charivari punished men and women unequally for domestic violence

A charivari, also variously called a skimmington ride and riding the stang, is a historical folk custom expressing public disapproval of personal behavior.  Domestic violence was a common motive for a charivari.  A man who beat his wife in southern England early in the nineteenth century could awaken at night to a noisy crowd, dancing in a frenzy around a bonfire outside his door.  They would be “a motley assembly with hand-bells, gongs, cow-horns, whistles, tin kettles, rattles, bones, {and} frying-pans.”  An orator would identify the wife-beater’s house with a signal chant:

There is a man in this place
Has beat his wife!!
Has beat his wife!!
It is a very great shame and disgrace
To all who live in this place,
It is indeed upon my life!! [1]

Sometimes the crowd would carry an effigy of the targeted man to a substitute punishment, e.g. burning.  Sometimes the man who physically abused his wife would be abused by the community:

Old Abram Higback has been paying his good woman;
But he neither paid her for what or for why,
But he up with his fist and blacked her eye.

Now all ye old women, and old women kind,
Get together, and be in a mind;
Collar him, and take him to the shit-house,
And shove him over head.

Now if that does not mend his manners,
The skin of his arse must go to the tanners;
And if that does not mend his manners,
Take him and hang him on a nail in Hell.

And if the nail happens to crack,
Down with your flaps, and at him piss. [2]

The practices of charivari varied across time and place.  But no evidence exists of a charivari that targeted a wife who had been beaten by her husband.  If the husband beat the wife, the husband was the subject of the charivari.

Hograth's depiction of a charivari / skimmington

The husband, in contrast, was also the subject of the charivari if he was beaten by his wife.  In France about 1400, husbands beaten by their wives were “paraded on an ass, face to tail.”[3]  In England, a mural in Montacute House (constructed about 1598) shows a wife beating her husband with a shoe and then a crowd parading the husband on a cowlstaffSamuel Pepys recorded in his diary, 10 June 1667: “in the afternoon took boat and down to Greenwich, where I find the stairs full of people, there being a great riding there to-day for a man, the constable of the town, whose wife beat him.”[4]  A Frenchman who traveled in England reported in 1698:

I have sometimes met in the streets of London a woman carrying a figure of straw representing a man, crown’d with very ample horns, preceded by a drum, and followed by a mob, making a most grating noise with tongs, grid-irons, frying-pans, and sauce-pans.  I asked what was the meaning of all this; they told me that a woman had given her husband a sound beating, for accusing her of making him a cuckold, and that upon such occasions some kind neighbour of the poor innocent injur’d creature generally performed this ceremony. [5]

The figure of straw, crowned with horns, mocked the beaten husband.  Another example describes a neighbor taking the punitive place in the charivari procession on behalf of the husband.[6]  That’s the most probably meaning of the phrase “some kind neighbour of the poor innocent injur’d creature generally performed this ceremony.”  The public intention seems to have been to beat in public husbands who were beaten within the home.  Having a kind neighbor limited the public beating to material and personal representations.

Within the home, men and women abused each other. Public punishment for domestic violence, in contrast, seems to have fallen mainly on men.  The academic literature on charivari for a beaten husband has emphasized ideology.  A wife beating her husband exposes the unreality of patriarchal ideology.  Publicly punishing the beaten husband attempts to protect ideology from reality.  Focusing on who are punished — men — focuses on the painful, personal reality.

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Read more:


[1] Notes and Queries (London), 2nd ser., X (15 Dec. 1860), pp. 476-477, cited in Palmer (1978) p. 14.

[2] Thompson (1992) p. 14, citing “From Sturton by Stowe, in the James M. Carpenter collection in Cecil Sharp House.”

[3] Ingram (1984) p. 93.

[4] Early in the nineteenth century, Richard Neville (later Lord Braybrooke) published Pepys’ Diary and added a note to Pepys’ description of a charivari:

Malcolm (“Manners of London”) quotes from the “Protestant Mercury,” that a porter’s lady, who resided near Strand Lane, beat her husband with so much violence and perseverance, that the poor man was compelled to leap out of the window to escape her fury. Exasperated at this virago, the neighbours made a “riding,” i.e. a pedestrian procession, headed by a drum, and accompanied by a chemise, displayed for a banner. The manual musician sounded the tune of “You round-headed cuckolds, come dig, come dig!” and nearly seventy coalheavers, carmen, and porters, adorned with large horns fastened to their heads, followed.

The “chemise, displayed for a banner” probably was a representation of the woman who beat her husband.  On the other hand, calling men “cuckolds” is a shaming of men. Like men beaten by their wives, men who were cuckolded were also subject to charivari.

[5] Maximilien Misson (1698), Mémoires et observations faites par un voyageur en Angleterre, sur ce qu’il y a de plus remarquable, trans. (1719) M. Misson’s Memoirs and observations in his travels over England, p.129 (entry “horns”).  Uxorius (1760), Hymen: an accurate description of the ceremonies used in marriage, by every nation in the known world, p. 177, includes an adaptation of Misson’s charivari account.

[6] John Brand, Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1905 edition) p. 551, citing Lupton (1580), Too Good to Be TrueBrand’s book was first published in 1777.  It incorporated material from Popular Antiquities of Henry Bourne (1725).  Barrett (1895), p. 63, provides an example from 1562, near London, in which a man was the subject of a  Skimmington because his neighbor’s wife beat her husband.

[image] detail from William Hogarth, Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington (1820).


Barrett, C. R. B. (1895). “‘Riding skimmington’ and ‘riding stang’.” Journal of the British Archeological Association, 1, 58-68.

Ingram, Martin. 1984. “Ridings, Rough Music and the ‘Reform of Popular Culture’ in Early Modern England.” Past & Present. (105): 79-113.

Palmer, Bryan D. 1978. “Discordant Music: Charivaris and Whitecapping in Nineteenth-Century North America.” Labour / Le Travail. 3: 5-62.

Thompson, E. P. 1992. “Rough Music Reconsidered.” Folklore. 103 (1): 3-26.

prurient in Latin: protecting non-classicists from prurience

Ancient texts translated into English about a century ago occasionally include small sections of Latin.[*]  Those Latin sections strangely interrupting the English translation are prurient sections of the ancient texts.

For sufficient learning to understand prurience, you need a classical education.

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[*] For example, E.A.W. Budge’s 1897 translation, from Arabic to English, of The Laughable Stories of Bar-Hebraeus has some stories in Latin.  See, e.g., “Laughable Stories of Actors and Comedians,” story DI.  W.R. Paton’s 1920 translation, from ancient Greek to English, of the Greek Anthology similarly includes some Latin text within the English translation.  See, e.g. Bk. 5, Epigram 49. For additional examples of switching to Latin in translating obscenity, see Ziolkowski’s introduction, p. 10, in Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1998. Obscenity: social control and artistic creation in the European Middle Ages. Leiden {The Netherlands}: Brill.

Jews in China more than a millennium ago

When the Jewish Chinese scholar Ai Tien and the Christian Italian Matteo Ricci met in Beijing in 1605, each mistook the other for a co-religionist.  Ai Tien was a Chinese native from the Jewish community at Kaifeng.  Ricci, a Jesuit missionary priest, had arrived in China in 1583.  Ai Tien told Ricci that the head of his faith (the Chief Rabbi) had twelve sons.  Ricci mis-understood and thought that Ai Tien was speaking of Jesus and the twelve apostles.  At Ricci’s house, Ai Tien mis-identified Ricci’s paintings of John the Baptist and Mary with the baby Jesus as paintings of Jacob, Rebecca, and Esau.

When Ai Tien and Ricci finally identified each other as a Jew and a Christian, they reached out more generally to each other’s religious community.  Ricci sent a message to Ai Tien’s Chief Rabbi in Kaifeng.  The message informed the Chief Rabbi that the promised Messiah had come long ago.  The Chief Rabbi informed Ricci that that the Messiah hadn’t come and wasn’t going to come for another 10,000 years.  The Chief Rabbi didn’t hold Ricci’s mistaken belief about the Messiah against him.  The Chief Rabbi was old and looking to retire.  Aware of Ricci’s reputation for scriptural knowledge (and probably also aware of Ricci’s wealth and official connections), the Chief Rabbi offered Ricci the job of Chief Rabbi, if he would give up eating pork.  The Jesuit priest Ricci declined to become the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish congregation at Kaifeng.[1]

The early history of Jews in China isn’t clearly documented.  Inscriptions that the Kaifeng Jews made give conflicting information about when Jews arrived in Kaifeng, or in China.  An inscription dated 1489 states that Jews arrived in Kaifeng during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).  But inscriptions dated 1512 and 1663 indicate that Jews arrived in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BGC to 220 GC) and the Zhou period (1066 BGC to 256 BGC), respectively.[3]  Other texts associated with the Kaifeng Jewish community suggest that they arrived in Kaifeng from Persia about the eleventh century.[4]

The Kaifeng Jews were not the first Jews living in China.  A Judeo-Persian letter found at Dandan Uiliq in northwest China has been expertly dated to 760.  Hebrew texts of Psalms and prophetic writings found in the Dunhuang caves also date to the eighth century.[5]  In addition, writing sometime before 916, a Muslim merchant reported that about 878 a Chinese rebel (probably Huang Ch’ao) conquered a southern Chinese city close to the seacoast (probably Canton) and “killed 120,000 Moslems, Jews, Christians, and Magians, who lived in this city and became merchants in it.”[6]

Jewish merchants known as Radhanites were active in overland trans-Eurasia trade from 500 to 1000 GC.  The Central Asian Khazars, or at least their leaders, allegedly converted to Judaism in the late eighth or early ninth centuries.[7]  When in the mid-ninth century the Abbasid caliph wanted to investigate the status of the wall holding back Gog and Magog, he chose Sallām at-Turjumānī to head the expedition. Sallām was a name associated with Jews.  Moreover, Sallām was also known as Sallām the Interpreter.  He reportedly knew 30 languages.[8]  The Radhanites were known for proficiency with many languages.  Sallām may have been a Radhanite.  He reportedly traveled to Alexander’s wall in western China about the year 850.

Jews probably were among persons living in south-central Eurasia and traveling to China during the Han Dynasty. The vibrant Jewish community living in the Sassanid Persian Empire created the Babylonian Talmud about 300-500 GC.  Trade opportunities would have prompted Persian merchants, including Jews, to travel to China.  Periodic, intense state persecutions of non-Zoroastrian religions in Sassanid Persia would also have motivated Jews to travel from Persia to the east.  In ancient times, given enough time, Jews and other peoples traversed the great distance between Jerusalem and Beijing.

two Jews from Kaifeng, China, c. 1902

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Read more about Kaifeng Jews, with many references and online primary sources, thanks to Jim R. McClanahan.

Read more about Eurasia:


[1] For the primary source documents in English translation, see Leslie (1972) pp. 31-35.  Such religious mis-identification could and did occur more broadly across China’s diverse and competitive array of religions.

[2] Isaiah 49:12.

[3] Xin (2003) p. 19.  The Book of Isaiah refers to Jews who “come from far; … from the land of Sinim.”[2]  In Biblical Hebrew, Sinim might refer to China.  Most scholars think, however, that Sinim represents Syene, now known as Aswan and located on the Nile in southern Egypt.

[4] Id. p. 26.  Weisz (2006) is a recent English translation of the inscriptions.  It argues for settlement of Jews in China during the Han Dynasty. Ghostexorcist (Jim R. McClanahan), a highly knowledgeable “paratrooper-turned-college student,” provides an informed review of Weisz’s work and argues strongly that Kaifeng Jews did not enter China during the Han Dynasty.

[5] McClanahan (2011) Part II (which includes an image of the Judeo-Persian manuscript); Xin (2003) p. 153.

[6] Leslie (1972) p. 7.

[7] Gil (2011) reports that tenth-century Arabs and Arabic-speaking Jews eagerly and without good reason adopted the belief that the Khazars converted.  The best medieval Arab historians do not claim that such a conversion occurred.  The legend of the Khazars conversion might be interpreted as imagining a welcoming people for the many Jews making difficult and hazardous journeys across Eurasia.

[8] Donzel, Schmidt & Ott (2009) pp. xvii, 131-132.  Id., p. xvii, suggests that Sallām at-Turjumānī was “probably a Khazarian Jew from Samarra” and id. argues that he actually traveled to Yumenguan in western China.  Here’s discussion of Sallām at-Turjumānī’s curious quest.

[image] Li Ching-sheng and his son Li Tsung-mai, two Kaifeng Jews from c. 1900.  Photo from Ezra, Edward Isaac, “Chinese Jews,” The East of Asia Magazine 1 (1902) pp. 278-296, reproduced in Leslie (1972) Plate XXXIV.


Donzel, E. J. van, Andrea B. Schmidt, and Claudia Ott. 2009. Gog and Magog in early Syriac and Islamic sources: Sallam’s quest for Alexander’s wall.  Leiden: Brill.

Gil Moshe. 2011. “Did the Khazars convert to Judaism?” Revue Des Etudes Juives. 170 (3-4): 429-441.

Leslie, Donald. 1972. The survival of the Chinese Jews: the Jewish community of Kaifeng. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

McClanahan, Jim R. 2011. “Kaifeng Jews: Why their ancestors came to China.”

Weisz, Tiberiu. 2006. The Kaifeng stone inscriptions: the legacy of the Jewish community in ancient China. New York: iUniverse.

Xin, Xu. 2003. The Jews of Kaifeng, China: history, culture, and religion. Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House.