Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Two broadside ballads, 1652

It is always stimulating to come across an early modern text that feels (as we say) transgressive. In the mid-seventeenth century, press censorship temporarily lapsed, and the printing presses were numerous and nimble enough to let all sorts of voices speak. Broadside ballads had always allowed a broad range of robust sentiment, these two texts both have a transgressive spirit, stronger and truer than in most of the elite writing from which we so carefully refine it these days.

The Last News From France purports to tell a story of how the future Charles II escaped after the Battle of Worcester. The gender switchings are harder to keep in mind than those in As You Like It: in the main, Charles dresses as a servingman, whose Lady, ‘Mistress Ann’, is actually a young gentleman in disguise. You only learn this fact from the ballad’s heading: in the ballad itself, the speaker has effectively become female. At one point in the ballad a maximum of reversal is enjoyed: ‘He of me a service did crave / and often-times to me stood beare / In womans apparel he was most brave / and on his chin he had no hare’. First, the ‘King of Scots’ stands bare-headed to his Master-Mistress, the next moment, he is dressed as a woman. That ‘Womans’ adds such confusion that one half wonders if it was a misprint (but, say, a ‘servingman’ could not dress up ‘most brave’ without Charles starting to look like himself again, even if without a Cavalier’s Van Dyke beard). During the historical Charles's escape, the main problem was his distinctive height: forces were searching for 'a tall black man, over two yards high'. But the ballad writer isn't troubled by plausibilities of disguise, and pops him into 'womans apparel'.

Anyway, in the ballad, the two pass (most implausibly) through London, visit (and weep at) the place of the execution of Charles’s father, take a boat from Queenhithe, and reach France. And all the way through, the refrain line is ‘And the King himself did wait on me’. The ballad ends with the speaker wishing well to the King, who has (the ballad blithely announces) been invited to Denmark to take up the throne there: and the little flurry of subversion ends with a perfect example of ‘containment’: ‘But as for my part / I’m glad with all me heart / That my man must now my master be’. In a different country, everything will be as it should be.

But even so, in this defiantly, even cockily Royalist ballad (it was written to be sung to the tune ‘When the King enjoys his own again’, Matthew Parker’s definitive ballad for the Stuart cause), there is this heady, even sexy pleasure in the King becoming a servingman. During the romance of escape, he even becomes a woman. See, though, a kind of delicacy: to enjoy this kind of royal servitude to him, the speaker has had to become ‘Mistress Ann’. As the son of his courtly father, Charles can (it seems) with more seemliness ‘serve’ a woman. ‘Where ever I came / My speeches did frame / So well my Waiting man to free’: if, as a necessity to set the King ‘free’, the King has to be made subject, and ordered around, well, a woman can just about permissibly do this.

The Wanton Wife of BATH is an absolute ripper: ‘In Bath a wanton wife did dwell / As Caucer she doth write’ (it begins). And you might think that, once you have got over this casual re-gendering of Chaucer, things will settle down a bit. In fact, they get wilder and wilder. The Wife of Bath dies, and her soul goes a knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door. The first to answer is Adam, who tells her that there is no place for a sinner like her there. She gives it to him straight: ‘Thou wast the causer of our woe / our pain and misery / And first broke Gods commandements / in pleasure of thy wife’. Adam reels away, and in comes Jacob to tell her to go to Hell: she tells him he was a ‘false deceiver’. Lot tries, and is roundly told off for his drunkenness and incest, Judith arrives to see if she can do any better, is denounced as a murderess, and departs blushing, King David had adultery and trouble-making hurled at him, while King Solomon, in the Wife’s unflinching view a whoremaster and idolater, never stood a chance. Jonah, Thomas and Mary Magdalen are scolded away for their various turpitudes, nor has she forgotten the persecutions of Paul, ‘Then up starts Peter at the last / and to the gate he hies / Fond fool, quoth he / knock not so fast / thou weariest Christ with cries’, but this gets a searing rejoinder about her never having denied Christ ‘as thou thy self hast done.’

I suppose that only in bits of medieval drama do you hear this voice of outrageous commonsense response to the Bible and its gallery of doubtful customers. It has been biting pretty close to the bone: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is fighting her corner all too well, establishing herself as the moral equal or superior to a mixture of patriarchs, biblical kings, and disciples. The raunchiest voice in the Canterbury Tales seems ready to instate the text from which she comes - when it comes to teaching morality - ahead of the Bible.

Of course, all this subversion ends with containment, in its perfect form: Christ himself comes to hear what the fuss is about. Of him, she craves mercy, she repents, agrees humbly to all his charges about her lewd life and not living to his teachings, but still has the courage to cite the precedents: the thief on the cross, the prodigal son forgiven, the strayed sheep. And Christ forgives her soul, and lets her enter into joy.

I can only imagine a clergyman biting his lip at this gleeful invention, in which the unruliest woman in an English book denounces the Bible as a rogues’ gallery, and makes an unanswerable case for mercy based on precedents, not morality. Maybe quite a few copies of both these ballads were torn up by vexed readers, but it is pleasant to imagine a folded up copy being taken out of an apron pocket, and somebody starting to sing either ballad to listeners that she knew would approve.

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