of communication and before computers, digital scans and PDFs superseded typewriters, carbon copies, xeroxes and offprints. They provide glimpses of the rapidly vanishing republic of physical letters that predated the more ephemeral world of instantaneous messaging in which we now operate. Future historians of scholarship and historiography in the late twentieth century will be grateful for their preservation. Past & Present warmly thanks Natalie Davis for supplying copies of this correspondence and annotating the transcription. We acknowledge Professor Davis and the estate of the late Dorothy Thompson for permission to publish them in the journal.

The Davis-Thompson letters can be read in full here.

The Davis-Thompson letters as reproduced here and in the journal, are published with the kind permission of Natalie Zemon Davis and the estate of Dorothy Thompson and with full credited to our publishers Oxford University Press Academic. Past & Present, 2017.

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