Bawdy Ballads

One of my favorite tweeters posted an image of a rather racy seventeenth-century ballad yesterday which prompted me to take a break from all the boring administrative things I have to do at this time of the year to search out some more examples of bawdiness for my last English history class. This was a much more pleasant activity than scheduling and it’s always good to end on a high note! Virginity grown troublesome is just one of many later seventeenth century ballads–drinking songs, working songs, walking songs–focused on human relations in general and maids who are either too chaste or too wild in particular: another of my favorites is The wandring virgin; or, The coy lass well fitted; or, the answer to the wand’ring maiden (1672). Every title which refers to ladies from London is an almost certain reference to their looseness, as in the case of The ansvver to the London lasses folly, or, The new-found father discoverd at the camp (1685). Country girls don’t get off easy either, but generally (not always) they are duped and remorseful. Poor Celia, the subject of the 0ft-printed (and apparently sung) ballad Celia’s Complaint (1678-95?) who was “quickly won” by a rogue’s fair words and is now, forever, “quite undone” and an example to all:  My Spotless Virgins Fort, thou strongly didst assault/ My Favor thou didst Court, and this was my great fault/ So soon to yield, to thee the Field, which did my Honour stain/ And now I cry, continually, poor Celia Loved in Vain.

Virginity Troublesome

Virginity Troublesome cropped

London Lasses Beineke

Kentish Maiden crop

Celia's Complaint cropped

Later seventeenth-century ballads from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Beineke Library at Yale, and a great database for English broadside ballads: The University of California at Santa Barbara’s Broadside Ballad Archive. You can actually hear variations on these ballads performed, including the classic “Maid’s Complaint for want of a Dil Doul”, on the City Waites’ album Bawdy Ballads of Old England.


7 responses to “Bawdy Ballads

  • Brian Bixby

    One can imagine a contemporary college campus generating enough stories for a folio volume of such ballads.

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  • Alastair Savage

    Excellent! It’s funny how many of us have our picture of the past coloured by the Victorians, which makes us assume that everyone was as straight-laced and uptight as they were (at least in public). They were a lewd lot in the 17th century and I hope that Kentish fumbling ale-draper got a hiding for his efforts!

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  • Gaye Ingram

    The 18th century helped build that wall, please recall. Remember Pope’s “Rape of the Lock”? And Pamela and Joseph Andrews? And the “revisions” of Shakespeare’s plays? Acquiring “Shakespeare’s Bawdry” as an undergrad and going on to spend 4 years studying 17th-century English literature made me forever shivery about a number of 20th-21st-century usages that are innocent, though inane. For instance, in the late 1970s or early 80s the phrase “cope with” became as popular as “that point in time.” To this day when someone tells me she’s trying to cope with her son, untidy visions rise in my imagination.

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