02 February 2010
Rituals of public shaming
TWENTY YEARS AGO or more you might have occasionally heard the word ‘sherricking’, as in ‘she gave him a right good sherricking’, and it refers to a woman giving her man a public and no-quarter-given character reference for his various failings – fooling around, spending all his money in the pub, being useless. I remember it used by a few Irish people in west London, and the word crops up here and there on the net. Some funny posts on a (now defunct) Scottish local history website recall the custom:
A sherricking in Glasgow was the dread of all men (usually) it would generally happen if the man stayed in the pub too long or was found to have commited some indiscression. There would be the wummin arms akimbo, feet tapping, every window in the area opened, us weans in a wee circle round about the couple and the fella looking furtively around him then her tongue would let loose and he would be given laldie all his faults would be explored top decibel and the fella would hive to jist stawn there saying “awe Hen noo that’s enough, cumoan we’ll talk aboot it at hame” and so on. My parents would never allow us to listen or watch a sherricking and we were always telt ti get up the stair when one was happening.
So a sherricking was a fairly low-risk strategy on the woman’s part, as it was carried out in public view and earshot. It was a performance or ritual summoning an audience and in which the participants had different roles expected of them. Rows in the street between couples nowadays don’t seem to have that division of labour. Both the man and the woman are likely to yell at each other.
Further back in time whole communities had developed rituals around marital discord, and they had a strong sound element in their performance. Samuel Pepys made the following entry in his diary for the 10th of June, 1667:
Here I eat a bit, and then 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.
What was a ‘riding’? Lord Baybrooke’s notes in the 1893 edition of Pepy’s diary offer this explanation:
“It was an ancient custom in Berkshire, when a man had beaten his wife, for the neighbours to parade in front of his house, for the purpose of serenading him with kettles, and horns and hand-bells, and every species of “rough music,” by which name the ceremony was designated. Perhaps the riding mentioned by Pepys was a punishment somewhat similar. 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 public seemed highly pleased with the nature of the punishment, and gave liberally to the vindicators of injured manhood.
On a side note, drums seem to have been the cheapest or most readily available musical instrument in street life for a long time. Most town criers used them before town councils upgraded them to classier horns and bells. It’d also be interesting to know why the humorous figure of the cuckold has disappeared from popular culture as completely as the once-common and noisy rituals of public shaming.