Drinking & Good Fellowship: Working Class or Workers’ Classes at the Alehouse?

by Simone Chess (2007)

Though most of Pepys’s categories run through all five volumes of his ballad collection, ballads about “Drinking and Good Fellowship” only appear as a grouped category in the first volume. Despite the fact that the category is statistically small, it contains many of the collection’s most memorable ballads, and captures some of ballad culture’s most enduring ideas and ideals. After all, ballads and drinking have a long and strong history together. The ballads in “Drinking and Good Fellowship” fall into three general categories. Some, like "Here’s to thee Plain Harry" (1.433, EBBA 20203) and "Round Boys indeed" (1.442-443, EBBA 20208), focus on positive elements of drinking culture, like alehouse camaraderie and male homosocial bonds. Other ballads in the section, like "The Drunkards Dyall" (1.428-429r, EBBA 20200), "Roaring Dick of Dover" (1.435, EBBA 20204), and "Fowre wittie Gossips disposed to be Merry" (1.436-437, EBBA 20205), go beyond these initial positive elements toward a conclusion that brings in a note of debt, loss, or regret. Finally, ballads like "A goodfellowes complaint against strong beere" (1.439, EBBA 20206), "No body Loves mee" (1.431, EBBA 20202), and "The backes complaint, for bellies wrong" (1.447, EBBA 20211) show a more immediate and physical side of drinking and good fellowship, through the laments of repenting and recovering drinkers.

Despite these major thematic (and moral) differences, all of the ballads in the section also share certain common themes: fellowship and company; debt, coins, or pawning; healths and toasts. Perhaps we expect that a collection of ballads will cover a range of opinions on drinking and the rowdy alehouse life. We certainly expect that “Drinking and Fellowship” will include the tropes of beer, friends, and comic mishaps. However, what we might not expect are the complicated ways that these varied ballads present themes of middle or working class identity. This essay will focus on the ways in which a rising class is described (or describes itself, depending on who these anonymous authors really are) in the “Drinking and Good Fellowship” ballads. Towards this end, I ask, are drinking ballads a site for inventing and developing a unified working class group identity? Or are there multiple and specific identities within the developing definition of an “alehouse class”?

In her article, “Not Home: Alehouses, Ballads, and the Vagrant Husband in Early Modern England,” Patricia Fumerton argues that “the alehouse offered the unemployed and poor (including even employed local residents) an alternative community and an alternative home.” Fumerton considers the alehouse as simultaneously a potentially domestic space and a direct opposite to the actual home. Indeed, home-making and family-building are common strains throughout these alehouse ballads. At the same time, though the ballads allow us to see a unified working class gathering space—the idea of keeping “company” repeats throughout these texts—they go out of their way to assert specific occupational loyalties, making employment a central identity category. Thus, the alehouse and its ballads are inherently contradictory sites for class study: they are at once home spaces and workplaces, they at once condone and condemn drinking, and the fellowship they depict is at once blind and trade-based.

"Round boyes indeed" (1.442-443, EBBA 20208) is an example of this dual pull: a ballad firmly in favor of drinking and revelry with friends, it functions as both an ode to all working men (“Our livings we get by our hands, / as plainly you may understand, / Whilst many gallants sell their land, / for money to serve their need”) and a very specific call to shoemakers (“Shoemakers sonnes were princes borne” and “S. Hughs bones up we take in hast, / both pincers, punching alle and last, / The gentle Craft was never disgrast, / they have money to serve their need”). Within their comfortable home at the alehouse, after singing general praise for manual laborers, these shoemakers maintain their own specific group identity. Similarly, in "It is bad Jesting with a Halter" (1.440-441, EBBA 20207), the drinking protagonists are introduced first generally, as “Three Joviall sparkes together,” and then later in the stanza specifically according to their careers, as “three lusty souldiers.” Each of these ballads functions on two levels: first, in a manner that appeals to and includes any working class alehouse listener, and then according to specific details of a single trade. The emphasis on specific careers or trades in ballads like these adds nuance to the question of a “domestic” alehouse; they describe instead a place where the domestic and family-based world collides with an employee and commerce-based identity politic that is rooted in craft pride and trade loyalty.

This pull between general class camaraderie and individual worker identity is not clear cut, and it is not necessarily a choice between diametric opposites. The characters in these ballads can and do exist at once as working class everymen and workers’ trade-specific representatives. In "How Mault doth deal with every one" (1. 427, EBBA 31631), malt (a raw grain used for brewing and distilling alcohol, as well as a term for alcohol itself) is personified as “Master Mault” and fights with a range of working class heroes, rendering each of them drunker than the last. Mault’s opponents read as a veritable laundry list of popular alehouse-attending working professionals: they include a miller, a smith, a carpenter, a shoemaker, a weaver, a tinker, a tailor, a sailor, a chapman, a mason, a bricklayer, and a laborer. The author takes pains to have each man carry a tool of his trade, and distinguishes each approach to Mault according to a specific type of labor. At the same time, though, the working men are unified in their failed attacks on Master Mault, and no individual, regardless of his specific skills, can avoid being felled by drunkenness. Here, we see the individual workers reunited as a single, laboring class-identified unit, brought together by their common weakness for Mault. A final laborer’s voice, that of the narrating balladeer, ends the ballad with a plea for free drinks from the hostess. Specific trade differences are once again subsumed by group company and fellowship.

In fact, “How Mault doth deal with every one” shares a single broadside page with “A pleasant new Ballad to sing both Euen and Morne, / Of the bloody murther of Sir John Barley-corne” (1.426, EBBA 20199). Even more than Master Mault’s ballad, this song unites the various laborers of its audience. Here, though, the workers’ unity is not only in contrast to the ruling class but also in direct opposition and threat to it. This is an allegorical ballad that follows the process of brewing ale from barley by telling the story of the murder and mutilation of a nobleman called Sir John Barley-Corne. Over the course of the ballad, Barley-Corne (another grain from which malt liquor is made) is plowed up, buried, raised from the dead, amputated, bound, rent with a pitchfork to the heart, beaten and de-fleshed with holly clubs, dusted, sifted, blinded, burned, ground, and boiled. His torturers include working-class laborers of all kinds, including farmers, millers, and mault-men. The ballad valorizes the tedious and laborious process of brewing alcohol, making each stage of the process a battle requiring strength and skill. At the same time, it connects the many separate workers responsible for each stage of brewing as collaborators in a single murder. That the victim is denied a nobleman's death by duel and instead must succumb to the manual labor of mass production is a reflection of these workers’ and drinkers’ attitudes toward the nobility. Their uprising against Barley-Corne is a group project that requires workers from every craft:

And then they set a tap to him,
      even thus his death begun:
They drew out every dram of blood,
      whilst any drop would run.

Some brought jacks upon their backs,
      some brought bill and bow,
And every man his weapon had,
      Barley-corne to overthrow.

Tellingly, these two unusual allegorical ballads, Master Mault and Sir John Barley-Corne’s stories, are on the first broadside sheet in Pepys’s “Drinking and Good Fellowship” category. As such, they set a tone for the rest of the collected ballads, and their message of class unity against a common enemy or toward a common goal is reflected in the other texts that Pepys chose. A similar return to unified class status (one that is unified without eliding individual skills and jobs) is evident in "A Mad Crue" (1.444-445, EBBA 20209), in which each stanza ends with a "fill-in-the-blank" style space for many working class professions. Joining the previous list of workers are a mault-man, a fiddler, a horse-courser, a hangman, a beadle, a sergeant, a cook, a bear ward (a keeper of bears), a broker, a brewer, a thief, a cuckold, a beggar, and a drunkard. The ballad even includes a midwife, a milkmaid, and an oyster-wench. Again, though each of these professions is given its own specific spot in a chorus and was clearly included to please listeners from each professional group, they also are unified in that they each say the same thing, over and over, as a unified working class alehouse voice. A ballad that claims to give a female perspective, “Fowre wittie Gossips disposed to be merry” (1.436-437, EBBA 20205), which follows a group of women drinkers on a night on the town, further demonstrates the elision of all working men—to these wives and widows, all kinds of working men are reduced to the single category of “husbands,” and all husbands, regardless of their crafts, are similarly lazy and clownish. The gossips demonstrate that shared experience, class, and cultural similarities are a central bond at the alehouse.

The voice of the alehouse ballad is inherently both singular and many. “Drinking and Good Fellowship” is a collection of ballads that are at once fiercely group-oriented and divisive. The ballads range in moral scope, in the array of voices they represent, and in the types of messages they send. Throughout, they offer a window into the development of an alehouse culture and a new class identity. The details of this contested space and shifting class marker are debatable. But the ballads make clear that working through these details should always involve good beer, good song, and good company.

Works Consulted

Fumerton, Patricia. “Not Home: Alehouses, Ballads, and the Vagrant Husband in Early Modern England.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 32 (Fall 2002): 493-518.

Pepys, Samuel. The Pepys Ballads. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 8 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1929-32.

Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed.