A Pub crawl with Tudor Poets, part 1: A bawdy ballad of the 1400s

This is part one of a two part blog. You can find part two here

The pub today is at the centre of the social lives of many English communities. It’s a centre of community life, fun and sociability. You can often learn a lot about a local area and its people from its pubs.

So one way that we might try to get to know Tudor London is by visiting one of its pubs. In this blog I want to look at some of the poetry and literature that came out of Tudor England that celebrated the pub and pub culture. By looking at how Londoners had fun and relaxed, I hope we can see humanise the past a bit.

One thing that is surprising about Tudor pub literature is that an awful lot of it focuses on one topic: women! Many modern pubs remain quite manly spaces. This might well have been true for the Tudors too: female pubgoers are portrayed as massive cliques of raucous women, much like modern hen parties. This invasion of a manly space by large groups of women was, of course, ripe for comedy.

So for today’s blog we are going to go on a sort of literary pub crawl with three city poets. Each of them describes a group of women in the pub. All are satirical and humorous; sometimes they are dirty, other times surprisingly sad. Whether they reflect real pub culture or not, they give us an insight into the sort of things that readers in Tudor London found funny.

A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware (National Library of Wales, MS. Porkington 10, a manuscript of the late 1400s)

The oldest of our three poems is also the one that puts city men’s insecurities most obviously on show.

This poem, rather like the Canterbury Tales, starts with an assembly of people in the pub. In this case though this assembly consists of ten women. As with the Canterbury Tales, our heroines decide to create a competition in which everyone present should tell a tale.

                Leave off, and listen to me

                Two words or three

                And harken to my song

                And I shall tell you a tale

                How ten wives sat at Ale

                with no man them among.

                [The first said:] “Since we have no other song

                For to sing us among

                Tales let us tell

                Of our husband’s ware

                Which of them most worthy are

                Today to bear the bell. (i.e. to win the competition)

Husband’s “ware” here could mean their goods, perhaps suggesting that their husbands are merchants. However, it is also a euphemism. She has actually challenged everyone to tell a tale about their husbands’ penises.

If this poem is to be believed – (hint: it isn’t) – then one thing united wives in the late 1400s: they all had tales of woe to tell about their husband’s penises. Here is a representative example:

                The third wife was full of woe

                And said, “I too have one of those

                That does nothing at time of need

                Our sir’s breech, when it is ajar,

                His pentil peeps out before

                Like a worm’s head.

                It grows all within the hair!

                Such a one saw I never

                Standing upon a groin!

                Yet the shrew is hoodless

                And in all things is useless!

                For that, Christ give him care!

The poem is, as you can see, not very high brow. In fact, it is often both crude and artless. Our poet had a clear taste for “gross-out” humour. Each woman’s woes are pretty similar and overall the poem feels a bit repetitive.

Most of the wives either complain about small penises, or about impotence:

                The ninth wife sat them night

                And held her sausage up high

                The length of a foot:

                “Here is a pentil of fair length;

                But it bears a sorry strength.

                God do him good!

                I bow him, I bend him,

                I stroke him, I wend him;

                The devil may him starve!

                But be he hot, be he cold,

                Though I could tear him twofold

                Yet he may not serve”

By the end of the poem, the wives (and the poet) have quite forgotten that this was a competition and there was meant to be a winner. Then again, the wives probably believe that no husband was worthy to win it. If you take this poem at face value – (and again, you shouldn’t do that) – then married women were having a pretty miserable time in the late 1400s. No wonder they turned to drink!

Men may not come off very well in this poem, but I still think that this is quite a man’s poem. It is built wholly around a penis joke and there is no attempt to characterise the women or show their friendships. When women are left alone, they have nothing to talk about but men and their penises! It strikes me as something that would go down well as a private joke between men in the 1400s, but probably not as a great sample of real tavern talk

If you want to know more about this poem, you can find an edition here

You can see the original poem in its manuscript context on the website of the National Library of Wales. Our poem starts on image 114, here

This is part one of a two part blog. You can find part two here

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