Every night at 8 p.m., people across Quebec take to the streets with pots, pans and improvised instruments to make a massive din in manifs casseroles. Children, their parents, working adults and the elderly have joined the students to demand an end to Bill 78, which bans unauthorized public assemblies and curtails the right to protest. Premier Jean Charest’s government aimed to quell the student strike against a tuition increase by force. Instead, the protest spread. Anyone within earshot knows when a manif casserole is happening and how to join it.
These demonstrations are peaceful, orderly and welcoming because they are loud – not in spite of their size and volume. People cheer from their porches and police lead processions of marchers through the streets. Covering the past week’s protests, Canada’s English-language newspapers have wrongly cast them as disorderly. Headlines focus on arrests, and the words “mob” and “mob rule” mislead readers about what is going on. In fact, these nightly events descend from a practice that has been used to enforce community standards in francophone cultures for at least 700 years.
With their use of pots and pans, the Quebec demonstrators are taking part in the tradition of charivari, which in earlier times would see noisy demonstrations calling attention to a breach of community standards in the village or neighbourhood. The English called it “rough music,” and there were versions of it all over Europe and its colonies. Disguising themselves, young men would bang on pots and pans and ring cow bells in front of the house of, say, a widow or widower who was remarrying someone much too young. The youths were the voice of the community, given licence by their elders to restore order. The charivari was an alternative to violent exclusion, instead shaming its target into compensation or reparation. This was often a payment of money that allowed everyone to go down to the local inn for a festive drink or meal.
The charivari evolved into a form of political protest, and from the 16th century on, there are many such examples. Older working men and sometimes women might join with the youth, clanging pots and pans against unjust officials and their policies. In 1576 in Dijon, the noise was directed against the king’s master of forests, not just for beating his wife but for cutting down the trees he was supposed to preserve for the people’s use. In 17th-century France, charivaris targeted royal tax collectors oppressing the families of peasants and artisans.
Across the ocean in Quebec, noisy disorder was also used to bring about a just order. Charivaris flourished in Lower Canada, not only against unseemly remarriages, but against political targets. In the Rebellion of 1837, masked Patriotes brought their pots, bells and horns to the houses of government officials and demonstrated until they either resigned their office or shouted, “ Vive la liberté.”
In the 20th century, rough music got less rough. Charivaris around remarriage disappeared, and the political charivari became a form of peaceful protest. Quebec’s manifs casseroles echo Acadian tintamarre, a loud celebration of Acadian independence that dates from the 1950s. They echo Chilean cacerolazo, which arose in 1971 and resurfaced in the mid-1980s. Charivaris were heard when Argentinean banks ran out of money in 2001 and 2002, when Spaniards challenged their regime’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and when Iceland’s banks collapsed in 2008.
The older charivari tradition is also remembered in Quebec. Loco Locass’s 2003 song Libérez-nous des libéraux, written for the Quebec election that year, calls for a charivari for Mr. Charest’s Liberals. At the time, it was heard as an expression of partisan politics. Today, it resounds as a call to stand up to the abuse of state authority and to repair the community by standing together and making as much noise as possible.
Jonathan Sterne (McGill University) has written on sound and culture, and Natalie Zemon Davis (Princeton University and the University of Toronto) has written on the history of charivaris.