What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Brodie Waddell

Surely this was an age-old question. Although the traditional sea shanty was only recorded in the early 19th century, there were more than a few early modern seamen who over-indulged in drink.

Indeed, when ‘a crew of Jovial Blades’ met in an alehouse in one late 17th-century ballad, it was the sailor who took the lead over his landlocked companions:

A bonny Seaman was the first,
but newly come to Town,
And swore that he his Guts could burst
with Ale that was so brown.

In another song from this period, a group of cunning ‘Maidens’ from the London suburb of Poplar tricked ‘several young Seamen’ into eating a cat baked in a pasty. Once they realised their mistake, the feline feast ‘did force them to spew’, but they still ‘laughed and quaffed’ and ‘drank off the Liquor before they went out’. It seems the solution to eating ‘A Cat-Pasty’ is to get thoroughly drunk.

Even sailors’ wives were not averse to downing ‘a lusty Bowl of Punch’. According to another ballad, the ‘Jolly Company’ raced to the alehouse as soon as their ‘Seamen had newly left the Land’ and set on their task with gusto:

We Seamens brisk Wives are bonny and glad,
While our Men on the Ocean are sorry and sad;
We love our Liquor to drink it all up,
None of us but love a full Glass or a Cup

They went so far as to claim that the punch would ‘make our Noddles the quicker’, a suggestion that was not as far-fetched to their contemporaries as it might be to us. As unlikely as it sounds, Mark has shown that the idea of alcohol enhancing ‘wit’ and ‘reason’ was not unknown in early modern England.¹ A little of ‘haire of the old Dogge’ might also cure the resulting hang-over.

Detail from ‘The Seamens Wives Frolick Over A Bowl of Punch’ (1685-88), in Pepys Ballads, IV, p. 184, via EBBA.

One might be inclined to dismiss these as stereotypes played up by the balladeers trying to make a few extra pence, but there are also examples from the archives. The records of the High Court of Admiralty, for example, include depositions describing sailors such as Robert Oyle who habitually ‘debauch[ed] himselfe with drinke’, Frisby and Archer who spent ‘five dayes and nights together drinking and frequenting houses of lewd repute’, and Thomas Grove who returned aboard ‘much distempered with drink and began to curse and sweare’.

Are these cases typical? It’s hard to say at this point. All of the Admiralty examples come from the MarineLives project, a new group which is currently transcribing and publishing online a whole swathe of rich material from court records held at Kew. Perhaps once we have a complete set of cases over an extended period we’ll have a better idea of just how often 17th-century seamen had to ‘put him in the long-boat and make him bale her’ or ‘put him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him’, ‘earl-aye in the morning’.

In the meantime, the MarineLives team report that they are looking for a few more volunteers to join them to help uncover the rough lives of early modern seafarers, so if you’d like to help the world learn about a real ‘drunken sailor’ or two, do let them know.


¹ Mark Hailwood, ‘”It puts good reason into brains”: Popular Understandings of the Effects of Alcohol in Seventeenth-Century England’, Brewery History (forthcoming, January 2013).

Workers’ Representation Part One: Spinning a Yarn

Mark Hailwood

As Christopher Thompson rightly notes over at Early Modern History, one of the great things about working at The Huntington is the people you get to meet over coffee. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time Patricia Fumerton, from the University of California Santa Barbara. Paddy is the pioneer of the online ballad database, EBBA, a digital resource that has been indispensable to my own research, and has been linked to on this blog numerous times already.

This gave me the chance to tell Paddy how great I think the site is, and in particular to praise its latest function that I have been playing around with: the ability to search, by category, the woodcut illustrations that adorn most seventeenth-century broadside ballads. I’ve been working on an article on representations of workers in these ballads – in particular artisan tradesmen – but my focus has been on how they were represented in the text of these ballads: how they were described and characterised. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to looking at the pictures – but might these too be a useful source for the kind of cultural history of work and workers that I am interested in? I entered a search for woodcuts that had been categorised as depicting ‘occupation / trade’, and spent some time perusing the 122 results that came up.

I’m not sure I have the skills or training to confidently deploy this kind of visual evidence in a formal historical paper or article, but I do find it fascinating, and thought I would offer up some of my thoughts in a series of blogposts entitled ‘Workers’ Representation’.

One of the first things that caught my eye was the common depiction of a key category of women’s work: spinning.

A woodcut taken from the ballad ‘Whipping Cheare’, from the Pepys collection, vol. I, no.208-109, c.1625. Source: EBBA

Continue reading

Norwich Entertainments – Part III: A medieval royal mistress in the 17th century and beyond

Brodie Waddell

In December 1677, the Norwich Mayor’s Court granted Elizabeth Soane a licence ‘to make shew of a Motion Called Fayre Rosamond until further order’.¹ Now here, finally, we have a clear reference to a well-known story. This play or ‘Motion’ must have recounted the life and death of one of England’s most famous royal mistresses, a surprisingly crowded field.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Fair Rosamund’ (1861), modelled by Fanny Cornforth (source: National Museum Cardiff via Wikimedia Commons)

‘Fair Rosamund’ was a woman named Rosamund Clifford (d. 1176?), a mistress to Henry II and subject of innumerable legends. Various tales claimed that that the king built a palace and labyrinth at Woodstock for her, that she was mother to an Archbishop of York and the Earl of Salisbury, and that she was poisoned by the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Sadly, none of these seem to be true.² Continue reading

A Seventeenth-Century Comic Strip?

Brodie Waddell

Gavin Robinson, over at Investigations of a Dog, asks ‘Why weren’t there any comics in the 1640s?’

He uses to the wikipedia definition:

a sequence of drawings arranged in interrelated panels to display brief humor or form a narrative, often serialized, with text in balloons and captions

This seems rather strict for my taste. Perhaps this is the nature of wikipedia  – an article on ‘comic books’ is bound to be dominated by comic ‘purists’ (even ‘puritans’) with a prescriptive outlook. The OED, in contrast, simply gives one definition of ‘strip’ as

A sequence of small drawings telling a comic or serial story in a newspaper, etc. Freq. as comic strip. Also transf. orig. U.S.

It gives the first use in 1920, which slightly predates the first supposed ‘comic book’ in 1933.

Apparently the first ‘comics’ (by the strict wikipedia definition) only appeared in the nineteenth century, and Gavin Robinson offers some possible reasons why, all of which seem plausible.

However, is it really true that ‘comics’ only emerged in the nineteenth century?

If we go by the OED definition, certainly not. As Gavin points out, ‘sequential art’ goes back to the Romans at least, and there are plenty of early modern examples. Here is Hogarth’s famous series:

William Hogarth, A Harlot’s Progress (1732). Image borrowed from here.

If we go by the wiki definition, we need ‘text in balloons and captions’, both of which are found in many early modern sources, but which was not normally paired with sequential panels. Here, for example, is some dialogue in balloons from a ballad in the Pepys collection:

Ropery Routed: Or, Father Petres’s Farewel to London City (1689) in Pepys Ballads, II, p. 296.

All of this is just a lengthy prologue to my own attempt at a small contribution. Whilst I haven’t found anything that unambiguously matchs the narrow definition, I think this comes pretty damn close.

The Young-Mans Victory Over the Povver of the Devil Or Strange and VVonderful News from the City of London (?1693), from the Haughton Library at Harvard.

I came across this broadsheet when looking for an image for the cover of my book. You’ll note that although it doesn’t have dialogue in balloons, it does tell a sequential story through pictorial panels with accompanying in-panel text.

Detail of panels from The Young-Mans Victory Over the Povver of the Devil Or Strange and VVonderful News from the City of London (?1693).

My favourite panel (and the one that ended up on my book cover) is that which shows the devil trying to tempt the ‘Young-Man’ with ‘Bag of Gold and silver’. It makes literal the age-old association between ‘gold’ (i.e. riches) and ‘temptation’ (i.e. sin and damnation), neatly encapsulating one of my arguments: traditional Christian moral codes continued to be a popular way to think about economic life at the end of the seventeenth century.

So, is this an early modern comic strip?

An (a)historical headache?

Mark Hailwood

We know that our ancestors inhabited a very different mental universe from our own – that they thought very differently from us – but a much harder question for historians to address is whether our ancestors lived in a world that felt physically different from our own. Are physical experiences ahistorical? Does the experience of stubbing a toe transcend all variations across time and space? Or were our ancestors hardier than us, less sensitive to pain perhaps?

Let’s try narrowing this question down a bit by focusing on one particular physical state that will be familiar to most of us: the hangover. But did our seventeenth-century forebears get them? They didn’t use the term (the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it is a twentieth-century Americanism), but they certainly suffered from them. A broadside ballad that warned against the dangers of drinking too much on the Sabbath day cautioned that men who did so often found themselves incapacitated for as many as two days after:

From Ale-house to Ale-house, they’d ramble and roam
And may be at night they’d come staggering home;
Their Wives have been careful to get them to bed,
Next morning the liquor has lain in their head;
So that beside all their vast charges and cost,
Both Monday and Tuesday they commonly lost.

If anything, we might wonder whether our ancestors experienced their hangovers even more severely than we do if they stretched over two days. But there is another explanation. In a ballad entitled ‘Monday’s Work‘ we hear of the symptoms that followed the morning after a Sunday drinking bout. They may sound familiar:

Last night I was shot
Through the braines with a Pot [of ale],
and now my stomacke doth wamble.*

*[Wamble, surely a word that should enjoy a renaissance, defined by the OED thus: ‘Of the stomach or its contents: To be felt to roll about (in nausea).’]

Yet this condition did not have these ballad drunkards opting for a ‘duvet day’. They had another remedy in mind:

A piece of salt Hogge,
And a haire of the old Dogge
is good to cure our drunken Noddles.

That often debated hangover cure – getting back on the bottle – dates back to at least the sixteenth-century. It might explain why Tuesday too was often a hangover day, but it was deemed effective by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys.  The morning after drinking ‘a great deal of wine’ at The Dolphin on Tuesday 2nd April 1661, Pepys awoke with his ‘head akeing from last night’s debauch’. No doubt he complained of this to the friends with whom he took lunch, for they encouraged him to ‘drink two drafts of sack [a Spanish white wine] to-day to cure me of last night’s disease,’ Pepys was sceptical at first, but the proposed tonic seemed to do the trick: ‘which I thought strange but I think find it true.’

So what does this tell us about the timelessness of physical experiences? Not much perhaps, but it is clear that finding an effective way of dealing with a hangover is one experience that unites us with our early modern forbears.