Norwich Entertainments – Part VI: Rope dancing and nine-pins

Brodie Waddell

On 1 December 1677, the Norwich Mayor’s Court granted permission for a new performer to ply her trade in the city:

Mrs Saboul Rymers hath Lycence to make shew of Dauncing upon the Rope at the Redd Lion in St Stephens for a weeke from this day.1

Rope dancing, now usually known as ‘tight-rope walking’, had already been a popular entertainment for thousands of years by the time Mrs Rymers arrived in Norwich. It was a common amusement in the seventeenth century, apparently beloved by rich and poor alike. The Duchess of Cleveland, King Charles II’s famous mistress, ‘greatly admired’ one these acrobats, and Samuel Pepys reported that he ‘saw the best dancing on the ropes that I think I ever saw in my life’ at Bartholomew’s Fair in 1664.

Rope dancersYet Rymer’s dancing raises a question for historians of popular culture: Why was it allowed? On the surface, such an activity seems unlikely have been endorsed by the local authorities.

Instead, it appears to be exactly the sort of thing that would offend the sensibilities of god-fearing civic officials thanks to its potential to spur immorality. After all, Mrs Sabouls Rymers was a woman and presumably a foreign one at that. Having an exotic woman dancing on ropes suspended above the spectators seems like a performance almost designed to serve as an excuse for sinful thoughts and licentious behaviour. It is difficult to imagine that puritans, or even ordinary upstanding seventeenth-century Protestants, could have regarded this potentially sexually-charged dance act as wholesome entertainment.

In light of this, I was even more surprised to learn that Mrs Rymers was not an isolated case. In the reign of Queen Anne, for example, a certain ‘Signora Violante’ was known for her rope-dancing. Even under the early Stuarts, when many local officeholders were especially zealous in reforming the morals of their inferiors, Natasha Korda has found a woman in Norwich doing ‘rare feates of Activity with Dancinge on the Ropes’.

We can be sure that it was not due to a general laxity amongst the Norwich city fathers. In August 1679, the Mayor’s Court issued another order, but this was not to licence a new entertainment. Rather, they commanded the marshals ‘to be very diligent’ in supressing social evils, including:

all such persons that keepe publique houses and suffer playing at nyne pins in their grounds or other disorders in their houses.2

Nine-pin bowling was, evidently, an activity that threatened the urban social order, perhaps especially when combined with drinking, and the local authorities felt that it was their duty to stamp it out. Unfortunately for the historian, they did not think to record their justification for this ruthless attack on the tame-looking pastime.

bowls-and-nine-pins-1822What, then, could explain the sharply different approaches to these two different recreations? Why did a woman dancing on a rope receive official approval but nine-pin players in the pub were targeted for suppression? And, more broadly, how can we explain why some ‘entertainments’ were commended whilst others were condemned?

Update (23/10/13): I just came across an older blog post from the 1640s Picturebook that includes an image of a nine-pin bowler from that period with a little rhyme that seems to imply that bowling might be a slippery slope to capital crimes!

Nine-pin bowler in the 1630s


1 Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 13.

2 NRO, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 52. See also the similar order in April 1681: ibid., f. 87.

9 thoughts on “Norwich Entertainments – Part VI: Rope dancing and nine-pins

  1. Some great examples here, and the question that’s really bothering me, is why on earth would you have nine pins rather than ten, and leave the triangle incomplete?!

    In, well, not answer exactly, but thinking around your question, there are a few potentially relevant factors. In the earlier period that I work on (the long C16th), context – both chronological and geographical – is everything. So if an action is taking place on the sabbath particularly, it might be unacceptable, whereas at another time it would be fine. Similarly, people gathering together in private to do something might well be a guise for more unsavoury activities, whereas that practice might not provoke the same suspicion in public.

    I wonder whether there’s not also a line to be drawn here between spectator and participant. Dancing – and particularly mixed dancing! – could again be an occasion for all sorts of licentious and immoral behaviours. But looking at somebody perfoming on their own, on a rope, suspended literally out of reach, doesn’t have the same potential for carnal consequences; it’s perhaps more akin to a theatrical performance, than a saltatorial orgy…

    • I think I actually have an answer for the first one, but not because I know anything about nine-pin bowling: my previous experience playing nine-ball pool suggests the pins are set up in a diamond formation (rather than a triangle) and a google search confirms it!

      I like your spectator/participant theory. Obviously plenty of puritans wouldn’t make much of this distinction and, for them, theatre was sinful whether watching or participating. But I suspect many less theologically obsessive authorities would have seen those as two quite different activities, so maybe that helps to explain it.

      PS: ‘saltatorial orgy’ is a phrase that needs to be used much more often.

  2. This reminded me of some delightful stories discovered while I was doing my MA studies on south-west Yorkshire some years ago. One local source [‘Worsborough, Eckington and Sheffield: Descriptive Catalogue of the Edmunds Collection’, ed. T. Walter Hall, Sheffield 1924) contained references from the court rolls of Barnsley and Stainborough. Thomas Marshall was fined a total of 44s 4d for a series of offences in 1613 that included drunkenness, keeping a disorderly house, eating meat slaughtered during Lent, playing with bowls and receiving in his house a traveller with six children – the last of these attracting the largest fine of 39 shillings. It provides an interesting insight into local priorities, Stainborough being the manor in the ownership of the Wentworth family of Wentworth Castle and a small township closely controlled by the family.

    In the same township and period, Robert Parkyn was fined regularly for playing bowls with his friends and fighting with them, no doubt over associated gambling, going to the lengths on one occasion of taking their activities indoors to the house of one John Ward. John Ward himself was fined for taking hedge cuttings, failing in his duties as constable – and was then re-appointed constable in 1615!

    Adam Eyre, gentleman of Penistone, in his diaries of the 1630s frequently referred to travelling long distances over the moors to play bowls, mainly for the gambling that went along with it. There is a picture of fairly general popular activity across a range of ‘sorts’ attracted to the game of bowls and, in its context, it seems to have depended very much on local culture as to whether or to what extent it was ‘controlled’, and equally on the context of the game within other activities, like drunkenness, fighting, gambling and general misbehaviour. Watching dancing on ropes seems quite passive and unthreatening by comparison.

    • Great examples, Martin. I came across some similar material when researching my article on manor courts, though I never found anything as exciting as Thomas Marshall’s escapades.

      I think you’re right that the issue of nine-pins as a symptom or accompaniment of more threatening and disruptive behaviour makes sense. In the Norwich order, disorderly alehouses are listed alongside nine-pins as a problem to be supressed.

  3. One answer to this would be that bowls–like many other games–had been outlawed in an act of 1541 known as the Unlawful Games Act (33 Hen. VIII, c.9), which enacted that:

    . . . no manner of artificer, or craftsman of any handicraft or occupation, husbandman, apprentice, labourer, servant at husbandry, journeyman, or servant of artificer, mariners, fishermen, watermen, or any serving man, shall from the said feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, play at the tables, tennis, dice, cards, bowls, clash, coyting, logating, or any unlawful game. . .

    Anyone found playing unlawful games, except at Christmas, was subject to a 20 shilling fine, and alehousekeepers were also forbidden from ‘maintaining’ these games. The principle motivation behind the act seems to have been concerns over the state of the nation’s archery skills: indeed, the act was formally titled ‘An Act for Maintenance of Artillery and Debarring of Unlawful Games’, and the fear was that such men were playing games rather than practicing their bowmanship. There were fears at the time that, in the wake of the break with Rome, England could be invaded by Catholic powers in Europe, but that the skill with the bow of the English had badly declined since the glory days of Agincourt and they were ill-prepared to repel an attack.

    So, bowls were illegal according to statute, whereas rope-dancing was–as far as I am aware–not. Of course, that doesn’t fully explain the response of the authorities, as the anxieties about archery skills were hardly as pressing in the 1670s. I think one reason why local authorities–in some places–continued to try and enforce the Unlawful Games Act across the early modern period is that such games had become very closely associated with gambling, as Martin suggests. When they took place in alehouses they were seen (not without some justification given the court records I have looked at) as a potential source of both conflict between gamblers, but also another means by which poor men were wasting money in the alehouse.

    That said, I dare say there were a few wagers made on whether a rope-walker would take a fall or not….

    • Interesting! Though that archery excuse sounds rather suspect. Tudor legislation seems to quite often be justified by contemporaries in ways that seem rather disingenuous later – this is often the case when it comes to the reform of religious policy. Thus at the beginning of the dissolution of the monasteries the policy was presented as a ‘streamlining’ of resources, with the closure of smaller establishments first. Communion in two kinds for the laity was first allowed to prevent people arguing about whether it was right or not. Elizabeth favoured a surplice during the Lord’s Supper because it encouraged good order during service time.

      Obviously it is dangerous to allow hindsight to taint our perception of such things, but my first assumption would be that need for archery practice is a handy cover which will allow the suppression of something the authorities don’t like, or at least don’t like people lower than them in the social scale to be doing.

    • Thanks, Mark! I think between you, Jonathan and Martin, we actually have a plausible set of answers to the question. So, why was nine-pins suppressed but rope-dancing welcomed? Nine-pins enfeebled archers, encouraged gambling and invited semi-private participation in other illicit activities. Rope-dancing merely allowed some passive, public, unthreatening ogling from afar.

  4. In Somerset some pubs still have bowling alleys attached. Nine pins in three rows with a corner at the front. Games can be very competitive. Beer and cider are drunk so there was probably good cause for concern about disorder, and consumption of ale, which consumed barley. I suspect the fear of gambling and other private activities was of concern to local justices and lesser law officers, esp. puritans. The bowling rooms tend to be accessible only from the interior of the pub so difficult to supervise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s