Wounds and Ulcers: Tragedy Ballads in the Pepys Collection

by Tassie Gniady (2007)

The Tragedy section of Pepys’s ballad collection is not punctuated by sympathetic characters: three Lincolnshire witches are given their just desserts after killing a lord and his family (1.132-133, EBBA 20058), the infamous Dr. Lambe is set upon by sailors and apprentices and beaten until dead (1.134-135, EBBA 20059)1, and one particularly unsavory character tries to convince his sister to satisfy his desire and sleep with him until he is beset by “lice and filthy vermine” before being consumed by fire (2.166, EBBA 20784). At first glance, Pepys seems to have used this category for ballads that follow Philip Sidney’s conception of tragedy from his Defence of Poesie: in Sidney’s conception of the term, vivid moral teachings are emphasized, those “that openeth the greatest woundes, and sheweth forth the Ulcers that are covered with Tissue . . . that with stirring the affects of Admiration and Comiseration, teacheth the uncertaintie of this world, and uppon how weak foundations guilden roofes are builded.”2 On closer examination, however, the second half of this pronouncement is strangely missing from the tragedy ballads: one is hard pressed to find many ballad figures who are elevated by their suffering and thus worthy of “Admiration and Comiseration.”3 Instead, they are often astonishing examples of what not to do and how not to live: they are “weak foundations” of thatched rather than “gilded” roofs. The reader rarely identifies sufficiently with such ballad subjects to feel admiration for them or to commiserate with their plights.

Two notable counterexamples are the famous courtiers of Queen Elizabeth: Sir Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux, in Pepys 1.110-111 (EBBA 20046) and 2.162-163 (EBBA 20781), respectively. In the ballads about these courtiers, both men meet their ends with piety and grace, and both proclaim their allegiance to God and country, regardless of any apparent misdeeds on their parts. Robert Devereux, despite exchanging letters with James VI in Scotland while Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne, and despite marching on London with some 300 men, was wildly popular with the common people. Safely after Elizabeth’s death, in the early years of James’s reign, Essex’s Apologie was published, a work that consisted of a variety of ballads and other remembrances.4 Among such later publications is Pepys’s 2.162-163, “A Lamentable Ditty made on the Death of Robert Deverux Earl of Essex, who was Beheaded ithe Tower / of London, on Ash-Wednesday, 1603” (of the two versions of Devereux’s ballad in the Pepys collection, 1.106-107 (EBBA 20044) was printed in 1625 and 2.162-163, the ballad under discussion, is dated between 1686 and 1688). In this ballad Devereux’s popularity is emphasized. It resoundly proclaims,

SWeet Englands pride is gone,
      welladay, welladay,
Which makes her sigh and groan,
      evermore still,
He did her fame advance,
In Ireland Spain and France,
He always lov’d the poor,
Which makes them sigh full sore,
His death they did deplore,
      in every place.

Raleigh is not quite the sympathetic figure that Devereux is. His supposedly first-person account of his execution in 1618 contrasts sharply with the almost heroic third-person reconstruction of Devereux’s beheading in 1601. Instead, Raleigh confesses that “In youth I was too free / of my will, of my will” and reminds the reader that

When as Queene Elizabeth
      ruld this land, ruld this land,
I trode the honord path of
      of a brave Courtier.

Neither man is guilty of the kind of crimes that mark most of the tragedy ballads, and thus they are sympathetic figures more in line with the classical definitions of tragedy upon which Sidney based the part of his definition that deals with “admiration and commiseration.” However, the bulk of Pepys’s selections for the Tragedy section of his collection instead “teacheth the uncertaintie of this world” via the exposure of definitively unadmirable “Woundes” and “Ulcers” normally “covered with Tissue.”5 They are far less savory examples than Devereux and Raleigh.

For example, despite the fact that Katherine Francis (1.118-119, EBBA 20049) and Anne Wallens (1.124-125, EBBA 20053) plead with other wives not to follow their examples, it is hard to believe that the English populace would sympathize much with these women who rose up against their legal masters (their husbands) and committed petty treason. Equally unadmirable are the criminals who are blatantly unrepentant and thus wholly deserving of their fate, such as husband-killer Alice Davis (1.122-123, EBBA 20051) and the infamous John Faustus (2.142, EBBA 20760), the character of Marlowe’s play. Indeed, most of the ballads included in the Tragedy category leave the reader with the distinct lesson that doing evil will result in punishment, usually death. Women who kill their husbands and vice versa (“The Inhumane Butcher” [5.19, EBBA 22236]), a tradesman who abuses his apprentices (1.116-117, EBBA 20048), thieves and robbers who ply their trade with unusual ferocity (“The Highway Man’s Advice” [2.157, EBBA 20777]), and a group of witches who plague an earl and his family are all are brought to justice and sentenced to die for their actions.

Rarely is a murder committed that goes unpunished. In “The Tragedy of Dr. Lambe,” Martin Parker describes how England is finally free of Dr. Lambe’s evil “conjurations” because a group of sailors and apprentices followed Lambe to a bar and beat him so severely that he dies (1.134-135). Unlike many of the Tragedy ballads that have a somber tone and include repentance on the part of the wrongdoers, this ballad is jubilant and qualifies for inclusion in the category precisely because Dr. Lambe’s evildoing finally catches up with him. The ballad is also a departure from the group in that justice is brought about by a group of laymen rather than the courts.

The role of the law in this section should not be underestimated. Although the subjects of the Tragedy ballads may live long lives of dissolution, eventually they are caught and brought to trial. This trial often brings about repentance on the part of the criminal, as in the case of the husband-murderers cited above, wherein the second part of the ballad is a first-person warning not to follow in his/her footsteps. In ballad 5.27 (EBBA 22245), a “Tripe-man” (a seller of entrails) who has turned to counterfeiting currency laments:

Had I the Tripe-Trade us’d alone,
And ne’re the Coyning Money known,
Of making Guineas and Half Crowns,
Till I was worth some thousand pounds,
Then I from trouble had liv’d free,
But now for Coyning I must dye.
Now Brother Tripe-Men all take care.

In a like vein, Anne Wallens asks for forgiveness from her husband’s mother for taking away her only son and finally advises, “Then wives be warn’d example take by me. / Heavens graunt no more that such a one may be.” Her final lines, however, end on a smoldering hope: “In burning flames of fire I should fry, / Receive my soule sweete Jesus now I die” (1.124-125).

Many of the ballads in the Tragedy section emphasize both the inability of sinners to escape from justice and the ability of Jesus to forgive even the most terrible sins. When they are caught, the criminals often confess on the spot, thereby reinforcing the concept that order is restored once a transgressor has been arraigned by the proper authorities. Even Sir Walter Raleigh praises the king on the eve of his execution, after thirteen years in the tower, because “his royall Grace / Gave me both time and space / Repentance to embrace: / Now heaven be praised” (1.110-111). Perhaps, then, there is a sort of tragic catharsis that comes about in the ballads that include confessions.6 While the reader is not meant to identify too closely with a woman who takes her husband's life with a cudgel, it is possible to believe that she is sorry for her actions and hope that she will be accepted into heaven.

On the surface, the more bloody ballads may seem to have much in common with the local nightly news. Horrible deeds are often gruesomely described; the second apprentice killed by a weaver named Richard Price is found with his brains “broken forth / and his neck burst in twaine” (1.116-117, < a href="http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/20048/image">EBBA 20048). However, a significant difference between modern reporting and these early modern ballads is that the gory details are not restricted to descriptions of the victim. Anne Wallens is not shy about describing her fiery death, and Sir Walter Raleigh speaks of laying his head on the chopping block and advising his executioner, “when thou lift, when thou lift, / Without feare bee thy part” (1.110-111). The reader is subject to Dr. Lambe’s broken arm and gouged-out eyes, George Sand’s hanging, and Joane Flower’s asphyxiation on a piece of bread. These are the tribulations suffered by those who have committed wrongs. In the ballad about Dr. Lambe, Martin Parker does not even go into Lambe’s various misdeeds: “I neede name none on’s feates, / That are well knowne already.” The purpose of “The Tragedy of Dr. Lambe” is to instruct the reader about the terrible end met by the doctor, not to recount the various acts that made him known as “The Devill of our Nation.” Because justice moved swiftly in early modern England, readers often learned about a crime at the same time as they learned what punishment was to be exacted upon the criminal. The ballads in this section were often sold at the executions of the subjects so that the public could take home a memento of a hanging or burning in the form of a broadside complete with woodcuts depicting the criminal’s untimely end (see 1.114-115 [EBBA 20047], 1.120-121 [EBBA 20050], and 1.124-125, as examples of these “good-night” ballads).

A racially-charged and bloody variation on this litany of contemporaneous and almost commonplace tragedies is the retelling of the story of Titus Andronicus in ballad form (2.184-185, EBBA 20800). Here the xenophobia present in other English ballads (see attitudes towards the Dutch and the French in the History ballads) is taken to a whole new level as a Moor is involved. Like ballad 1.546-547 (EBBA 20261), in which a “blackamoor” rapes his master’s wife and kills their children, here a Moor is blamed for scheming with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, against Titus. As narrated by Titus, we are told that

Then she [Tamora] whose thoughts to Murder was inclind
Consented with the moor with bloody mind,
Against my self, my kin and all my friends,
In cruel sort to bring them to their ends.

After Titus’s daughter has been raped by the queen’s sons and Titus’s three surviving sons (out of twenty-five) are imprisoned for false murder, the Moor promises that the sons will be freed if Titus cuts off his own hand (much as the Moor in 1.546-547 promises to release the lord’s wife if the lord will cut off his nose). “The Moor I caus’d to strike it off with speed,” affirms Titus, and then most movingly reports:

Whereat I grieved to see it bleed,
But for my Sons would willingly impart . . .

But as my life did linger thus in vain,
They send to me my bootless hand again:
And therewithal the heads of my three Sons.

The vengeful bloodbath that ensues is quite unlike the resolution of most of the Tragedy ballads in the Pepys collection, as Titus takes his revenge not only on all those who have offended him, but on himself and his daughter as well.

Does this ballad’s difference from its Pepysian tragical counterparts signify a problem with the title given to this category? Are counterfeiting tripe-men really tragic? Given the classical antecedents of the Titus ballad and the fame of Shakespeare’s version, does its different treatment of the tragic mean that the more everyday “tragedies” described earlier in this essay do not fit into the definition of tragedy posited by Sidney? No. The category does form a coherent whole and the ballads do indeed fit Sidney’s definition, despite not being “elevated poetry.” We might here return to Sidney’s claim that a tragedy should invoke “Admiration and Comiseration.” In fact, Sidney writes that “if evill men come to the stage, they ever goe out (as the Tragedie writer answered to one that misliked the shew of such persons) so manicled as they litle animate folkes to follow them.”7 Here, then, the “evill men” (and women) “little animate folkes to follow them.” Despite the fact that the medium here is not the stage, the audience is similar, and what they see and hear is that those who do wrong are all subjected to the same end: “they ever goe out.” Finally, class distinction matters little either in the manner of person or the manner of telling (with the two exceptions of Devereux and Raleigh noted above). Thus, the majority of the Tragedy ballads, “Titus Andronicus” included, “sheweth forth the ulcers that are covered with Tissue” by revealing the gory underpinnings of human society, whether the ulcer be the crime of killing one’s spouse, attempting incest, or even clipping coins.

1 Lambe was a self-styled “doctor” and “conjurer,” and after being arrested for trying to weaken the sixth lord of Windsor with his magical powers, he was put on trial. “Within two weeks of Lambe's trial some forty people, including sheriffs, justices, and others who had been present in court, died. The true cause was probably gaol fever.” Anita McConnel, “Lambe, John,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com.

2 Sidney, Philip. The Defence of Poesie, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

3 This “Admiration and Comiseration” seems to be Sidney’s nod to Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, as it was surely against Aristotle’s definition of tragedy that Sidney was writing. Also note that “Admiration” in this context is more in line with the notion of wondering at or being surprised by an idea and does not carry the positive spin that it often does today. For more on catharsis, see below.

4 Paul E. J. Hammer, “Devereux, Robert,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com.

5 Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

6 Catharsis is a difficult term to pin down as Aristotle discusses it in both his Poetics and Politics. He relates catharsis to the “high” conception of tragedy that evokes emotional release by stirring up “pity and fear.” However, catharsis comes about precisely because the audience identifies with the characters of a tragic piece. In ballads, one might look to Horace’s distinctions between “low,” “middle,” and “high” styles, with ballads falling decidedly into the “low” category in which the aim is usually more along the lines of “instruction.” For a more complete discussion of catharsis, see The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume III: The Renaissance, edited by Glyn Norton, p. 201.

7 Sidney, Philip. The Defence of Poesie, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

Works Consulted

Norton, Glyn, ed. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume III: The Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. www.oxforddnb.com.

Pepys, Samuel. The Pepys Ballads: Facsimile Volume. Ed. W.G. Day. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1987.

Sidney, Philip. The Defence of Poesie. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.