This is part two of a short series. We are doing a pub crawl through Tudor London, using poetry. You can find part one here.
Song of the Gossips, (Balliol College, MS. 354)
I much more artful and interesting poem is the ‘Song of the Gossips’. This one was collected by a London merchant and grocer called Richard Hill, who kept a personal notebook of fun poems and trivia from about 1509 to about 1536. Hill’s notebook is a great source, which I’m sure I’ll come back to often in this blog. His tastes in poems and literature were wide-ranging: we can use him with equal authority on religion, sex, beer brewing recipes, and even occult practices!
One of Hill’s appointments was as panter – a sort of party planner – to the city. This meant that some of his livelier poems might have been performed publicly at merchant booze-ups in the city. I can fully imagine that the “Song of the Gossips” might have gone down well at a party. It has a bouncy rhythm and there is a nice, simple, singalong chorus:
How, Gossip mine, gossip mine?
When will we go to the wine?
Good gossips mine!
I like to imagine a whole tavern singing along. Sadly, no tune survives. Perhaps a modern folksinger can resurrect it? Anyway, lets get on to the poem:
I shall you tell a full good sport:
How gossips gather with those of their sort,
and they seek their bodies to comfort.
When they meet,
In lane or street.
Good gossip mine!
But I dare not, for their displeasure,
Tell of these matters half the substance!
But yet, somewhat of their governance (i.e. how they rule themselves)
As far as I dare,
I will declare.
Good gossips mine
The story proper starts with a group of ‘gossips’ who meet in the street. They challenge each other to show where the best wine is, and they shortly end up in a tavern. There, they summon all of their gossip friends and instruct them to order up a feast:
“Call forth our gossips, by and by!
Eleanor, Joan and Margery,
Margret, Alice and Cecily,
For they will come,
Both all and some,
Good gossips mine!
And each of them will some food bring:
Goose or pig, or capon wing,
Pastes of pigeon, or some other thing!
For we must eat,
Some manner of meat.
Good gossip mine!
Now we be in the tavern set,
A draught of the best wine let them fetch,
To bring our husbands out of debt!
For we will spend,
Till God more sends!
Good gossips mine!
When we compare to ‘A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware’, it is quite noticeable how much better developed these characters are. On a basic level, they have names! There is also some fun to be had out of a general sense of female companionship, and of eating and drinking together. They seem to have pre-existing relationships with each other, for example in one verse a woman sighs:
“I wish Anne were here.
She would make us cheer”.
Anne never shows up – it is just a bit of unnecessary back story and characterisation which helps make the women feel a bit more real.
Satire-laced realism is also on display near the end of the poem, when a woman leaves without paying her part of the bill:
One cast down her shot, and went a way
“Gossip”, said Eleanor, “What, did she pay?”
Replied she, “Not a penny! Lo! Therefor I say
Now she shall not
Be one of our lot
Good gossips mine!”
The poem’s attention to society and reality has a darker side: it comes out through domestic violence.
Several women express fear that their husbands will beat them for having been in the pub. One of the women suggests that she need to sneak home and work out where her husband is: she fears that she will be beaten if her husband finds out that she was at the tavern. When they exit the pub at the end of the poem, they agree to walk around town and split up so that they don’t look like they’ve come from the pub: (“Turn down the street, when you come out/ And we will compass round about”).
In another verse a woman named Evis explains why she is sad:
For my husband is so foul,
He beats me like the devil of hell
And the more I cry
The less mercy”
Thankfully, this poor woman has two supportive friends. There is Alice, who curses men; and Margaret, who fights them:
Alice, with a loud voice spoke then:
“Evis”, she said, “Little good he can
do that beats or strikes any woman,
And especially his wife.
God give him a short life!
Good gossips mine.
Meek Margret said: “So may I thrive,
I know of no man who is alive,
Who can give me two strokes, but he gets five!
I am not affeared,
Though he have a beard!
Good gossips mine!
In “A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware”, some fairly tame criticisms are hurled at mankind. But in the “Song of the Gossips”, the satire has a much more savage bite. The poem very directly faces up to the everyday violence that many women faced.
The poem ends on a lighter note:
This is the plan that gossips take:
Once in a week, merry will they make,
And all small drinks they will forsake.
But wine of the best,
Shall have no rest.
Good gossips mine!
Some be at the tavern thrice in the week,
And some be there every day, each!
Or else they will groan and make themselves sick.
For things used,
Will not be refused,
Good gossips mine!
One thing that I really like about this poem is the way that it really focuses on the women, their relationships and their conversations. It is a satirical and over the top portrait of tavern life.
The conversation topics for the women feel very familiar: food! drink! money! married partners! friends who haven’t come out tonight! Plans for after the pub! Husbands are only one of the many topics.
It still probably represents a man’s eye view of these things – note for instance that all of the women are said to be spending their husband’s money. In fact many women in medieval London earned their own money from spinning or brewing. It is quite likely that many of the women would have been spending their own money. Our poet doesn’t seem to have thought of that.
If you want to read more of this poem then you can find it in Songs, carols and other Miscellaneous Poems, Ed. Roman Dyboski, (London, 1907), here.
You can see Richard Hill’s manuscript here
Samuel Rowlands, ‘Tis Merry when Gossips meet, (London, 1609)
The latest of our texts is also by far the longest at about 20 pages. It is also unique because we know the name of its author. Like the ‘Song of the Gossips’, this poem sees several ‘Gossips’ gather in the tavern and talk somewhat broadly about life. However, in this instance there are only three. They have titles rather than names: Widow, Wife and Maid.
Widow and wife are cousins, but Maid’s connections are a bit less clear: if we read this literally then this poem presents us with a family trip to the pub. However, this isn’t just a family reunion. The poet has assembled three women to represent the three stages of a woman’s life: childhood, adulthood and old age. There is an allegory about age hanging over this poem which means that it is not just satirising pub culture and daily life.
Widow acts as the ringleader, and draws the other two women to the pub:
Widow: Here’s widow, wife and maid: In faith, lets drink!
A parting pint, and so good make us even.
Slip in, good cousin, you are net to the door.
One pint of kindness and away, no more!
Wife: No, in good faith: I say I must away,
My husband is forth, our shop must be tended.
Maid: My mothers gone to church, I cannot stay.
If I be found from home, she’ll be offended
Widow: I’ll lead the way myself: Lord here’s a life!
I know these shifts, since I was Maid and wife. (Page 10)
Wife suggests that they take a quick pint standing at the pub’s street hatch. The crafty old woman doesn’t want to drink in the street. She cajoles them upstairs, where they procure a private room.
Widow relishes her freedom, but wants to spend it away from the company of men. She explains that you couldn’t pay her to drink in front of men, but she will act as she likes around women:
Widow: No lovers nor suitors here that sees it,
We have good time and liquor, lets not lose it. (Page 12)
Despite this, the widow can’t secure a female only retreat in the way that she’d like. The room keeps being invaded by men.
At one point it is a fiddler, who plays for money:
“Shut the door pray cousin, after that base groom
We’ll have no fiddling knave disgrace our room!”.
Another unwelcome male invasion is more insidious: tobacco smoke seeps out from the male parts of the pub. Tobacco was a new fad that was becoming popular as England was establishing its first Virginia colonies. The three women are less than impressed: The widow remarks “Fou! what a filthy smell? / As sure as death I am even likely to choke”. The wife remarks that she has forbidden her husband to smoke, and summons juniper to clear the air, (page 28).
A third unwelcome male intervention comes in the form of a laughing serving boy. The widow immediately assumes that his laugher is a personal insult to her dignity. She upbraids him fiercely, demands don’t you know who I am???, and threatens to boycott the pub.
The real joy of this poem isn’t really in its observations about pub culture though. They mostly come from having three female characters at different stages of life talk about themselves.
The widow is the dominant character. She has wealth, and no man to tell her what to do. She clearly relishes the freedom that this gives her. The widow has strong views on men and their beauty: she has a lingering hatred for gingers, but declares “I love a black man, cousin, with my soul” (22). I think she means black hair, but frankly it isn’t totally clear. She tells us that she is being courted by a kind and handsome man, though also one who has “prettie lands” (page 19). She is wily and knows all the tricks in the book, and has been feigning illness in order to test how interested he is. The widow is by turns scandalous, cynical and skilful. She is fully able to live without a man; and if she does live with one, can bend and manipulate him to her will. She is, in short, the worst nightmare of many of the male readers of this text!
The widow is highly nostalgic and has a tendency to reminisce about past times. She has clearly always had an active social life. At one point, a woman called Jane is mentioned, who Widow used to party with. Jane and Widow used to live in Bucklersbury together, a central street just of Cheapside. Now however Jane has married a man called Roger and moved out to London Wall, far from the heart of the city:
Widow: Lord, the pranks that we mad wenches played!
My mistress got my master to consent
One midsummer, she being very ill,
to leave the city and go lie in Kent.
By which good hap, we had the house at will:
There Roger, Jane and I met every night…
No music in the evening we did lack,
Such dancing, cousin, you would hardly think it;
Whole pottles of the daintiest burned sack,
It would doo a wench good at the heart to drink it
Such a store of tickling galliards, I do vow,
Not an old dance, but “John Come kiss me now”. (page 13)
By contrast, the wife is more sober and conservative. The Widow represents a “radical” position of being able to live without a man. By contrast the wife is much more dependent. She voices strong support for the idea that every woman should be married off. She also supports the idea that marriage should be as young as possible, to save girls from teenage lechery. She is very proud of her husband and a bit defensive of him. But she also declares that she doesn’t care if he knows she has been to the pub. She boasts of her ability to use feigned sicknesses to manipulate him.
Her youth appears to have been conservative and conventional:
Yet trust me cousin, when I was a girl,
For tavern, no young man could get me to it.
Neither love, gold, precious stones, or pearl.
My tongue denied, when my hard inclined to do it.
For, by my faith, I ever loved good wine,
But often refrained, I was so maiden fine. (Page 25)
The Maid is young and inexperienced, aged only 15. After only one cup, she remarks “Good Lord, I am become a mighty drinker!” (Page 12), so she is clearly something of a lightweight. She is in general the quietest member of the group, and is often happy to ask questions rather than say much. She states that she will only marry a handsome man, and expresses wishes to marry for love: “A fig for wealth, ‘tis person I affect” (26).
Most of their conversation however ends up being about men and age: specifically, is it better to be a maid, a wife or a widow? It is a long argument and I’m not going to repeat it all. They don’t quite come to a conclusion, but I’d suggest that the Widow often seems to have the best of it. Ultimately, it is an interesting slice of pub culture, but is perhaps more noticable for its attempts to satire women and their relationship with men.
If you want to read more, you can find a nineteenth century edition here.
Our three poems have strong similarities. They all start with a group of women meeting by chance in the street and heading to be pub. They all show groups of women who start to talk about things that they couldn’t if men were present. They all carry with them a sense of scandal, satire and naughty fun.
Beyond this, they take some noticeably different routes. “A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware” takes a highly bawdy route that will scandalise and titillate its readers. “Tis merry when Gossips meet” mixes scandal and satire of social relationships with a more thoughtful discussion of age and social status amongst women. Meanwhile the “Song of the Gossips” is an ode to female friendships and the importance of female relationships, with a good dose of humour and satire thrown in.
Each of the poems is about satirising and mocking drunken women. But in each of them, the women gain a sort of power through companionship and time spent away from men. The poems are not totally comfortable reading for men. “A talk of ten wives on their husband’s ware” mocks male inadequacy right where it hurts. The “Song of the Gossips” raises the idea that many men are tyrants. Even when women come together in the pub for jollity and fun, their steps home have to be guided by a fear about male violence. In “Tis Merry When Gossips Meet”, the widow raises the frightening (to Tudor men at least) prospect of a woman who is not dependent on men, nor is supervised by them. The Tudors used pub songs to talk about these fears, inadequacies and insecurities. Even in their laughter, there is sometimes something dark and a bit painful.