Devotion & Morality: “Take Heed’s a Faire Thing”

by Gerald Egan (2007)

The phrase sounds strange and unfamiliar to twenty-first century speakers of English: “take heed’s a faire thing.” It is the refrain to the 1630 ballad “Good Admonition” (1.50-51, EBBA 20239), one of 110 ballads that Pepys placed in the “Devotion & Morality” category in his ballad collection. In its seventeenth-century context, a faire thing is a good and desirable thing; to take heed is to pay careful attention. So, take heed’s a faire thing is a benign warning, and the title “Good Admonition” describes not only what the ballad is about but what it hopes to accomplish: it would be a good thing for you, the listener, to stop and attend to this song:

To all christian people,
      this ditty belongs.
That have the true sense,
      of their ears, eyes, and tongues:
If well they doe keepe it
      t’will profit them bring
I give but this Item:
      take heed’s a faire thing.

The “Good Admonition” goes on to provide a series of non-controversial moral lessons: one should serve God, obey one’s parents, be truthful, temperate, and charitable, abjure vainglory, pride, and covetousness, and avoid harlots, dice, and lewd gaming. In its address to “all christian people,” the ballad seems, perhaps calculatedly, to ignore the complex religious factionalism of London and Britain in the 1620s and 1630s. A century had passed since Henry VIII had broken with Rome, and political and social life were informed by what some historians call the Post-Reformation, “the period and the process by which people moulded the messages of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.”1 Tessa Watt describes this time as one in which “a dialogue between Protestant norms and traditional practices” resulted in a “patchwork of beliefs [that] may be described as distinctively ‘post-Reformation.’”2 Similarly, John Spurr points to “the sheer number of different versions of belief, each one of them an idiosyncratic, provisional, personal ‘take’ on religion” in seventeenth-century England.3 There was conflict between these factions, and issues of religion were issues of state and sometimes matters of life and death. At the time that “Good Admonition” was published in 1630, Anglicans, Puritans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and followers of Bishop William Laud contended openly and covertly for power in Parliament and the court of Charles I.

Pepys gave the “Devotion & Morality” ballads pride of place, putting them first in his collection. Volume 1 contains twenty three “Devotion & Morality” ballads, most of them published between 1620 and 1630. Volume 2 includes eighty-seven “Devotion & Morality” ballads, most published between 1665 and 1690. The audience for a ballad like “Good Admonition” would not have understood it as part of a distinctly devotional category of entertainment, and we should remember that, like all of Pepys’s categories, “Devotion & Morality” is a purely intellectual construct, a place he designated for the ballads that he described as “Scripture-Storys, Examples of Virtue & Vice, Death-Bed-Repentances etc., Godly Lessons General, Raillery against the Pope & Popery, etc.” For most seventeenth-century readers of ballads—whether members of the Church of England, dissidents, separatists, or Roman Catholics—religious devotion and morality were not intellectual categories but facts of everyday life, forces that profoundly influenced family, social, and sexual relationships, as well as work and economic choices. The admonition to take heed—the doomsday warning that appears repeatedly in the “Devotion & Morality” ballads—acknowledges the ever-present conflict between the world and the Kingdom of God: all is vanity, these ballads tell their listeners, the world is a minefield of snares and temptations, and only death and God’s judgment are inevitable. And yet the world is implacably there. God’s word reveals itself through narratives of events that occur in the world, and such narratives include popular ballads. Watt writes that the godly ballad “performed the same function as a visual memento mori. To keep the thought of death constantly in mind was the key to living virtuously in this life and preparing properly for the life-to-come.”4 In its sly marketing appeal “to all christians,” “Good Admonition” embodies and enacts the conflict between flesh and spirit: it is at once a timeless, godly lesson and a worldly, commercial object, a “new” story intended for sale to the widest possible audience.

Among the first of the “Devotion & Morality” ballads in Volume 1 is the scripture story of “The historie of the Prophet Jonas” (1.28-29, EBBA 20132), who for his hubris and disobedience to God is cast into the sea and swallowed by a whale. Published in 1620, the ballad is also the tale of the sinful city of Nineveh which God, through his prophet Jonah, warns to repent of its sins and change its ways. The godly lesson of the ballad is expressed in its refrain, which in its own way recapitulates the notion that to take heed of God’s judgment is a good thing: “Sinne is the cause of great sorrow and care / But God by repentance his vengeance does spare.” “Devotion & Morality” in Volume 1 closes with a pair of ballads overtly engaged in the contemporary events of the early seventeenth century, the anti-popery ballads, “A Scourge for the Pope” (1.60-61, EBBA 20264) and “A New-Yeeres-Gifte for the Pope” (1.62, EBBA 20039), published in 1624. Hyder Rollins speculates that both ballads appear “perhaps after May 6, 1624, when James I issues his last proclamation against Jesuits and seminary priests” (Garland, 170). The Jesuits had, since the 1580s, formed the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation, entering England from the Continent in an attempt to reverse the tide of Protestantism and win back converts to Rome. “A Scourge for the Pope” is the first known composition of the well-known ballad author Martin Parker, and it celebrates James’s banishment of the Jesuits from England: “Where are the Jesuites, / That late were so arrogant, / . . . They are best be packing, / Their power is slacking” (17-26). Each stanza ends with a reference to Romish evil, the hated Pope to whom the Jesuits must now flee. The deliverance of “famous Brittany” from “Popish Actions” may be temporary, however, and in his final stanza Parker calls upon his audience to offer supplication to God that James and Prince Charles (“our second hope”) might have “the strength to subdue, / Antichrist and his crue” (158-9). One senses in these words a fear that the Jesuits might not leave England, that the Pope remains a threat to future kings and their people. The Protestant nation must, it seems, take heed.

The “Devotion & Morality” ballads in Volume 2 arise from a different England. Although many of the Volume 2 ballads are undated, we know from the imprints that the great majority were published after the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. The interval between the “Devotion & Morality” ballads of Volume 1 and those of Volume 2 is thus one of the most traumatic periods in England’s history, the interregnum (the period between kings) of the 1640s and 1650s. During these decades England endured civil war, the trial and execution of Charles I, and the establishment of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Although the Restoration brought in a period of relative political and religious stability, the turmoil of the 1650s remained a powerful memory. “England’s New Bell-Man” (2.61, EBBA 20685), the publication of which can be dated after 1693, revives the by-now ancient figure of the bell-man—a stock character of sixteenth-century “godly print”5 —in order to revisit the period forty years earlier that followed the Civil War and the execution of Charles I. The ballad describes the solar eclipse of 1652 as an apocalyptic portent of Judgment day:

When fearful burning fire,
      shall waste both Sea and Land; . . . .

The Beasts in Pastures feeding,
      still strain forth grevious cries.

The Skies shall flame with fire,
      the Earth shall burn so clear.

“England’s New Bell-Man,” circa 1694, “predicts” the apocalyptic events of 1654-56—events that never occurred. Warnings of apocalypse are timeless, however, and the memories of regicide and civil war even 40 years later were terrifying enough to exert a monitory power over the reader, a warning to take heed and “Repent therefore O England, the day that draweth near.”

Other Restoration-era “Devotion & Morality” ballads evince a fascination for the riches and temptations of the contemporary “world,” an imaginary space that for late seventeenth-century ballad writers and their audiences was most usually London. In “The Extravagant Youth” (2.92, EBBA 20715) the “nobly born” youth of the title laments his predicament: having given himself over “to every vice; / As Courting and sporting with Cards and dice,” he is now, as the woodcut illustration shows, stuck in “the Horn.” Although the ballad in its closing lines explains that the Horn is a metaphor for debtor’s prison, it also evokes the horn of plenty, the sensory pleasures that spill from the cornucopia. The Horn is an image of Mammon, the world of avarice and riches, and it is the youth’s own physical grossness, the stoutness that has resulted from his greedy, sensual life, that has mired him in it. For all of its comicality, the ballad is a moral tale, a lesson that one should take heed to avoid the world’s temptations. Another Restoration-era ballad, “Prides Fall” (2.66-67, EBBA 20691), also cautions against the temptations of worldliness and riches, but with a particular emphasis on gender and class. “Prides Fall” is an admonition to “Englands fair dainty Dames” who, as the ballad tells us, excel in pride and in that most feminine of failings, wantonness. The narrator’s sin of pride is made more grievous, however, by her social position as a “Merchant’s wife,” a fact that is repeated several times in the ballad. She enjoys “Coaches richly wrought, / and deckt with pearl and gold”; the very earth she deems “too base, / [for her] feet to tread upon”; and her “blooming Crimson Cheeks, / [feel] neither Wind nor Sun.” She lives and acts like “a Royal Queen” when in fact she is only a member of the unlanded, untitled mercantile class, a group growing in prosperity and visibility in Restoration London. As punishment for her pride and wantonness, the merchant’s wife gives birth to a two-headed monstrosity, an emblem of fashion and pride that holds a mirror in one hand and a scourge in the other. Like the ballad of “The Extravagant Youth,” “Prides Fall” is a cautionary tale, a godly lesson sardonically addressed to English “dames,” those untitled women who should take heed to “Let not pride be your guide, / for pride will have a fall.”

Late seventeenth-century ballads like “Prides Fall” and “The Extravagant Youth” might adhere in principle to the religious imperative that all must take heed of God’s ultimate judgment; but—more than their predecessors from the 1620s and 30s—even while doing so such ballads betray a fascination with the worldly life of riches and fashion of late seventeenth-century London, a world that at least ostensibly they decry. Perhaps this sometimes-loving attention to the shapes and materials of worldly fashion in the “Devotion & Morality” ballads should not surprise us. For all English broadside ballads—even those that warn us continually to pay heed to the life of the spirit—were first and foremost products of the early modern worlds of commerce, entertainment, and fashion.

1 John Spurr, The Post-Reformation: 1603-1714 (Harlow: Pearson/Longman Press, 2006), 1.

2 Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550 – 1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 327.

3 Spurr, Post-Reformation, 29.

4 Watt, Cheap Print (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 113.

5 Watt, Cheap Print (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 114.

Works Consulted

Rollins, Hyder E. A Pepysian Garland: Black-Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595-1639. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Spurr, John. The Post-Reformation: 1603-1714. Harlow: Pearson/Longman Press, 2006.

Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.