About two years ago, my husband (also a medievalist) and I were sitting around the dinner table with my father, having an after-dinner drink to toast his birthday. My father is an excellent listener, with a broad interest in most topics of conversation, and he’s generally the one asking questions— what are we working on, what are we reading, what was such-and-such an experience like in my husband’s Gulf Islands childhood. It’s rare to hear him talk about himself. That night, however, in the wake of my grandfather’s death, the conversation had turned to what my father remembered of his own grandfather. In the immediate post-war years, my grandmother and father lived on her parents’ farm in southeastern Iowa, first while my Grandfather served in Japan both before and after the end of the war in the Pacific, and then later while they got their reunited family settled.
“I remember,” my father said over his Calvados, “when I was very small, my grandfather took me to a shivaree…”
We stared. “What?”
Dad thought we didn’t know what that was—and in a sense, coming at the topic from Medieval Studies, we didn’t really. “We went out after dark and made a lot of noise outside the house of a newlywed couple…”
“You realize that’s medieval, a charivari.” We tried to explain the custom, went through the entire plot of The Return of Martin Guerre, and, then crucially, wanted to get more out of him. He didn’t remember much.
When visiting my Grandmother before Kalamazoo, I decided to follow up on this. At 92, she’s the most solid and available reference I have, and as I’d been digging through old family letters without asking [more on that in a later post], I thought I might as well pester her as much as possible at one go. Grandma confirmed the pronunciation (but not the spelling) of Shivaree for me, and made clear that the one my father went to—while probably one of the last in the region—wasn’t an anomaly. Apparently wedding-night disturbances were very common, and people would go out and bang pots and pans and shoot off their guns outside the home where a newlywed couple was staying until the bride and groom invited them in and gave them cigars and candy bars.
Not at all symbolic.
Once, Grandma said, one of the revelers climbed in one of the house windows, and the groom was so angry he just about killed him. “He was never much liked after that,” she said, “he couldn’t take a joke.” One wonders if there was a backstory.
Sometimes asking the same person for a second recounting is more fruitful, so I just got off the phone with my Dad after a follow-up attempt. “I was very small,” he said, “I was about… I was about three [so this was probably 1946-1947]. I remember that people went to this house,” he said, “and I remember that there were pots and pans that they were beating on, and I remember getting a candy bar, I think it was a Snickers. And I remember going with my grandfather, he was the only person I remember.”
A whole Snickers bar at age three, no wonder he remembered.
Preliminary searching about [on the internet, on the train ride back from the Canadian Society of Medievalists] has revealed that the Shivaree is a studied folkloric custom in the American Midwest up into the middle of the twentieth century— but if I hadn’t had the family connection, I never would have known. There must be more such continuations, in which medieval customs made their way to the Americas and became components of the new and developing society. We’re so accustomed to imagining the medieval as something foreign and ‘other,’ particularly in the Americas, where the distance is emphasized by geography. This little account shows how doing Medieval Studies in conversation with Folklorists and other interdisciplinary fields can break down that rhetorical distance, particularly when these customs are not portrayed as primitive holdovers, but as threads of continuity which add to the vibrancy of a culture and its traditions— moving beyond our conversations about medievalism to the surviving—if unrecognized—medieval.* In search of more such stories, and in the interest of furthering conversations across interdisciplinary topics, I’ve just proposed a session on Medieval American Folklore for the 2016 Kalamazoo conference, so keep your fingers crossed for a CFP in July.
* Imagine a quote here from Calvino’s Cosmicomic about the passing of the dinosaurs, if I weren’t on a train.
ETA: Found it! “Since then I had learned many things, and above all the way in which Dinosaurs conquer. First I had believed that disappearing had been, for my brothers, the magnanimous acceptance of a defeat; now I knew that the more the Dinosaurs disappear, the more they extend their dominion, and over forests far more vast than those that cover the continents: in the labyrinth of the survivor’s thoughts. From the semi-darkness of fears and doubts of now ignorant generations, the Dinosaurs continued to extend their necks, to raise their taloned hoofs, and when the last shadow of their image had been erased, their name went on, superimposed on all meanings, perpetuating their presence in relations among living beings. Now, when the name too had been erased, they would become one thing with the mute and anonymous moulds of thought, through which thoughts take on form and substance: by the New Ones, and by those who would come after the New Ones, and those who would come even after them.” – Italo Calvino, “The Dinosaurs,” translated by William Weaver, reprinted in The Complete Cosmicomics (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)