As I said in my last blog-post, I had intended that our time away in the Cevennes should be a complete break from the work in progress but things keep breaking in, and not entirely as a result of my inability to stop thinking about the book. So, as the weather is horrible today, I thought I’d tell you about one of the break-ins.
On the day after we arrived, there was a wedding in the village. As we’re across the valley from the church here, we wouldn’t have known anything about it but for the local custom which involves driving from church to reception-venue with one’s hand held permanently on the car’s horn. This produces an ever-increasing cacophony of horns at all kinds of pitch which, in the stillness of a remote French valley where every car engine is audible, is quite something.
So, why did this remind me of the work in progress, sitting on laptop and memory stick at home? Because this local custom is – I think - a remnant of the tradition of charivari whereby some marriages (and, more specifically, consummations) would be greeted by a noisy accompaniment from village people. Though this is known as a French custom, the sources I have read (for reasons which become obvious in a minute) suggest that it may, once upon a time, have been a far more widespread European folk-custom which sought to regulate and regularize marriage practices.
The reason I have been reading about folk customs is that a colourful one appears in my current book. The carrying of the ceffyl pren, or wooden horse, is likely (apparently) to be an offspring of the same ancestor as the charivari. Used, in the period in which my current book is set, as an tool of social disapproval, the ceffyl pren probably had its origins in a charivari-like ceremony which was then, by extension, invoked to punish those who were failing to be married in an acceptable way – wife beaters, adulterers and those who fathered and then rejected illegitimate children were all suitable candidates to be made to mount the wooden horse and be paraded and jeered at all around the village, with a little rough-handling from the men en route to make sure they mended their ways.
By the nineteenth century, its use had been extended far beyond marital misdemeanours and was used to punish anybody who was infringing generally-held social rules that were not otherwise safeguarded by the law. Cheaters, swindlers, sellers of substandard produce – anybody could find their door being knocked on in the middle of the night by a mob of their neighbours beating drums and blowing horns to create the maximum public kind of embarrassment as the miscreant rode around the village on an uncomfortably thin wooden horse.
The Rebecca Riots – rural unrest sparked off by the multiplication of illegal and overcharging tollgates on turnpike roads and the central theme of the work in progress – used the ceffyl pren and its associated carnival to great advantage. Men dressed as women, their faces blacked, rode out at night to right the wrongs being perpetrated in their community. And sometimes got a little out of hand...
From marriage 2008 via agricultural workers’ protests back into the mists of European folk history… as a novelist with a strong historical bent it seems I’ll never be safe from my source material; perhaps I should have brought the laptop after all…