I live in Cambridge, a well-touristed little town, and when the sun is out the streets are awash with buskers. Some are quite good. For instance, there’s the chap who strums tunes on his guitar from inside a litter bin who always makes me chuckle even when his playing isn’t brilliant.
But there are also some that are decidedly displeasing to the ear. If only – I find myself muttering – these unmusical musicians had been sufficiently trained in the science of music. Continue reading
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.
The people of late seventeenth-century Norwich did not get their entertainment solely from hairy children and pieces of plays. They also amused themselves with the ever-growing numbers of printed works that were pouring from the presses at that time.
In June 1680, for example, the Norwich Mayor’s court ordered that ‘Twoe Ballad singers haveing Lycence to Sell ballads, pamphlets small bookes & other bookes Lycensed from the Office of the Revells have leave to doe soe until Monday senight [?seven-night]’.1
Ballad entitled ‘An Excellent New Sonnet On the Goddess Diana and Acteon’ (c.1725-69). EBBA.
Title-page of a chapbook titled ‘The Life and Death of Fayr Rosamond’ (1755). SF.
These balladeers were just two of the hundreds that traipsed through the city streets and country lanes of early modern England, singing to advertise their wares. The exact contents of a peddler’s sack could be very diverse. In addition to all sorts of petty trinkets, they sold tales of drunken sailors, royal mistresses, industrious spinsters, and much else besides. Often these were in the form of broadside song sheets, but they might also be ‘pamphlets’ and ‘small books’, sometimes called chapbooks, written in prose to provide merriment or salvation for the price of penny or two. Margaret Spufford and Tessa Watt, among many others, have discussed this ‘cheap print’ in much more detail, noting that ballad-sellers were often condemned by the authorities as vagrants. But in late seventeenth-century Norwich at least they seem to have been welcomed by both the townspeople and city officials.
Rather more unusual, however, was the license issued to a man a year earlier. In November 1679, the court declared that ‘Lawrence White is allowed to reade & sell Pamphlets on Horsebacke untill Wednesday next’.2 Continue reading
On the 8th of March, 1679, the Norwich Mayor’s Court ordered that
Mr Robert Bradford hath liberty to erect a Stage in the usual place to sell medical Druggs, & performe Chirurgicall Cures and he hath Lycence to doe this for the space of 3 weeks.¹
Medicine was big business in early modern England. Historians have shown us that the ‘medical marketplace’ was extensive and expanding, with many people we might now call ‘healthcare entrepreneurs’ earning a living by providing their services to eager consumers.² The fact that, as every schoolchild knows, ‘medicine’ in this period was as likely to hurt or kill as to cure does not seem to have dissuaded many patients.
Peddler with apothecary bottles (17th c.). Source: Larsdatter.
That being the case, it should hardly surprise us that Mr Bradford would seek a licence from the civic authorities to hawk his ‘Druggs’ from a public stage in what must have been the centre of the city. This was a good spot to set up if he hoped to make a few shillings by attracting a sizable crowd of customers for his various elixirs.
But what about performing ‘Chirurgicall Cures’? On a stage? How can we explain this? Continue reading
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
On October 17th, 1677, a month before Bartholomew Laskey arrived with his monstrous hairy child, the Norwich Mayor’s Court licenced Mr Robert Parker ‘to act pieces out of Playes &c for 14 daies at the Redd lion’ and John Argent ‘to make shew of such tricks as are mentioned in his patent at the Angell’.¹
Norwich Mayor’s Court Book, 17 Oct. 1677: Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 9 (Sorry about the poor reproduction. The documents were only available on microfilm.)
These are exactly the sort of tantalisingly vague references to popular entertainments that one expects to find in early modern legal records. The ‘pieces of plays’ and unspecified ‘tricks’ surely amused their audiences, and the title ‘Mr’ suggests that at least Parker earned a decent livelihood, so they probably represent typical examples of provincial urban popular culture in the late seventeenth century. Continue reading
On 17 November 1677, the Norwich Mayor’s Court decreed that
Mr Bartholomew Laskey had leave to make shew of a Monstrous Hayree Chyld for 10 daies from this day.
I came across this when looking for something else, but I couldn’t help but make a note of it. And, as I discovered, there were licences like this recorded throughout this period.
About a year later, on 5 October 1678
Isaac Cookesone produced a Lycecne under the seale of his Majesty’s Office of Revells to make shew of a Girle of 16 yeares of age without Bones, and he hath 14 dayes given him to make shew of her at the Lower half Moone in the Market place, He Keeping good order & Houres
Norwich, it seems, was a city that knew how to have a good time.
This is definitely not my area of expertise and I didn’t try to investigate the context of the orders, so I’d welcome ideas. But a few thoughts immediately come to mind… Continue reading