Saturday, November 03, 2007

The devil puts in an appearance: 1655 and 1663

Two supernatural ballads to the same (incongruous) tune: the full synoptic titles give the narratives. I will simply offer a rational reading of each, to show how easily we can make the devil disappear (or conversely, how easily they could write him in).


The devils conquest, or, a Wish obtained: Shewing how one lately of Barnsby-Street, in Leg-Ally, in St Olaves Parish, Southwark, one that Carded Wooll for Stockings, carried home some work to her Mistris, living on Horsly-Down, who asked her how much shee owed her for; the Maid answered eight pounds; her Mistris said 'twas but six whereupon the Maid began to Swear and Curse, and wisht the Devil fetch her, if there was not eight pounds owing for; the Mistris loving quietness, paid her for eight pound: the Maid, with two of her Companions, walking over Horsly-Down, she having a Childe in her arms, one came and throwed her down, and presently took her up again, which caused her to say, Thou Rogue, dost thou fling me down and take me up again, and suddenly he vanished away, neither she, nor the two women with her, could discern which way he went, which caused them to say, it was the Devil, which for all this, nothing terrified the Maid, who went boldly home, and to bed, and the two women with her; at midnight she heard a voice, which called her by her name very often; she answered, I come, I come; but the voice still continuing, she swore she would come, and being got out of the bed, fell down upon her face, and was taken speechless, yet her body moving in most terrible manner, manifesting her inward pangs; her Mistris was sent for, who freely forgave her, and wisht God might forgive her too, and then shee departed, and her body was found as black as pitch all over; and all this was for no more than the value of eleven pence, which was done on the 6th of this instant May, 1665. and was written for a warning to all, to avoid the like course. The tune is, Summer Time.


Strange news from Westmoreland. Being a true relation of one Gabriel Harding, who coming home drunk, struck his wife a blow on the breast and killed her out right; then did he forswear the evil deed which he knew himself guilty of. Likewise how a stranger did come to the house cloathed in green, the people that were eye witnesse said it was an angel. Likewise how the stranger or angel did give sentence upon the man for killing of his wife. Also how Satan did break the mans neck that did forswear himself; and the stranger or angel did command Satan to hurt none else, and to vanish: which being done, there was a pleasant harmony of musick heard to sound: then did the stranger cloathed in green, take his leave of the people; whereof the chiefest in the parish desired it might be put in print, and have hereunto set their hands. To the tune of, In summer time.

The story about Margery Perry (in The Devil’s Conquest) gives a glimpse of the lives of a group of low income single women in a poor parish of 17th century London. With her companions, Perry carded wool:

The three women lodge and sleep together. The notion of ‘joy’ in their place on the bottom rung of the stocking-making process would have seemed far away. One day, Perry makes her false claim to her ‘Work Mistress’ to have carded eight pounds weight of wool, having only done six:

She wisht the Devil fetch her straight
If that she had not done eight pounds,
Ah woman! Caught with such a bait,
That came not to half a crown.

Perry was not made penitent by the warning attack on the way home, so she then succumbed to the devil at the proper hour of midnight. I suppose that Perry had a heart condition: the quarrel with her forewoman brought on her first attack as she walked home agitated, but in triumph; the AMI from which she didn’t recover came later. Yet in her extremity, she had the additional misery of believing that this was the devil come for her soul, and seems, as far as her condition allowed, to have acted as if she were complying with a supernatural summons.

Gabriel Harding was a wealthy alcoholic from Tredenton in Westmorland (the ballad says his rents came to £500 a year). The ballad tells how, in a drunken rage, he struck his wife, who died on the spot. Their children rushed into the street, and their cries alerted the neighbours. Harding was detained in his own house by his neighbours, but he denied the killing. They decided to summon the coroner. But instead, a knocking at the door heralds the arrival of a splendid angel:

His eyes like to the Stars did shine,
He was cloathed in a bright Grass green;
His cheeks was of a Crimson red
Of such a man was seldom seen…

He tells them that they should not send for the coroner, but to bring him ‘the man that did the deed / And boldly hath deny’d the same’.

The angel then gives Harding a brisk lecture. It contains a lot of local knowledge (or local ill feeling):

Thy full delight was drunkenness,
And always griping on the Poor:
Beside thou hast murdered thy Wif[e]
Alack what salve will cure thy sore.

Thy family within the house
Food thou wouldst grudge continually
O wicked man, thy self prepare!
A fearful death thou’rt sure to die…

The angel tells the neighbours not to be frightened about what will happen next: and the devil duly appears, first like ‘a brave Gentleman’, and then dancing round the hall in an ‘ugly shape’ after being given the charge to ‘Do no more then thou hast command’:

The Devil then he straight laid hold
On him that had murdered his Wife,
His neck in sunder then he brake,
And thus did end his wretched life.

The Devil then he vanished
Quite from the people in the Hall…

Yes, I am sure that is precisely what happened: a group of morally-revolted neighbours had after all been trying to deal with a drunken, angry and frightened man, aiming to keep him restrained in the hall of his own house. In the melee, they broke his neck. Afterwards they might have felt exactly as the ballad accidentally puts it – the devil had for that moment got into them. But, well, Harding was a drunk, a miser, they all hated him, and he had just killed his own wife. They just needed a story about why they hadn’t called the coroner: an angel told them not to, and that angel summoned up a devil to do his dirty work, before disappearing to a pleasant melody.

To authenticate itself, the ballad ends with a list of “the Names of some of the chiefest men that live in the Parish. Christopher Rawly, Esquire, James Fish, Gent. William Lisle, Gent. Simon Pierce, Ambrose Whir, Oliver Craft, Robert Ford, Thomas Clifford, Yeomen. George Crawly, Peter Vaux, Pilip Cook, Francis Martin, George Horton, Abraham Miles, Husbandmen.”

I surmise that among them were the men who accidentally killed the murderer Harding, and also those who concocted this spectacularly moral cover story, and maybe passed on the details to some passing Autolycus.

(I like the way that this ballad was reprinted as almost 30 years later, around 1690, but still as ‘News from Westmorland’.)

The images of the priapic devil decorate both ballads. It seems to be the same design. The later ballad probably uses the older block. For the 1663 ballad, it looks as though the old design had been stamped onto a new block, and been used as the basis of a re-cutting, so producing the crisper reversed print (devil on the left in my composite image).

I couldn’t exactly locate Margery Perry’s address on it, but I did find the promising new online Map of Early Modern London that is in development:

I might have to volunteer myself to help fill up their information boxes.

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