Alehouse Characters #4: The Good Fellowette

Mark Hailwood

This is the fourth in a series of posts written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.

The seventeenth-century English alehouse was undoubtedly a male-dominated space. It was certainly not, however, an exclusively male space. For a start, it was common for alehouses to be run by widows, or by the wives of men whose name was actually the one on the license, and many young women would have worked as serving maids in these institutions. But women also represented a significant component of alehouse customers. Indeed, one historian has estimated that as many as 30% of the customers in Essex alehouses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were women.[1]


Women were a sizeable minority of the alehouse crowd

Women often drank in alehouses with their husbands, and young women frequented them as part of mixed-gender groups of friends. Of course, the alehouse was an important centre of courtship for the young in the villages and small towns of seventeenth-century England, in an age when a trip to the cinema or the bowling alley—or whatever it is young folk do for courtship these days—were not available options. (Although some alehouses did have bowling alleys attached to them even then, so the link between bowling and courtship may be older than we think). Continue reading

Alehouse Characters #3: The Wastrel Husband

Mark Hailwood

This is the third in a series of posts written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.

As we saw in the previous post, the rising popularity of alehouses and good fellowship in seventeenth-century England met with considerable opposition from Church and State. But concerns over developments in England’s drinking culture did not just emanate from hostile ruling elites—from the ‘top down’—they were also voiced within popular culture. This can be seen most clearly in contemporary anxieties that ‘good fellowship’ spawned ‘wastrel husbands’. One such example is the central character of this post: John Jarret.

John Jarret

John Jarret

Jarret, like Roaring Dick of Dover, is the central character of a broadside ballad, and whilst both men are keen partakers of alehouse good fellowship, John Jarret’s drinking is portrayed in rather more problematic terms than Roaring Dick’s. Rather than being a celebration of good fellowship, the ballad featuring Jarret—narrated by his long suffering wife—is a warning about its dire consequences.[1] Continue reading

Alehouse Characters #2: The Drunken Constable

Mark Hailwood

This is the second in a series of posts written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments..

On an October evening, in the year 1604, a weary traveller by the name of John Oultings entered Turner’s alehouse in the Essex parish of Layer Marney. It was around 6 o’clock, and Oultings ordered himself some beer and cheese, and requested a room in which to rest overnight. It was the kind of routine stopover that was a common occurrence in England’s seventeenth-century alehouses, as the institution represented an important component of the country’s hospitality infrastructure.

So far, then, nothing particularly remarkable. But what Oultings was to witness during his stay was a sequence of rather more intriguing events. On his arrival he found John Lufkin – the central character of this post – drinking with one Thomas Marsh and several other men. Whether Oultings joined these men is not clear, but at around 9 o’clock he saw John Lufkin call to the alehousekeeper to bring forth ‘a huge great stone pot’, which contained ‘very near two gallons’ (that’s 16 pints) of beer, a vessel that the drinkers referred to as ‘Fowler’—a rather odd nickname for a drinking vessel, but its provenance will become clear. Oultings was not interested in participating in whatever drinking ritual was about to ensue, and retired to his bed chamber.

Bring forth 'The Fowler'!

Bring forth ‘The Fowler’!

Continue reading

Alehouse Characters #1: The Jovial Good Fellow

Mark Hailwood

This is the first in a series of posts written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.

Meet our first alehouse character: Roaring Dick of Dover, the Jovial Good Fellow of Kent.

Roaring Dick of Dover

Roaring Dick of Dover

Roaring Dick is the narrator of an eponymous 1630s drinking ballad of the sort that would have been performed in, and perhaps even pasted onto the walls of, England’s seventeenth-century alehouses. Continue reading

The Immersive Turn: Or, what did a seventeenth-century drinking song sound like?

Mark Hailwood

I know what you are thinking: isn’t it about time for yet another historical ‘turn’? Well, you’re in luck! I think there is a really interesting one already underway in early modern studies, quietly coming together from a number of different approaches and without, as yet, a clear sense of itself. I want to give it an identity, and I’m going to start by giving it a name: the ‘immersive turn’. But I’m open to suggestions.

What I mean by this is a growing desire on the part of early modern historians to try to recover a more multi-dimensional, multi-sensory feel for the period than we conventionally derive from an analytical reading of written sources: a search for the texture of the past, not just its texts. What prompted me to pull together this line of thought into a blog post was the recent attempt by students at De Montford to create a virtual version of seventeenth-century London before the Great Fire of 1666. It is worth a look, if you haven’t seen it already.

Pudding Lane Productions ( have created a virtual 17th century London.

It seems to me that the interest generated by this project is a symptom of the fact that early modern historians are increasingly attracted to the idea of ‘immersing’ ourselves more fully in the physical and sensory aspects of the world that we study: the emergence of the study of material culture, increased attention to visual sources, to ‘space’, and to the history of the senses, might all be seen as part of this same process.

Pre-Reformation worship recreated (

Pre-Reformation recreated

There have been recent attempts to recreate pre-and post-Reformation church interiors, and experiences of worship, for instance, and popular history books and TV shows taking the form of ‘Time Travellers’ Guides’ invite their readers and viewers to imagine the sights and smells one would encounter on entering a medieval or early modern city. All of these approaches invite us to imaginatively transport ourselves into the shoes of our early modern ancestors, and to concentrate on the immediate experience of sights, sounds and material surroundings.

These ‘immersive’ approaches have influenced my own work, especially in relation to the seventeenth-century drinking songs that I use to examine alehouse culture in the period. I don’t just mean that I get drunk and try singing them in the pub—although, we’ll come back to that—but rather that to understand the meanings of such songs it is important to think about the ways in which they were performed. It might be easy for a historian, sat alone at their desk quietly reading such a song, to misjudge the tone of its meaning, a tone that was informed by its tune, and also the manner and context in which it was actually sung, aloud, communally.

Singers in an alehouse window - hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

Singers in an alehouse window – hardly the same environment as sitting at my desk.

I developed a few thoughts on this in a short article for The Appendix, a new journal that embraces these new types of immersive and experimental history. You can read it for free here, and it would make sense to do so before reading on…. but, if you don’t have the time or inclination, here is the nub of it: I argue that it is important to think about how performance might influence the meaning of a seventeenth-century drinking ballad, and I applaud some recent attempts to recreate ballad performances. But I think they can misrepresent the tone in which such songs would have been sung.

For instance, take a moment to listen to EBBA’s recording of the drinking ballad, A Messe of Good Fellows, by clicking here.

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

A Messe of Good Fellows (© British Library)

It’s helpful to hear it put to a tune, but surely the tone would be a little more raucous if performed by a company of intoxicated good fellows bellowing it out from the alebench?

A bit more raucous - a bit more like it...

A bit more raucous. A bit more like it?

Indeed, I suggest in the article that a modern-day football song – with a well-known tune, repetitive chorus, and an inebriated collective of (mostly) men – might actually come closer to capturing how such drinking songs would have been experienced in the alehouse. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing terrace tunefulness first hand, click here. I’ve tried to pick a relatively inoffensive one, but apologies to residents of Cardiff.

In response to the article I also received a suggestion from Phil Edwards, a Lecturer in Criminology at Manchester Met and an enthusiastic folk musician, that present day folk singing – often pub-based and communal – might be a closer descendent of the seventeenth-century alehouse song. I expect many historians would probably agree, but it is still a bit too sanitised and orderly for what I imagine performance would have actually sounded like. See what you think by listening to this ballad singaround recorded by Phil.

Are folk singarounds the key?

Are folk singarounds the key?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on which style of performance you think is most effective at ‘transporting’ us into the experiential world of our early modern forebears, but more importantly, I suppose, I’d like to know whether you think this little experiment in ‘immersion’ is a worthwhile exercise at all. Is attempting to recreate the sounds, or the smells, or the sights/sites, of the early modern past allowing just a little too much imagination into the historical process? It is undoubtedly an imprecise science, and we will never be able to capture with any certainty the tone of ballad performances – which no doubt varied immensely anyway. Is it therefore likely to be as often misleading as illuminating? A bit of fun perhaps – a harmless thought experiment to fill a coffee break – but not to be taken as a serious part of the historian’s craft? Or is the ‘immersive turn’ the next big thing, a way of bringing history to life that can enhance the understanding of both academic historians and non-academics alike?

Tudor history on TV, and a partial review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’…

Jonathan Willis

Early modern history has done pretty well out of the BBC lately. Earlier this year, in late May and early June, there was a season of programmes (apparently 5 documentaries constitute a ‘season’) based around the Tudor Court. We had an interesting and quite adventurous treatment of The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, which made the brave decision not to give top billing to a single authoritative historical narrator, or wrap up its argument with neat historical conclusions, but instead featured a real diversity of opinions from half a dozen historians and historical novelists. Diarmaid McCulloch presented a view of Thomas Cromwell which, while at first glance appearing to owe much to GR Elton, also contained a few tantalising hints of the major new biography he is working on (and which I for one am very much looking forward to reading). Thomas Penn told the story of Henry VII, Winter King, and Ian Mortimer presented a Time-Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. And finally, Melvyn Bragg made the case for William Tyndale as The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England in appropriately evangelical mode, in a strange piece of film which was shot like an episode of the late-lamented popular BBC spy drama, Spooks.
spooks002These documentaries were accompanied by re-runs of the Showtime series, The Tudors (which I don’t intend to dissect here!), and all in all I think that this sort of documentary interest in the period is, in the immortal words of Sellar and Yeatman, A Good Thing. Another recent onscreen foray into Tudor England has been conducted by David Starkey, in his four-part series Music and Monarchy, which began airing on 20 July and finished on Saturday 10 August: UK residents can still catch it on iplayer. Entitled ‘Crown and Choir’, the first episode looked at ‘royal music’ in England from Henry V to the death of Elizabeth I. I have to say, that as a historian who has written a fair amount about sixteenth century music, I had somewhat mixed feelings about watching this documentary. I like the fact that the history of music is something that people (and documentary-makers) seem to be increasingly interested in: in recent years the BBC has also given us Sacred Music and Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, both of which were interesting pieces of television. But music and monarchy? Starkey is of course primarily an historian of elites, and of court culture. But (and I hope that, given the recent online symposium on history from below, I am preaching largely to the converted) the story of music in the sixteenth century is so much more interesting than that, in terms of the broader role it played in popular culture and religion. david-starkey_2622826b

On balance, watching this first episode of Music and Monarchy I was pleasantly surprised. Starkey, for all his controversy and confrontational style as a commenter on current affairs, is a compelling and captivating storyteller, and it’s pretty clear that he is passionately interested in his subject. The tone strikes about the right balance: it isn’t overly simplified or patronising, and neither is it loaded with too much technical jargon. Occasionally Starkey allows his effusiveness about the music to cloud what could be a more rigorous analysis, but this is popular TV, not an academic lecture. He talks to a small number of musicians and academics, including the multi-talented David Skinner, and includes lots of long, sumptuous performances of pieces of early music in the venues in which they were (or at least in which they could possibly have been) performed. All in all then, this documentary too, to my surprise, is probably A Good Thing. Except… For 50 minutes of ‘Crown and Choir’ I broadly enjoyed what I was watching. But for the last 10, I pulled out my hair, and if my train carriage had had opening windows I might have thrown the iPad I was watching out of one of them. This is for two main reasons.

Bad Thing #1. In large part, the interplay between music and monarchy (and religion) was dealt with well, but in the final ten minutes what had functioned quite successfully as a lens turned suddenly into a pair of blinkers. Elizabeth I saved church music, we were told (partly right), but not only that, she did it singlehandedly, solely by maintaining a chapel royal of equivalent musical magnificence to her father, Henry VIII. Inside it, Elizabeth composed for herself a warm and dazzling sacred oratorio; beyond her chapel was merely a cold and frosty Protestant wasteland. Now that is just plain wrong. Even if we leave aside the complex musical picture in the Elizabethan parish church, which may well have still contained an organ, a choir, or at least a couple of paid singers, what about the musical livings she preserved elsewhere, and the university college and cathedral choirs up and down the country? True the chapel royal was probably the best resourced choir in Elizabethan England, but its musical reputation was maintained in part by poaching singers and composers from other musical establishments, such as the composer and organist William Byrd from Lincoln Minster.

Bad Thing #2. Where the parish church was briefly mentioned, it was as a cold, austere, whitewashed box, devoid of all visual and oral ornament. Cue a group of aged parishioners slowly and tunelessly droning out the ‘Old Hundredth’, a musical oxymoron; ‘all people than on earth do dwell, sing to the lord with cheerful voice’! That, Starkey observed, was as good as it got: the best that the man in the street (or at least the parish church) could aspire to. Again, leaving aside the complexity of the parish situation, which I would characterise as a vibrant and amorphous fusion of traditional and innovatory musical forms, the problem with this sort of approach is that it harks back to an outdated musicological approach that equated musical ‘quality’ with historical significance. Congregational metrical psalmody might not be the sort of music that features on the glossy CDs produced by modern choirs like the Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars, but that does not mean that it lacked value or importance (interestingly, the bibliography of the book that accompanies the series references rather dated literature on this topic, such as Temperley’s 1979 Music of the English Parish Church). For the first time, ordinary men and women were invited to play an active and participatory role in parish church worship, by joining in and singing praises together in one resounding voice. Starkey even misses a trick here in terms of his focus on music and monarchy. Such was the popularity and success of congregational song, that in the 1570s the government produced a series of metrical anthems, to be sung to familiar tunes to the glory of both God and the Queen. These works were most obviously to be sung on the ‘Crownation Day’ celebrations of 17 November, and far more people sang them than ever even heard Byrd’s beautiful motet, O Lord, let thy servant, Elizabeth. The reason that the vernacular sacred oratorios of Handel proved so popular in the eighteenth century, one might surmise, is at least in part because by that point the English had been singing themselves Protestant for the best part of two centuries. The reformation had effectively turned every parish church into a choir, albeit often a not very good one.

I don’t feel professionally qualified to comment on the rest of the series, and anyway this is supposed to be a blog, not a monograph. I’m now three-quarters of the way through, and broadly I think that his perspective is an interesting one, and that the documentary is a Good Thing – it might even inspire some people to find out more. But just as the story of popular religious music cannot be told without paying some attention to the interventions of kings and queens, so the musical legacy of kings and queens cannot be properly told without paying some attention to popular reception. And ‘reception’ in this context should not be envisaged as a passive process, but as a means by which people helped to shape the Protestant nation of which they themselves were part.

Everyday Life and the Art of the Dutch Masters: A Social Historian’s Perspective

Mark Hailwood

The visual culture of the early modern period has been a prominent theme here on the many-headed monster, what with Jonathan’s recent post on what God looked like, and my own series of posts on woodcut workers, so I thought another contribution to these musings would be welcome.

So, below is an essay I was recently asked to write for a guidebook for an art exhibition being held at The Collection Museum, Lincoln. ‘Masterstrokes: Great Paintings from York Art Gallery’ runs until 26th August, and contains some of the highlights from York Art Gallery’s collection, on temporary display in Lincoln.

The painting I was asked to comment on is Cornelis Bega’s ‘Tavern Scene’, 1662, approaching it from the angle of what it might be able to tell a social historian. Here is what I came up with:

What is a social historian? The main thing that marks us out from our colleagues in political or economic history is that we are concerned not so much with the ‘great men’ or macro-economic developments—which have undoubtedly played their part in shaping our past and present—but with the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary men and women. We want to know what life was like in the past for the majority of our ancestors.

Recovering these experiences is far from straightforward. For the period that I study—the seventeenth century—the subjects of my research have rarely left behind any of their own accounts of what their lives were like. Only 30% of men, and 10% of women, were fully literate, and those that were tended to come from the upper ranks of society. As such, there are few letters or diaries surviving from humble men and women recording the fine details of their day-to-day trials and pleasures.

As a result, the social historian needs to be ‘omnivorous’ in their search for useful sources of evidence. They need to cast their net wide and glean what they can from surviving court records such as witness statements, from surviving popular ballads and songs, or from the indirect evidence provided by the extant writings of elite social groups. They might also be able to gain insights from the visual culture of the period they study.

In this regard, Dutch Golden Age paintings—such as Cornelis Bega’s ‘Tavern Scene’ on display here—are a tantalising prospect for the social historian. Many adopt a realist focus on the everyday life of seventeenth-century peasants and artisans. Moreover, many of them depict scenes of tavern culture, an aspect of everyday life that has increasingly come to attract the attention of social historians. There is a frustration here though for the historian of seventeenth-century England: there is no English equivalent in this century for the vibrant genre of everyday life paintings being produced in the Netherlands (I’m not quite sure why, but it is a common subject of speculation in conversation with my colleagues). So there is an obvious problem inherent in trying to use paintings of Dutch tavern culture to draw conclusions about English tavern culture, but if we put that to one side for the moment we might think about what sorts of questions a social historian could ask of paintings such as Bega’s ‘Tavern Scene’.

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permission to reproduce this image (YORAG782)

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permission to reproduce this image (YORAG782)

At first glance we might wonder if the utility of this painting lies more in what it tells us about contemporary attitudes towards tavern culture than what it can tell us about what actually took place in them from day to day. It could be taken to encapsulate a common negative stereotype of taverns that was most closely associated in England with Puritans—those who enthusiastically embraced the new Protestant religion—who were known to be particularly vociferous in condemning drunkenness as an ‘odious’ and ‘loathsome’ sin. Is the standing male character slightly off-balance perhaps, his shirt falling open as the decorum slips, drunkenly leering at the bosom of the… serving maid? Taverns were often criticised as sites of inappropriate sexual promiscuity, and we could read this depiction as a visual equivalent to the many sermons that were preached against the immorality of tavern culture in the period.

A closer look suggests that Bega is offering us much more than well-trodden moralising in his tavern scene. The social historian’s gaze is drawn to some of the more quotidian aspects in the painting. There seems, for instance, to be crumpled bedding laid out on the bench behind the central female character. This highlights an important fact about seventeenth-century taverns (or as they were more commonly called in England, alehouses) that the modern viewer may not appreciate: unlike the pubs of today, the primary purpose of an alehouse in this period was not to provide a location for recreational drinking. Rather, it had two main functions: one was to sell ale to local people who did not have the means to brew their own at home. Ale (usually weaker than our modern equivalent) was an important part of the daily diet and a key source of calories and nutrients, and was consumed with all meals by men, women and children. In this sense the alehouse was meant to serve more as an off-license. In practice, of course, many allowed drinking on site and they did become sites for recreational drinking and drunkenness, but this was forbidden in legislation.

Their other (legitimate) purpose was to provide lodging to travellers. As such they were invariably situated on main roads, something we can see in another painting in this exhibition, Meindert Hobbema’s ‘A Wooded Landscape’. It looks like a drinking house on the left, identifiable by its ‘ale-post’, the ancestor of the pub sign, protruding into the road to show that ale was available.

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permissions (YORAG2005.608)

Thanks to York Art Gallery for permissions (YORAG2005.608)

With this is mind another reading of this tavern scene is possible. What we have is not a scene of drunken debauchery, but a party of travellers who have spent the night asleep on the alebench (alehouse accommodation was rarely plush, and often involved simply sleeping on a bench or sharing a bed with landlord and landlady!) The man with his back to us is still rousing himself from sleep. The standing character is not yet fully dressed, but is nonetheless taking his ‘morning draught’ of ale, the seventeenth-century equivalent of that first cup of coffee. What we might be seeing is the depiction of a morning routine after an overnight stay at the tavern, a far from untypical experience in an age when the lower orders did most of their travelling on foot, and only limited distances could be covered in a day.

We are also struck, of course, by the act of reading taking place at the centre of the scene. It is intriguing, given the statistics of female literacy, that it is the female character doing the reading. What is she reading? Could it be a broadside ballad? These were songs printed on a single (sometimes folded) sheet of paper that were sold cheaply—usually for a penny, the same price as a pint of ale—and often took the form of drinking songs to be sung in alehouses, or even pasted up on their walls. Is that one pasted up in the alcove on the back wall? Perhaps one discarded on the floor in the fore ground to the right? These drinking songs have received a lot of recent attention from social historians, who have mined them for insights they may offer into seventeenth-century tavern culture. Is this a depiction of one being performed? Is the standing male responding to a call that was common in these songs to raise a toast to his companions, or to raise a loyal toast to the King, another familiar feature of these songs?

Arguably the scene is too sedate to be a raucous rendition of a drinking song. Another interpretation may be that the reader is relaying the latest news from a printed newsheet—possibly news of a successful sea battle that is spurring the toast of her companion, or even a satirical political broadside that is the root of his mirth. Both of these were common subjects for cheap printed wares that circulated in taverns. Indeed, the discussion of news and politics in taverns was common and widespread long before the emergence of the coffeehouse in both England and the Netherlands from the mid-seventeenth century, the drinking establishment which is more commonly associated with a public thirst for news and politics. Is Bega looking to capture the fact that the politics of ‘great men’ were not as detached from the world of everyday tavern culture as historians have often thought?

It is, of course, beyond us to know for sure what Bega wanted us to take from his tavern scene, and at best it remains a somewhat indirect form of evidence of everyday life in the past for the social historian. That said, there are a number of aspects of his scene—the tavern as a place of lodging, the circulation of printed ware in these locations—that accord with the evidence of tavern culture in the seventeenth century that social historians have garnered from other sources. It reinforces our sense that tavern culture was about more than mindless drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, providing vital services and a venue for the dissemination and discussion of the issues of the day. Given these areas of overlap between Bega’s scene and what we can recover from other sources there may well be cause for optimism for social historians that such paintings can be a reliable guide to everyday life in the past. Or at the least, another component of our omnivorous diet of sources.