‘O ye soverens that sytt and ye brothern that stonde ryght uppe’ and ‘ffrom ye highest vnto ye lowest degree’: Performative Peacemaking in Cambridgeshire during the Wars of the Roses

In 1479 John Morton (c1410–1500), the Oxford-educated doctor of civil law, was installed as bishop of Ely. The 1470s marked a period of relative and long-absent peace in the realm, following twenty-four years of the civil war now known as the Wars of the Roses. The brief readeption of Henry VI in 1470–1 ended with the death of the Lancastrian king, and Edward IV returned to the throne for twelve years of unchallenged rule.

Included as an appendix to Cambridgeshire is a copy of the menu for Morton’s installation feast, found in an untitled incunabulum (STC: 782) published in Antwerp in 1503. Here, along with the dishes served, are other often-overlooked and obscure elements of medieval feasts: the menu includes descriptions of so-called ‘subtleties,’ models of animals, buildings, or other things, which are presented to the guests with an accompanying verse. The last stanza, introducing the sixth and final subtlety (the Cathedral Church of Ely, in brass), which welcomes the guests, refers to those ‘ffrom ye highest vnto ye lowest degree,’ and is especially interesting to me.

Service at the Installation of John Morton, Bishop of Ely (STC: 782; EEBO).

After the upheaval earlier in the decade it is perhaps surprising that Edward would support Morton as bishop. Morton had old ties to Lancastrian factions,and had acted as keeper of the privy seal under Henry VI. He was excluded from the general pardon of Lancastrians in 1461 and pardoned only in 1471, after a period of exile on the Continent. Soon after the pardon, nonetheless, Edward named Morton master of the rolls (1472–9), ambassador to France (1477) and, finally, bishop of Ely (1479). Royal support for Morton extended into the Tudor reign, with Henry VII seeing Morton’s elevation to archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 and naming him lord chancellor in 1487.

Anne Brannen, who first presented a transcription and analysis of the menu, notes that the guest list ‘shows the same careful planning exhibited by other aspects of the feast,’ bringing together former adversaries.[1] The guests included both churchmen and nobles, as well as Yorkists such as Sir Thomas Howard (a member of the king’s household), Sir John Donne, and Sir Robert Chamberlain, but also Sir William Brandon, banner bearer to Henry VI, and John Fortescu, a Lancastrian pardoned with Morton. Further, the food choices provide three courses of both meat and fish dishes to respect the lay and ecclesiastical guests, but transition slowly from almost wholly meat (secular) to fish (spiritual). Similarly, six subtleties are presented, two for each course, reflecting a parallel transition. Brannen has already discussed this aspect of the feast, so I will note only the endpoints here: the first subtlety is a white lion, an emblem from Edward IV’s coat of arms, and the accompanying poem references ‘the habundant grace/ Of king Edward in al his actes wise.’ The sixth subtlety is the church itself, in brass, accompanied by a poem to welcome all of high and low degree therein, and enjuring them to yield to God. As Brannen notes, the feast — food, subtleties, poems, and even the guests — work together to produce a symbolic performance and enactment of ‘a well-knit society, well-governed and impervious to, though aware of the possibilities of, rebellion.’[2] The message enacted is this: turn away from the corrupting influence of the world, reject sin, seek reward through both secular and spiritual loyalty and steadfastness.

This was not the first time that public performance was used in East Anglia during the civil wars to present such a message. The Macro Manuscript (Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.354) contains two earlier examples of the same: Wisdom and Mankind. Both poems were copied by a monk — likely Thomas Hyngham of Bury St Edmunds, East Anglia’s other preeminent abbey and shrine — within a decade of each other: Wisdom in the early 1460s and Mankind in the early 1470s. Mankind’s transcription took place at a date close to its first performance, during Shrovetide in 1471 at either Bishop’s Lynn or Cambridge. Wisdom’s performance date and location have yet to be discovered, but the play was at least copied during the first decade of Edward IV’s rule. Gail McMurray Gibson has argued that ‘[t]here is little wonder that fifteenth-century texts seem obsessed with the wheel of fortune and the mutability of man—or that a play such as Wisdom would contrast the chaos and turbulence of worldly kingdoms with the serenity of the enthroned, contemplative Wisdom who is Christ.’[3]

Internal evidence suggests an audience that is likely wealthy, educated, and theologically-minded, for whom this play likely serves two functions. The first is to advise any Christian to turn away from the corrupting influence of the world, to reject new or presently ubiquitous forms of sin such as maintenance, and perennial sins such as lechery. The second, as John Marshall notes most explicitly, is to present to an East Anglian audience a series of symbols, carefully described in the stage and costume directions, that would bear special and particular reference to William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk.[4] William, acting in a number of administrative roles, supported Henry VI’s kingship while allowing a number of lawless retainers to trouble Suffolk. Finally, despite Henry’s efforts to protect him through banishment, he was executed in 1450. William’s son John, eight at the time of his father’s death, realigned his house with York in 1458 by marrying Edward IV’s sister Elizabeth. Although many of the heraldic images in Wisdom could be seen to apply to John as easily as his father, both John’s youth and some of the more specific critiques of maintenance and perjury apply more directly to William and his wife Alice, who retained a large degree of influence over John into the early 1460s. As such, Wisdom can be read as a play that is highly critical of maintenance and abuses of local authority under William, operating under the weak rule of Henry VI.

Wisdom, Washington DC, Folger MS V.a.354, f. 99r. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection 31516. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Mankind, Washington DC, Folger MS V.a.354, f. 122r. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection 31540. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The copying of Mankind in the same hand adds strength to this argument. Mankind was, as I have argued elsewhere in agreement with Marshall, very likely performed or composed in 1470–1, during the time of the Lancastrian readeption, which saw the dismissal of Yorkist sympathizers in East Anglia from positions of local authority.[5] Mankind lacks stage directions; lines 500–15, however, present the worldly vices (or worldlings) of New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought sent out either to trouble or avoid a number of real East Anglian individuals. The three individuals to be avoided are, notably, the only ones on the list that appear in records of appointments to local commissions during the first decade of Edward IV’s reign.

Likely performance spaces for these plays are difficult to determine. Since both seem to support Yorkist rule, the abbey at Bury St Edmunds might seem at first an unlikely option. During the administration of Abbot Curteys (1429–46), William de la Pole and his wife were admitted to the chapter fraternity of the abbey, alongside Henry VI. Curteys referred to Suffolk as his ‘grete lord.’ The abbey also enjoyed considerable royal favour under the early reign of Henry VI. As a boy of twelve, Henry spent a number of months in residence at the abbey, from Christmas to Easter 1433/4, and visited again in 1436, 1446, and 1448. John Lydgate, famous Bury resident, composed the Life of St Edmund specifically to honour Henry for his first visit.

The abbey’s Lancastrian sympathies may not, however, have lasted long after Edward’s rise to power. The years 1460 to 1462 were marked by the firm if not brutal elimination of Lancastrian supporters. both in court and in the provinces: 1462 alone saw the arrest of six and the execution of five Lancastrian leaders and long-time patrons of Bury. The abbot and the convent as a whole were charged with suspected treason. The one Lancastrian leader not executed, John Clopton, also a lay brother of the abbey, returned home and financed ‘the rebuilding of the spectacular parish church at Long Melford in which his stained glass portrait still survives — conspicuously decorated with Edward IV’s Yorkist white roses.’[6] Similarly, in a later manuscript of Lydgate’s Life of St Edmund the references to Henry’s 1433/4 visit are removed. It is not then unreasonable to assume that a public performance critical of a weak king with lawless favourites might suit a new Yorkist leaning within the abbey. It is in this context that Gibson suggests Edward IV’s 1469 visitation to the abbey as a potential performance date.

Wisdom and Mankind might seem two very different sorts of plays, performed by different casts, and presumably presented to very different audiences. While the arguments for Mankind’s creation as a travelling play are feasible in consideration of its small cast size and apparent (but likely tongue-in-cheek) request for payment, the Latinate humour and Latin quotations may also gesture to an educated audience such as Bury might have. This position, however, is highly conjectural; equally strong arguments support a Cambridgeshire performance, for which there are no records.

The two plays are nonetheless still linked together in their shared political themes. That both plays are at the least closely affiliated with Bury St Edmunds presents us with a number of intriguing hypotheses. The Abbey at Bury St Edmunds was, despite its long institutional memory, nonetheless sensitive to contemporary political demands. Shown a large degree of royal favour under Henry VI and closely allied with William de la Pole through the 1430s and 1440s, it underwent hasty but profound political realignment in the first decade of Yorkist rule, and seemed most importantly to maintain that loyalty during the readeption. The reasons for this realignment can of course be attributed to Edward’s rigorous rooting out of Lancastrian sympathizers in East Anglia, but may also have been an effect of Edward’s favour shown to those who accepted the new way of things.

It is then all the more interesting and perhaps compelling to look at Morton’s installation feast in a larger East Anglian context. A region marked by a wealthy and well-educated gentry and long-standing powerful institutions such as Bury St Edmunds, the bishopric of Ely, and the university, offers a population ready to engage with and critique such political issues and their theological implications. We see in all three performance documents a manifest resistance to instability of the Wars of the Roses, a direct, active, political, and spiritual response to the precarity and vexations of the time, perhaps motivated by a lingering fear that such upheavals might come again.

Header: Wisdom, Washington DC, Folger MS V.a.354, f. 99r. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection 31516. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

[1] Anne Brannen, ‘Intricate Subtleties: Entertainment at Bishop Morton’s Installation Feast,’ REED Newsletter 22.2 (1997), 5. https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/reed/article/view/10000.

[2] Brannen, ‘Intricate Subtleties,’ p 3.

[3] Gail McMurray Gibson, ‘The Play of “Wisdom” and the Abbey of St. Edmund,’ Comparative Drama 19.2 (Summer 1985), 131.

[4] John Marshall, ‘”Fortune in the Worldys Worschyppe”: The Satirising of the Suffolks in Wisdom,’ Medieval English Theatre 14 (1992), 37–66.

[5] John A. Geck, ‘”On Yestern Day, in Feverere, the Yere Passeth Fully”: On the Dating and Prosopography of Mankind,’ Early Theatre 12.2 (2009), 33–56, https://earlytheatre.org/earlytheatre/article/view/816/879; John Marshall, ‘”O ye Souerens that Sytt and ye Brothern that stonde ryght wppe”: Addressing the Audience of Mankind,’ European Medieval Drama 1 (1997), 105–119.

[6] Gibson, ‘Play of “Wisdom”,’ p 129.

‘A great prophanacion made both of day & place’: Animal Cruelty as Performance?

CW: The following post discusses animal cruelty & death (cat)

In preparing the REED: Cambridgeshire records, I was drawn to an event that demanded explanation beyond what the record provided. The diocesan court proceedings for 10 April 1639 list five men, William Smith, William Wade, Thomas Barkinn, Bartholomew Scott, and a ‘Reynolds,’ a servant of Thomas Draper, who tortured a cat, presumably to death, on New Year’s Day:

Willelmus Wade: [it is reported against him thus] that he was present and an Actor on Newyeares day att ye tyme of divine seruice in the Quire when a great noise & disturbance was made neere the Quire of the Cathedrall Church of Ely by the Roasting of a Catt tyed to a spitt by one William Smith & there a fire made about it. whereby much people were gathered together & a great prophanacion made both of day & place. [He appeared and confesses] that [he did so] at ye common greene where sports use to be the in the time of diuine service at Night.

The likeliest place for this event seems to be what is now called ‘Palace Green,’ mentioned in VCH: Cambridgeshire in respect to the location of the Bishop’s Palace (now the King’s School Ely).[1] ‘The Park,’ the open space between Ely Cathedral and Cherry Hill, where Ely Castle once stood, is perhaps another possibility.

Although the record is left unfinished, we know that all five men confessed and were ordered to do penance before the minister, the churchwardens, and three parishioners. They faced no charges, it would seem, for animal cruelty. The crimes for which the men were found guilty were, as Bruce Thomas Boehrer notes, ‘examples of vandalism and profanation rather than cruelty.’[2] Boehrer connects the example of William Smith and company to another case, five years later, in which ‘the parliamentary troopers who overran Lichfield Close used hounds to hunt cats through the cathedral on successive days,’ a means to register Puritan contempt for the spiritual practices associated with high-church Anglicanism.’[3]

In my discussion of performance traditions in the Cambridgeshire records, I tentatively suggest that this act of cat immolation could be a demonstration of anti-Catholic sentiment associated with a New Year’s celebration. It may well also, however, be a Puritan critique of the services held at Ely. Or it may be entirely unconnected to religious sentiment. It may be a seasonal festivity, a dramatic act, or a case of animal cruelty with no deeper meaning, all possibilities with historical attestation. For remainder of this discussion, I would like to consider some of these further possibilities and the contexts in which they appear.

Cat Immolation as Puritan Critique of High-Church Anglicanism

In 1639, the bishop of Ely was the newly-raised Matthew Wren, a notorious anti-Puritan and anti-Calvinist who appears elsewhere in the records (see especially his 1638 Visitation Articles and the 1640 Petition against Bishop Wren), and whose religious and political positions led to Parliamentary censure and imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1642.[4]

Wren was not the first bishop of Ely to harry Cambridgeshire’s Puritans and Calvinists. Both John Buckeridge (c 1562–1631), bishop of Ely from 1628 to his death, and his successor, Francis White (1563/4–1638), were adherents of a distinctly moderate Protestantism, specifically the English Arminianism of the ‘Durham Circle’ under Richard Neile, bishop of Durham.[5]

Like Wren, Francis White was closely tied to William Laud, whose ‘chief target[s]’ were ‘puritan nonconformists,’ and whose ‘ecclesiastical policy’ relied on ‘ceremonial conformity.’[6] Indeed, White even dedicated his A treatise of the Sabbath-day. Containing, a defence of the orthodoxall doctrine of the Church of England, against sabbatarian-novelty (1635) to Laud.[7] Further, White had died February 1638, making New Year’s Day (1 January) 1639 a significant moment to mark out or protest ‘a new reformation.’[8] Thus it could be argued that William Smith and the rest of the accused were deliberately profaning the church service in support of Puritanism. That said, while the court proceedings do refer to the act as ‘a prophanacion,’ noise and disturbance seem here to be the primary concern, aligning the crime more with conventional charges of public disturbance, such as singing, dancing, or playing games during the time of service.

Cat Immolation as Seasonal Festivity

Robert Darnton and Bruce Boehrer each observe that both continental Catholics and English Protestants could engage in cat torture or cat burning as a season festivity.[9] In France this practice may have been tied either to Lent or Midsummer celebrations, although Boehrer also notes that ‘cats were tortured throughout early modern Europe on numerous occasions that do not bear any clear relation to seasonal holidays,’ and cites the ‘nonseasonal practice of whipping a cat to death [which] proved lastingly popular in some parts of the realm.’[10] Boehrer also points out that cat immolation seems not to have been a part of English Midsummer festivals, but that the practice may have featured more regularly from the early 1600s in the carnivalesque festivals of Bonfire Night (5 November) and Elizabeth Day (17 November), where the Pope was often burned in effigy. There seems to be no evidence, however, for a similar form of celebration at the new year.

Cat Immolation as an Element of Dramatic Performance

Boehrer’s work identifies a few dramatic and literary presentations of cruelty towards cats during our period. Almost a century before the crime at Ely, Gammer Gurton’s Needle, the famed student play of Christ’s College, Cambridge, featured Gib (perhaps played by the college cat), ‘who is held aloft—no doubt squirming—for a full scene while the bumpkin Hodge, convinced that Gib has swallowed the play’s lost needle, first threatens to kill her and then prepares to probe the animal’s rectum.’[11] As the college cat, Gib would have been kept to chase away or kill vermin, and would not have been seen as a pet. Inasmuch as ‘Gib figures as a major source of disorder,’ the cat did not in fact eat the needle, and is certainly undeserving of Hodge’s curse: ‘Now a vengeance on Gib light, on Gib and Gib’s mother, / And all the generation of cats both far and near!’ (Gammer Gurton’s Needle, I.5, ll 46–78).

A ryght pithy, pleasaunt and merie comedie: intytuled Gammer gurtons nedle played on stage, not longe a go in Christes Colledge in Cambridge (London, 1575). Title-page.

William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1570), though it is long prose rather than a dramatic work, contains a description of a cat being placed on a spit much like the unfortunate cat at Ely in 1639. Here, the narrator writes on the ‘loue and fellowship and a desire to saue their kinde is amang Cats’:

For there was one that hired a friend of mine in pastime to roste a Cat aliue, and promised him for his labor twenty shillings, my friend to be sure; caused a cooper to fasten him into a hogshead, in which he turned a spit, whereupon was a quick Cat, but ere he had turned a while; whether it was the smel of the Cats wol that singed, or else her cry that called them: I cannot tell, but there came such a sorte of Cats that if I and other hardy men (which were well scrat for our labor) had not behaued us the better: the hogshead, as fast as it was hooped, could not have kept my cousin from them.[12]

William Baldwin. A maruelous hystory intitulede, beware the cat Conteyning diuers wounderfull and incredible matters. Very pleasant and mery to read (London, 1570; STC 1244). Title-page.

As Boehrer points out, regardless of the point of the anecdote, ‘the reference to cat roasting as “pastime”—like playing the piano or a game of cards—can be chilling to twenty-first-century ears, and the sum of twenty shillings paid for the entertainment—four crowns or two angels or a pound sterling—can seem alarmingly steep.’[13]

While there is certainly contemporary evidence for cat immolation as sport or pastime, and while a cat does feature prominently in at least one play from the period, there is no evidence to suggest that the 1639 cat burning was meant to serve such a purpose.

Cat Immolation as Animal Cruelty

Regardless of motive, the act performed by Smith and his companions was a form of a casual cruelty that has become considerably rarer as cats have come to be seen as pets. While the forms of cat torture discussed above should engender disgust, we should also remember that the human relationship with cats was in the 1600s not as affectionate as it can be today. As Keith Thomas observes, although dogs could be ‘treated with much indulgence’ in the period, cats retained a more distant symbiotic relationship for longer: they were ‘kept in houses [or institutions] for protection against rats and mice,’ and ‘only occasionally do they appear as companions and objects of affection.’[14] While casual demonstrations of animal cruelty continued into the 1700s, the 1600s also marked a time when attitudes were changing and the affectionate treatment of cats, and accepting them as household pets, was on the rise.

John A. Geck is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. His research focuses on transmissions of high and low culture in later medieval and early modern England, including romance, hagiography, and drama. He is the editor of REED Cambridgeshire.

Header: William Topsell. ‘The historie of foure-footed beastes’ (London, 1607; STC 24123), p 103. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection, image 78052. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

[1] ‘The BISHOP’S PALACE stands quite close to the west end of the cathedral, from which it is separated by the street called the Gallery, and on the south side of what was the village green of the original settlement at Ely.’ (T.D. Atkinson, Ethel M. Hampson, E.T. Long, C.A.F. Meekings, Edward Miller, H.B. Wells and G.M.G. Woodgate, ‘City of Ely: Introduction’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, ed R.B. Pugh (London, 2002), pp 28–33. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp28-33 [accessed 20 October 2022].)

[2] Bruce Thomas Boehrer, Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature (Philadelphia, 2010), 117, citing Katherine M. Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield (Ann Arbor, 1998), 39.

[3] Boehrer, Animal Characters, p 117.

[4] Nicholas W.S. Cranfield, ‘Wren, Matthew (1585–1667), bishop of Ely,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022.

[5] P.E. McCullough, ‘Buckeridge, John (d. 1631), bishop of Ely,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022; Timothy Wadkins, ‘White, Francis (1563/4–1638), bishop of Ely,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022; Timothy H. Wadkins, ‘The Percy-“Fisher” Controversies and the Ecclesiastical Politics of Jacobean Anti-Catholicism, 1622–1625,’ Church History 57.2 (1988): 153–69.

[6] Wadkins, ‘White, Francis,’ ODNB, accessed 19 October 2022

[7] STC 25384.5.

[8] Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford, 2013), 459, citing Calvinist theologian Daniel Featley.

[9] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes In French Cultural History (New York, 2009).

[10] Darnton, Great Cat Massacre, pp 83–5; Boehrer, Animal Characters, pp 111, 113.

[11] Boehrer, Animal Characters, p 107.

[12] William Baldwin, A maruelous hystory intitulede, beware the cat conteyning diuers wounderfull and incredible matters. very pleasant and mery to read [Beware the cat] (London, 1584) (STC1244), 19-20.

[13] Boehrer, Animal Characters, p 125.

[14] Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London: Penguin Books, 1984), 49.

‘Immodestly in Mans Apparrell’: Queer Possibility and Tagging Gender in the Cambridgeshire Records

REED’s Cambridgeshire records present various instances of potentially queer gender performance and dress. Each example provides a window into examining early modern gender, as well as a case studies for REED to explore tagging criteria for gender in its online editions.

In a record from the diocesan court in 1602, Anne Petigall is ‘vehemently suspected for an incontinent liuer, who did goe vpon a time immodestly in mans Apparrell.‘  Petigall confesses to wearing men’s clothing, but denies any ‘incontinence,’ or implied sexual misconduct.  Petigall’s trial is characteristic of many such court proceedings, where the conflation of these two charges – dressing in men’s clothing and sexual liberality – is common. Indeed, this conflation is the caustic refrain of Hic Mulier, a seventeenth-century treaty which argues that masculine-expressing AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals ‘thrust virtue out of doors, and giue a shamelesse libertie to euery loose passion.’[1]

Hic mulier, or, The man-woman : being a medicine to cure the coltish disease of the staggers in the masculine-feminines of our times : exprest in a briefe declamation (London, 1620; STC 13374). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection.

Similar charges appear in a document from 1609, in which the dean of Ely gives his reasons for firing Headmaster Pamplyn. These include complaints about Pamplyn’s daughter:

She beinge Suspected to be of very loose behaviour, as the Carriage of her Selfe did pertely shewe, for She would not Stick to put one boyes apparell, & lett boyes putt one hers, & Com into the Schoole, in his Absence & daunce amongeste the boyes. And moreover where their Should be a teachinge Schoole in the day tyme for the boyes, by her meanes it was made a dauncinge Schoole at xij a Clock in the Night, & Sometimes all the Night longe. Whither did resorte (& by her meanes sometimes were Called) Mennes Wives, Womens husbands, Mennes, seruaunts & Children to be disordered.

This complaint (though later redacted by the dean) shows gender play in a lived context outside of a courtroom: Anna Pamplyn is seen here wearing ‘boys’’ clothes, dancing, teaching, and causing joyful disorder.

In studying the various iterations of such charges throughout the Cambridgeshire records, I feel particularly intrigued by a set of diocesan court documents from 1599, which present the following charge:

Presentatur Iohanne Biggs singlewoman for that lately she did weare mans apparell, and also in time of harvest laste in vilde manner turned vp her cloathes & shewed those partes that should be hidden, willinge the company to loke what a clocke it was if they had any skill of the Dyall.

The court’s language simultaneously rejects and reaffirms the gender fluidity and sexual freedom at stake in the charge against Bigges, an ambiguity apparent in the record’s clock metaphor.

In some contemporary sources, ‘reading the clock’ meant reading sexual promiscuity into feminine-coded bodies, as the courtroom does here. In Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters, Master Penitent Brothel says that ‘woman’ will ‘strike to ten when they should stop at one’[2]; here, the body’s clock reveals how many lovers it has taken.[3]  In Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, conversely, Moll Cutpurse – famous for wearing masculine apparel – uses the clock/body metaphor to proclaim a lack of sexual interest by saying, ‘I keep my legs together; a watch, what’s o’clock here.’ Because Moll’s legs are together, she says that her body’s dial reads ‘between one and two.’[4] Moll reclaims the clock, and her sexual desires.[5] To complicate the metaphor further, the hand of a clock, and reading it through a pair of trousers, was a common masculine-coded sexual metaphor for an erection.[6] Thus, though the clock metaphor seeks to denounce Biggs’s masculine attire, it partially reaffirms the masculine identity that such attire assumes. Even as the trial seeks to deny Joan’s masculinity and sexual freedom, the very language of the trial inadvertently relents to Biggs’s ability to express gender and sexual interest in queer ways.

Moll Cutpurse (Mary Frith) standing full-lenght facing front, carrying a sword and smoking a pipe; frontispiece to “The Roaring Girl” by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. Woodcut © The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

As REED continues publishing records online, these three documents ask an important question of historians and editors: how should we tag the gender of Petigall, Pamplyn, and Biggs?  Gender is one of the primary tags for ‘person’ entities within humanities coding standards (TEI).  In REED records, each ‘person’ is given an online ‘entity’ that allows users to see the class, gender, and dates associated with them. Tagging gender has historically been important to various gendered projects; in REED, for example, gendered tagging can help scholars identify understudied theatrical contributors from historically marginalized genders. But these three instances call attention to the implicit problem with gendered tagging: it is impossible to ascertain the gender of any of these three figures. All three could be, in equal measure, trans men, cis women who enjoy wearing trousers, or individuals who are genderfluid or nonbinary.

TEI has been critiqued for its need to concretely categorize gender, which leaves out the inherent fluidity of lived gender.[7] This issue can be even more difficult for historical gendered experiences, which are already difficult to categorize. Moreover, the act of tagging gender imposes a reading of bodies and identities without their input, and therefore can be violent and reductive, especially in cases like these, where individuals seek a ‘queer turn’ from cisgendered gender performance.[8]

Ultimately, we have tagged all three with multiple genders for now: ‘Gender Male,’ ‘Gender Female,’ and ‘Gender Unknown.’ We have started to open up queer possibilities of gender in each case, so that users can explore multiple interpretations of the records, and it is my hope that future iterations of our tagging label system will also include further, less binary gender categories we can add to these tagging clusters.  

Jenna McKellips (she/her) is a digital indexer for REED and a PhD Candidate at the Department of English, University of Toronto.  Her research focuses on queer virginities, asexualities, and genders in the context of late medieval English drama.

Header: Detail, Mal Cut Purse. 1662 Etching and engraving © The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

[1] Hic mulier: or, the man-woman and Haec-vir: or, the womanish-man (Exeter, 1973), https://archive.org/details/hicmulierormanwo00exetuoft/page/14/mode/2up, 14.

[2] Thomas Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters; Michaelmas Term; A Trick to Catch the Old One; No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s, ed. Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and Martin Wiggins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 4.1.18-24.

[3] Deann Valrae Armstrong, ‘”Strange Times”‘: English Renaissance Literature and the Erotics of the Clock,” PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 2018, 51.

[4] Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girle OR Moll Cut-Purse (Washington, DC, nd), accessed September 15, 2022. https://emed.folger.edu/sites/default/files/folger_encodings/pdf/EMED-Roaring-orig-3.pdf, wln 1966-7, 1969.

[5] I cautiously chose to use ‘her’ pronouns here because the play does, although I simultaneously acknowledge that it is problematic and difficult to excavate historical pronouns without input from the person in question.

[6] Gordon Williams, Shakespeare’s Sexual Language: A Glossary (London, 2006), 150.

[7] Pamela L. Caughie, Emily Datskou, and Rebecca Parker. ‘Storm Clouds on the Horizon: Feminist Ontologies and the Problem of Gender,’ Feminist Modernist Studies 1.3 (2018): 6-7, 10.

[8] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, and Others (Durham, NC, 2006), 13.