“Humour, Frollicks &c Mixt”: Early Modern Romps

by Kris McAbee (2007)

The inclusion of a category called “Humour, Frollicks &c Mixt” in the Pepys collection sparks many questions about the nature of the categories themselves. For example, why single out these ballads as humorous, since a good proportion of the entire collection is equally as funny? Why are there only thirteen ballads in this category if it so indeterminately includes “etc.” and “mixt” (mixed), suggesting the category contains other light-hearted ballads in no particular order? Why separate the ballads in this category from the other miscellaneous categories like “Promiscuous Supplement” or “Various Subjects”? And what is a “frollick” anyway? Some of these questions can be answered more satisfactorily than others, but despite the plethora of questions this rather odd category generates for us, it gives us just as many insights into some of the idiosyncratic practices of the early modern period.

The “Humour, Frollicks &c.” category of Pepys’s collection contains significantly fewer ballads than the more expansive categories of Volume 1, such as “Love Pleasant,” “History—True & Fabulous,” or “State & Times.” Unlike these, Pepys did not include this category as an independent unit in any of the other volumes of his collection. Perhaps this category’s absence from Volumes 2-5 can be tied to its rather ambiguous classification of ballads as either “frollicks” or humorous, since these terms do not suggest concrete themes as do other categories. In the earlier part of the seventeenth century, when these ballads were written, “frollicks” (or “frolics”) apparently referred to humorous verses circulated at a feast. Later in the century, when Pepys was collecting these ballads, “frollicks” denoted “fun, merriment, or sportive mirth” (OED). One might expect, then, that the ballads in this category would exhibit more comedy and jesting than the rest of the collection, but, while they certainly do lack the weightiness or gloom of the darker ballads (in “Tragedy,” for example), they are comparable in gaiety to many ballads found throughout the collection. In some of the ballads of this category, however, we can locate a more unique notion of “sportive mirth”: each of these ballads describes the glories of hunting as a pastime. For example, the first ballad, “To him Bun; take him Bun” (1.450-451, EBBA 20212) urges the hunting dogs to catch but not “swallow” the conney, or rabbit, they pursue. Likewise, “A Pleasant new Ditty called the new, So Ho” (1.462-463, EBBA 20216) praises the pastimes of our worldly lives, especially the joys of hunting. Yet, these ballads are hardly realistic snapshots of early modern hunting practices; they use excessively lofty and grandiose descriptions of the sport, each aligning it with the endeavors of classical gods and heroes. Still, it is this grandiose language which ultimately suits these ballads to their “humorous” category, since the “joke” lies in the fact that “conney” is just one among many sexual euphemisms that easily render these ballads more obscene than dignified.

Beyond the sport of hunting and other such pastimes, “Humours, Frollicks, &c.” demonstrates some of the details of early modern culture in the four ballads that discuss occupations. One such ballad, “A pleasant Song, made by a Souldier” (1.465, EBBA 20034), is not remotely humorous or frolicsome since it describes the soldier’s fall from the glory of his youth and his longing to die now that he is poor and alone, a condition which is by no means peculiar to early modern veterans; another edition of this ballad is included in Volume 4 under the category “Love Pleasant and Unfortunate,” where it fits better (4.42, EBBA 21708). Ostensibly more suited to the “Humour, Frollicks, etc.” category are the other songs about specific lower-class jobs more particular to early modern culture: “The famous Ratketcher” (1.458-459, EBBA 20214) and “A pleasant new Songe of a joviall Tinker” (1.460-461, EBBA 20215), both of which laud (in two parts) the drunken exploits of their eponymous manual laborers. Unlike modern-day pest-control workers, the Rat-catcher travels door-to-door seeking work and the ballad seizes upon the vagrant nature of his occupation to joke about his exploits with women. The good-humored tone of such ballads also comes through in the lightheartedly moralizing of “The Rimers new Trimming” (1.464, EBBA 20033), which reminds us that early modern barbers often practiced dentistry. In this ballad, while waiting for a trim, a rhymester makes fun of barbers—recalling popular modern jokes aligning dentists with sadists—but the poet receives his comeuppance when the barber uses coal instead of soap for his shave, blackening his face and humiliating him. The relatively harmless humiliation teaches the rhymester a valuable lesson and fits his crime: his mocking of a barber earns him a punishment tantamount to a mere practical joke, making this ballad ideally suited for the “Humour, Frollicks, &c.” category.

While several of the ballads in this small category are not as lighthearted or even as humorous as one might expect, connections can be drawn among isolated ballads. “The Rimers new Trimming,” for example, recalls an earlier ballad in this category in which someone is punished for her vocal criticism of others: “The Cucking of a Scould” (1.454, EBBA 20029) delineates the penalty one woman receives for constantly berating her fellow townspeople. However, while the scold’s tale undoubtedly has been funny to some audiences, her fate appears quite cruel and distinctly sexist to a modern audience in comparison to the barber’s rather genial retribution for the “rimer’s” ribbing: while the rhymester’s face is dirtied, the scold is jailed, harassed, tied to a chair, and repeatedly dunked in water or “cucked.” This kind of torture, it seems, could be considered amusing. Similarly, audiences may question how “pleasant” and “jovial” the tinker of “A pleasant new Songe of a joviall Tinker” in fact is, since he gets drunk and beats his mistress. Moreover, if we are to read the hunting ballads as thinly-veiled references to sexual appetites, in which catching the “conney” means gaining sexual access to a woman, we can find that one of the key connections among the ballads in this category is that their humor pivots on not only sexuality but also violence. References to “cucking” and other abuses also occur in “An excellent new medley” (1.456, EBBA 20031), which is in many ways the most expected sort of ballad from a category called “Humor, Frollicks, &c.” This ballad’s rhythm and tone is particularly upbeat, but its virtual litany of proverbs, popular sayings, observances, and witticisms—linked together by rhyming triplets—contains such a preponderance of obscure early modern references, puns, and jokes that it is virtually impossible for a modern reader to make sense of it. “A Whetstone for Lyers” (1.466-467r, EBBA 20218) affords a much more accessible example of this same phenomenon; here, a braggart expounds upon his many unfeasible adventures and, although it is impossible that he could “march in a minute / From Norway to Gothland” or that he knows “how the Starres / and the Planets doe move,” the ballad’s depiction of the liar’s studies and supposed romps through the world suggest the actual burgeoning of globalization and scientific advancements of the early modern period. And in its whimsical ballad world, “A Whetstone for Lyers” encapsulates “Humour, Frollicks, &c.”: it depicts humor, sportive mirth, and all the rest.

From sporty pastimes and practical jokes to tales of debauchery and sexual puns, it is no mystery why most of the ballads in this category could be considered humorous. The mystery, however, is why only thirteen ballads of the nearly 2,000 in Pepys’s library made the cut for “Humour, Frollicks, &c Mixt.” Pepys’s table of contents for his collection could shed some light on this mystery: a line is drawn from this category in Volume 1, to the “Various Subjects” category in later volumes, suggesting that, later in the collection, “Humor, Frollicks &c Mixt” becomes subsumed in the more indefinite category. Certainly, the vagueness of “&c” and “Mixt” indicates a connection to “Various Subjects.” Yet this small clue only deepens the mystery. It is obvious that the ballads in this category could easily fit under “Various Subjects,” since it is a miscellaneous category, but some could just as easily fit in many other categories. While telling us something about early modern practices, puns, and jokes that may not be immediately familiar to a modern audience, the strangeness of this category also provides us some insight into the idiosyncratic practices of a man and his collection of ballads, a collection which is as funny, varied, and, at times, as mysterious as the culture it records.