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.
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.
What, 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!
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.