Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 72 (previously 26d) - Moll Cutpurse - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/09/22 - listen here)
The 17th century English woman Mary Frith, known to posterity as Moll Cutpurse--“Moll” was a common nickname for “Mary” at the time--has become something of a queer icon--quite rightly, though the image of her that has been popularized doesn’t entirely align with the historic evidence. It is less clear that she could reasonably be called a feminist icon, despite some of the proto-feminist speeches attributed to her as a theatrical character. And there is almost no evidence for considering her a proto-lesbian icon, with due deference to the lovely novel by Ellen Galford that presents her as both.
But the Moll Cutpurse that comes through to us in the messy, complicated details of the historic record is no less fascinating than the idealized figure that some have tried to paint her. In this, she stands as an excellent symbol, not only for the ways in which early 17th century England was grappling with shifts in gender expression and sexual dynamics, but for the ways in which modern people have fastened on certain historic figures to represent the past they want to imagine.
This tour through Frith’s life story and its fictionalizations will draw on a variety of sources: legal records, observations of her contemporaries, depictions of her in popular culture. Perhaps most fascinatingly--though not necessarily most reliably--we have a memoir that presents itself as being Frith’s own record of her life, written toward the end of that life and published shortly after her death. The fact that the narrative presents itself as being autobiographical needs to be interrogated. The genre of criminal biographical narratives was becoming popular in the mid 17th century, including many that were clearly works of pure fiction, created to cash in on the subject’s notoriety, especially if there were a public execution involved. Frith escaped any significant legal penalty for her admittedly illegal activities, so her memoir deviates from the genre to that extent. Historians Todd and Spearing--who analyze and edit the memoir in the book Counterfeit Ladies--considers it to be a genuine reflection of Frith’s own narrative, though we can easily believe that she herself fictionalized her life in the telling. While another of my sources considers it to be a formulaic outlaw biography, leavened with a few specfics from Frith’s legend. In large part, the memoir can be aligned with more objective historic records in the details, but there are also odd points of contradiction. I’m not going to obsess too much in this podcast about the strict accuracy of the work, but rather to treat it as solid evidence of beliefs and attitudes of the time.
After her lifetime, Frith joined the ranks of legendary outlaws around whom stories accumulated, such as the certainly apocryphal one about her briefly turning highwaywoman to rob General Fairfax, a leader on the Parliament side of the English Civil War. Frith was remembered as a staunch and enthusiastic royalist, including a story that she paid for a fountain to run with wine to celebrate the entrance of King Charles into London. The farther we get from her own era, the more legends get attached to her, as in works like the late 19th century A Book of Scoundrels by Charles Whibley. This makes sorting through the myths to find the truth of her life a bit challenging.
A Brief Overview
We can begin with the basic outline of her life, though I’ll elaborate on certain themes in more detail later in the podcast. Mary Frith was born at Aldgate Street in London in or around 1585, working backwards from the age and date given for her death (though the framing text of her diary gives the date instead as 1589, making her somewhat younger). Her father was a shoemaker and she spent her life embedded in London’s working class culture of taverns, theater, violent spectacles such as bull-baiting, and the stirrings of a gender and sexual revolution that would find its heyday later in the century among the libertines of the Restoration. She spent much of her adult life in the Bankside neighborhood of Southwark, famous for its playhouses. And whether she was drawn there due to her own theatrical leanings, or whether it was residence there that brought her into contact with playwrights and actors, she left her mark on several early 17th century plays. Religious and political conflicts were another element in the backdrop of her life, not only the outright conflict of the English Civil War, relatively late in her life, but the conservative social and religious forces of Puritanism.
Her nickname of “cutpurse” was -- if you will forgive the expression -- honestly come by. The first traces of her in official records were in 1600 and 1602 when she was arrested for that very act, in partnership with two other women. There is no mention of her wearing men’s garments at that time, which would likely have been added to the charge if she were. By this time she was living in the Southwark neighborhood famous for theater and other entertainments that would shape and augment her reputation. In 1608 and 1609 she again appears in court records for “suspicion of felony” and burglary respectively, though not convicted on those occasions. By 1610, Frith had solidly established cross-dressing as part of her public presentation and had become enough of a public figure to be written about in pamphlets and plays. At this point she was also noted as a stage performer, although not a regular actor. (This was still the era when women were not permitted to act on the English stage, though other countries were not similarly restrictive.) For example, Frith seems to have participated in a sideshow-like performance after at least one performance of The Roaring Girl, where she appeared on stage in masculine garments and played the lute among other activities.
The combination of this public defiance of social norms, combined with suspicions of her continued criminal activity and a general official discomfort with unruly behavior by an unmarried woman--which reflexively brought accusations that she must be a prostitute, or at least a “bawd”, a term covering any female sexual indiscretions--this combination finally brought the weight of the law down on Frith in a meaningful way. In late 1611 she spent some time in Bridewell prison, and early in 1612 she made a public confession and penance, though witnesses interpreted it as very much an insincere theatrical performance and noted that she was drunk at the time.
If the authorities hoped the punishment would have a permanent sobering effect on Frith, they were mistaken, but she did make two significant life changes in the wake of the experience that may well have been intended to give her a more secure position in life. She set up in business as a fence, or perhaps more delicately put, as a licensed professional go-between for recovering stolen property. And in 1614 she got married. Marriage has no place in the larger legend of Moll Cutpurse--her marriage is nowhere mentioned in the biography and diary published shortly after her death, though she clearly identified herself as a widow, and used her married surname alongside her maiden name, in her will. But the marriage seems to have been purely a legal strategy and there’s reason for believing that the two never lived as man and wife.
In 1618 Moll Cutpurse once again appears as a character in a play, though this time a brief walk-on role. It’s possible that the part was written for Frith to play herself. There are scattered references to Frith in her occupation as fence during the 1620s but she largely disappears from surviving records, perhaps indicating that her various activities kept just within the bounds of what the authorities were willing to permit. Her reputation for cross-dressing certainly persisted throughout her entire life. In 1644--this would be when she was around 59 years old--there is a record that Frith was discharged from the Hospital of Bethlem -- the notorious Bedlam insane asylum -- though the reason for her stay there is not recorded. Some historians speculate that she may have been shamming to avoid trouble during the political turmoil of the English Civil War, which was in full swing at the time. Her diary attributes royalist sympathies to her. A satirical pamphlet written in 1647 names Moll Cutpurse as one of the leaders of a band of women who protested against parliament, though the nature of the text raises questions about its accuracy. But the conditions at Bedlam were dreadful enough that if her stay there was a ruse, the alternative must have been dire indeed.
In June 1659, a month before her death, Mary Frith, alias Mary Markham, drew up a will “being aged and sick and weak in body,” that dispensed a rather comfortable fortune for a woman in her position, giving sums to two male relatives and the rest to a niece whom she named as executor. Although her later years may have been relatively quiet, as far as attention from legal authorities goes, she was still enough of a celebrity to warrant the publication, three years later, of a work purporting to be her autobiography, prefaced by another writer’s biography and analysis of her life. There is dispute over the accuracy of this diary and to what extent Frith may have been involved in its authorship. At the most generous, it may be a transcript of the rambling, spotty, and frequently exaggerated reminiscences of a woman recalling her adventurous life and quite willing to sometimes trade truth for a good story. At the most conservative, it may be an entire fiction, written after her death to insert key parts of her legend into a somewhat formulaic “criminal biography” -- a genre newly becoming popular, and in some cases demonstrably utter fiction. In the following discussion of Frith’s life, I’ve taken the text as indicating at the very least what her contemporaries believed about her life, and quite possibly as expressing her own attitudes towards topics such as gender transgression and sexuality. But take all with a grain of salt, as many of the specific details are contradicted by the historic record.
Themes of Her Life
The major theme in Moll Cutpurse’s life was a rejection of the normative life path expected of a woman. This manifested both in her criminal career--and particularly her participation in activities as a fence undertaken as an independent single woman--and in her gender performance. This rejection of traditional femininity was perceived and framed as being “masculine” both by the larger culture and by Frith herself. She embraced masculine signifiers in dress and behavior and overtly rejected the interests and career paths expected for women. She doesn’t appear to have rejected female identity itself, for example, defiantly offering to prove her gender to anyone who would come to her residence for the purpose. The discussion of issues of gender identification and performance in her diary makes that a valuable document for examining the images and attitudes of the time, regardless of whether it reflects Frith’s own words. The question of her sexuality is unresolved. There’s a fair amount of ambiguous and contradictory evidence on that point but even the ambiguity provides a valuable window on her times.
For the rest of this episode, I’ll be expanding further on three themes from Frith’s life that help build a picture of who she was, or who she might have been: her criminal activities, her gender performance, and her sexuality. I originally was planning to include some extensive excerpts from two of the plays that feature her as a character, but this episode became so long that I decided to include much shorter clips from them instead. But I will have links in the show notes to the most famous play that was based on her character, The Roaring Girl.
Frith’s Criminal Career
As noted previously, Frith first enters the historic record in contemporary accounts in 1600 when she would have been about 15 or 16, when she was indicted in Middlesex for cutting purses. There were also indictments for burglary. Frith is represented as being ambivalent about her nickname of Cutpurse. In one anecdote she played an elaborate prank to punish a woman overheard referring to her by that nickname. But around the date when she spent time in prison, or perhaps after and because of that, she moved on to the somewhat safer profession of fence.
The cutting of purses aside, theft in early 17th century London more often involved goods than coin. And as mass production had not yet made goods interchangeable, the items being stolen were usually easily identifiable by unique characteristics. But conviction for theft could result in the stolen goods being confiscated by the law. This meant that the most desirable outcome on both sides of a theft was for the thief to receive a “finder’s fee” for returning the object to its original owner, who might lose the goods entirely if the case were instead resolved in the courts.
Thieves were understandably wary of claiming this fee themselves. Enter the profession of fence. Unlike the modern image of the fence who re-sells stolen goods to an independent party, the 17th century fence was something of a “professional finder,” a person who had plausible deniability as simply being really good at tracking down “lost” goods. And such a person might be recognized as an essential component of the justice system by being licensed to investigate and question suspects. The following description appears in a court record from 1621 in one such case.
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He “...came to this defendant [i.e., Frith] and desired her to do her endeavor to try if she could by any means find out the pickpocket or help him to his money, he being before of this defendant’s acquaintance and having heard how by this defendant’s means many that had had their purses cut or goods stolen had been helped to their goods again and divers of the offenders taken or discovered...”
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Many of the activities Frith was criticized for, were not illegal, per se, but were traditionally restricted to men, and suspect when engaged in by a woman. Even “walking abroad alone while female” could be cause for being brought into court on suspicion. On one occasion, Frith was charged with being abroad at night engaging in “unseasonable and suspicious walking; aggravating that offence with the strange manner of [her] life.” A charge that she was able to evade by claiming that she had been going to assist a woman in childbirth, but then in an aside during the telling of this anecdote, she laughs at the idea that she would do any such thing.
In late 1611 and early 1612, she received the only criminal sentence that stands out in her record, resulting in prison time and requiring her to make a public confession and do public penance. The nature of her offence is the nebulous charge of public immorality. She kept bad company, including that of thieves and blasphemous drunkards. She went about in men’s clothing, a charge we’ll examine in more detail. But she denied the charge that she was a prostitute, or even simply that she was a bawd--a term for any sort of unruly sexual behavior by a woman.
Frith made her public confession, but the superficial penitence she shows in the court record is undermined somewhat by a contemporary record of the event that notes “...and this last Sunday Moll Cutpurse a notorious baggage (that used to go in man’s apparel and challenged the field of diverse gallants) was brought to the same place, where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three quarts of sack before she came to her pennance.” Note that the phrase “it is doubted” here means “it is thought”. The word “doubt” has somewhat flipped in meaning since that time.
In any event, it seems that after this experience, Frith shifted her activities to the safer and evidently more profitable role of fence, taking advantage of the connections and experience of her more overtly criminal days. In later years, her diary claims that she engaged in managing sex workers, and became something of an advisor and banker to her criminal associates. But these activities fall in one of the more questionable sections of her diary. In any event, she seems generally to have made a comfortable living at her various endeavors.
Moll Cutpurse on Stage
In the first couple decades of the 17th century, Frith had a close association with the theater community in London. One of my sources suggests the possibility that her gender performance itself was nothing more than a deliberate and calculated theatrical performance, either for the sake of attracting notoriety, or for the more practical purpose of gathering and distracting audiences the better for her accomplices to pick pockets. This theory feels week to me on two points: because the degree of cross-dressing she engaged in brought far more risk from the attention than it was likely to create benefit, and because she appears to have continued to engage in cross-dressing well after she moved out of the more direct criminal trades it could have assisted. Whatever meaning her cross-dressing had to Frith personally, it does seem most likely that it was an expression of her relationship to gender in some fashion, even if only as a rebellion against the economic and legal constraints on women at the time.
By 1610, when Moll would have been about 26, she was notorious enough to have had a play written featuring a character based on, and named after, her: The Roaring Girl by well-known playwrights Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. Although the depictions may not seem very complimentary by modern standards, they’re fairly positive within the context of early 17th century theater, which was consistently misogynistic when depicting everyday women rather than noble heroines. In The Roaring Girl she is given a speech defending the honor of women against the accusation that all women are whores, and pranking men who considered her a potential target of seduction. The plot--to vastly oversimplify--involves a young man and woman who wish to marry but are being thwarted by the man’s father who rejects his potential daughter-in-law for her poverty. To convince him otherwise, the two enlist Moll Cutpurse to pretend to be the fiancée instead, in order to convince the father that his son’s beloved is the far preferable choice.
Moll’s character is a bit less virtuous in the 1618 play Amends for Ladies by Nathan Field. Here she has only a brief cameo appearance--perhaps played by Moll herself on at least one occasion. The play is structured as a dispute between three female type-characters, the wife, the maid, and the widow, regarding whose life is best. Various other characters enter and leave the scenes to interact with these three, largely to put the lie to each of their claims about the benefits of her particular state. Moll Cutpurse has a walk-on role in the second act where she serves primarily as comic relief.
Though Moll is portrayed in these works as immodest, rude, and transgressive, she is also depicted as a figure of courage, integrity, and virtue. Even so, she resists incorporation into society. In contrast to Shakespeare’s disguised heroines like Rosalind or Viola, Moll is always openly female despite wearing male clothing. Disguised stage heroines of this era normally abandon their male roles in the end in order to achieve the expected heterosexual resolution. Moll, in contrast, stands outside this resolution, remaining contradictory but acting as an agent to enable the other characters' happy heterosexual couplehood.
Frith’s Gender Performance
One of the clearest themes regarding Frith’s gender identity as described by her biographer (and to a lesser extent in the first-person section of the diary) was that she was Not Like Other Girls, and if we try to set her up as a proto-feminist icon, I think we easily trip over the problem that she expressed not simply disdain but contempt for the expected course of women’s lives. An extended passage from her biographer catches the spirit of this attitude.
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A very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle she was, and delighted and sported only in Boys play and pastime, not minding or companying with the Girls: many a bang and blow this Hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed or taken off from her rude inclinations; she could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching, a Sampler was as grievous as a Winding-sheet, her Needle, Bodkin and Thimble, she could not think on quietly, wishing them changed into Sword and Dagger for a bout at Cudgels. For any such Exercise, who but she! ...
Her Head-gear and Handkerchief (or what the fashion of those times were for Girls to be dressed in) was alike tedious to her, wearing them as handsomely as a Dog would a Doublet, and so cleanly, that the driven Pot-hooks would have blushed at the comparison, and always standing the Bear-garden way, or some other Rabble-rout Assemblies. ...
She was too great a Libertine, and lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private Domestic Life. A Quarter staff was fitter to her hand than a Distaff, stave and tail instead of spinning and reeling ... She could not endure the Bake-house, nor that Magpie Chat of the Wenches; she was not for mincing obscenity, but would talk freely what ever came uppermost ... Washing, wringing, and starching were as welcome as fasting days unto her; or in short, any Household work; but above all she had a natural abhorrence to the tending of Children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind, equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never being made a Mother to our best information.
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Among all this, the most consistent notable observation by Frith’s contemporaries was her habit of wearing “men’s apparel.” But before we envision her striding around routinely wearing the swashbuckling outfit of a male cavalier, we need to understand how early 17th century English people talked about gendered clothing, and what they meant when they accused women of wearing male attire, or men of wearing feminine attire.
The most useful single source on this point is a polemical tract Hic Mulier, subtitled “The Man-Woman,” published in 1620, right in the middle of Moll’s heyday and possibly written in response to King James’s exhortation at the beginning of that year that preachers should write sermons against “the insolence of our women, and theyr wearing of brode brimed hats, pointed doublets, theyr hayre cut short or shorne, and some of them stilettos or poniards”. The publication rails against women who adopt clothing, behavior, and rights that conservative forces considered to be exclusively masculine. There were earlier publications along the same lines, such as Joseph Swetnam’s 1615 The araignment of lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women. The difference between a male and a female garment could seem subtle indeed to our eyes: the difference between a jacket cut straight across at the waist, versus one with a point, between a garment that laced and once that had buttons, between a bonnet-like cap and a wide brimmed hat.
The subject of Hic Mulier was not simply and only gendered clothing. The pamphlet calls out all manner of gender-transgressive behavior, but it begins with, and continually emphasizes, dress and ornament as a physical sign of inward nature. Whether in terms of gender identity or of virtue. The catalog of garments gives us a picture of how these items were gendered, as surely as the modern difference between a man’s necktie and a woman’s scarf. What’s interesting is how the moral defects of the garments in these sets of comparisons are gendered. Features that presumably are entirely innocent if the item is worn by a man are now lascivious or shameful if worn by a woman.
The women were accused of “in apparel, exchanging the modest attire of the comely Hood, Caul, Coif , handsome Dress or Kerchief, to the cloudy Ruffianly broad-brimmed Hat, and wanton Feather, the modest upper parts of a concealing straight gown, to the loose, lascivious civil embracement of a French doublet, being all unbuttoned to entice, all of one shape to hide deformity, and extreme short waisted to give a most easy way to every luxurious action.”
Long hair had always been considered an essential feminine attribute in western culture, and a bit suspect when worn by men. And here the writer compares, “the glory of a faire large hair, to the shame of most ruffianly short locks.”
So when Moll Cutpurse is described as wearing masculine clothing, we needn’t necessarily envision her wearing a completely male outfit. Only that she wore specific garments that were as solidly coded as masculine as a necktie still is today. So what did Frith wear that gave her this reputation?
An arrest record of 1611 that specifically charged her with cross-dressing as one of the offenses described her as appearing “with her petticoat tucked up about her in the fashion of a man, with a man’s cloak on her, to the great scandal of diverse persons who understood the same, and to the disgrace of all womanhood.” Although the word “petticoat” has had a number of shifting meanings across the centuries, in the early 17th century it was definitely a feminine garment, most usually indicating a skirt attached to a sleeveless bodice. To wear a petticoat “tucked up about her in the fashion of a man” means that she was wearing skirts but tucked up so that they appeared to be loose trousers. One might perhaps visualize her with the back hem of the skirt brought between her legs and tucked into a belt or some such. Or perhaps, simply the skirts hiked up to be more knee-length rather than floor-length. This would not be a male garment, as such, but wearing a woman’s garment in an inappropriate manner. But the “man’s cloak” would refer to a garment specifically associated with one gender, presumably the shorter, hip-length style we see worn by fashionable men of the day, rather than the longer, ankle-length feminine style. In Frith’s diary, this same hybrid outfit is described in several places, once straightforwardly as “a doublet and petticoat”, and once when describing her final illness as resulting in changing her doublet “for a waistcoat and her petticoats for a winding sheet.”
Around the same time, a pamphlet was registered to be published--although it may not have actually appeared--titled “A Book Called the Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside, with her Walks in Man’s Apparel and to what Purpose.” If the pamphlet ever did exist, it might have given more particulars of her clothing, but alas we have no information on that point. When Frith was promised to put in an appearance on stage following a performance of The Roaring Girl, it was advertised that she would appear “in man’s apparel and in her boots and with a sword by her side.” As noted previously, the man who commented on her public confession described her as “a notorious baggage that used to go in man’s apparel.” (Note that the wording “used to” doesn’t imply that she no longer did so, but may be read as “was accustomed to.”) None of these references give any sense of what the extent of her male clothing was.
In the play Amends for Ladies, Moll Cutpurse has a brief walk-on role that has little to do with the main plot. It strikes me as being the equivalent of a celebrity cameo in a sit-com: the celebrity appears within some incongruous situation and draws laughter simply by being present, then walks off. In this scene, Moll seems meant to be instantly recognizable. It’s possible (though pure speculation) that Frith herself may have played the part. Her garments are not described, but another character addresses her saying “I know not what to term thee, man or woman.” There is also a comparison made to Mary Ambree, the subject of a popular broadside ballad who took part in the siege of Ghent in men’s clothing, although openly as a woman.
Clothing plays a much more important role for the Moll Cutpurse character in the play The Roaring Girl, and the distinction between Moll’s everyday outfit and what she wears to disguise herself as a man is a significant plot point.
One character describes her clothing to another by comparison to the expected woman’s garments: “her black safeguard is turned into a deep slop, the holes of her upper bodice to button-holes, her waistcoat to a doublet, her placket to the ancient seat of a cod-piece, and you shall take 'em both with standing collars.” This needs a bit of translation for the modern listener. A “safeguard” was a rough overskirt worn over a gown to protect it while traveling or doing dirty work. Here it is compared to “slops”, a type of very full, loose trousers, that could almost look like a skirt if you weren’t paying attention. The lacing holes of a woman’s bodice are contrasted with the button holes on a man’s doublet. The moralizing aspect is that a laced bodice took effort to unfasten, and had to be unfastened as a whole, while a buttoned opening could easily be opened partially for access. A placket would have been an overlapping cloth where the skirt was fastened, while a codpiece was the protruding part of a man’s breeches that covered his genitals. A standing collar could be worn by either sex. The character then adds as a afterthought, “they say sometimes she goes in breeches.”
But when the stage directions herald Moll’s arrival, they say, “Enter Moll, in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard.” That is, a man’s jacket but paired with a skirt. The greater significance of wearing breeches is noted in a scene where Moll is deliberately trying to outrage her target. (To summarize the rather convoluted plot, Moll is helping out a pair of thwarted lovers by trying to convince the man’s father, Sir Alexander, that she is the actual intended bride. So in this scene, she has a conversation with her tailor for the benefit of the eavesdropping Sir Alexander.)
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Tailor: Mistress Moll, mistress Moll ! So ho, ho, so ho!
Moll: There, boy, there, boy ! What dost thou go a-hawking after me with a red clout on thy finger ?
Tailor: I forgot to take measure on you for your new breeches.
Sir Alexander (as an aside): Hoyda, breeches ? What, will he marry a monster with two trinkets? What age is this! If the wife go in breeches, the man must wear long coats like a fool.
Moll: What fiddling's here ! Would not the old pattern have served your turn !
Tailor: You change the fashion : you say you'll have the great Dutch slop, Mistress Mary.
Moll: Why, sir, I say so still.
Tailor: Your breeches, then, will take up a yard more.
Moll: Well, pray, look it be put in then.
Tailor: It shall stand round and full, I warrant you.
Moll: Pray, make 'em easy enough.
Tailor: I know my fault now, t'other was somewhat stiff between the legs ; I’ll make these open enough, I warrant you.
Sir Alexander (aside): Here's good gear towards! I have brought up my son to marry a Dutch slop and a French doublet ; a codpiece daughter!
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There are, of course, many sexual innuendos in this speech, such as the reference to the slops being “somewhat stiff between the legs.” This is pretty typical of the level of humor in 17th century plays.
This contrast between the partial and fully masculine appearance is also made when Moll agrees to meet a man for what he believes to be a sexual assignation, in order to teach him a lesson. The man is looking around for Moll, saying, “I see none yet dressed like her; I must look for a shag-ruff, a frieze jerkin, a short sword, and a safeguard, or I get none.”
That is, once again, Moll is expected to be in a hybrid costume consisting of various male garments and accessories but paired with a woman’s skirt. However Moll arrives in disguise. The stage directions announce, “Enter Moll, dressed as a man.” The other character fails to recognize her, taking her for some young male lawyer, until Moll tells him of her identity.
An anecdote in Frith’s diary makes this same distinction between her habitual apparel of a doublet worn with skirts, and the entirely male outfit she wore on a bet, as described in the following passage:
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I shall never forget my fellow humorist, Banks the Vintner in Cheapside, who taught his horse to dance, and shooed him with silver. Among other fantastic discourse, one day he would needs engage me in a frolic upon a wager of 20 pounds which was that I should ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch a-straddle on horseback in breeches and doublet, boots and spurs, all like a man cap a pie. I was all for such sudden whims .... Just so it took me, I accepted the condition and prepared me with all the before named particulars against the day, and to do something more than my bargain, I got a trumpet and banner and threw it behind my back as trumpeters used to wear it.
The day appointed being come I set forward, none suspecting me, yet every body gazing on me, because a trumpeter in those days was as rare as a swallow in winter, every body wondering what it meant, and taking it for a prodigy. I proceeded in this manner undiscovered till I came as far as Bishopsgate, where passing under the gate, a plaguey orange wench knew me and no sooner let me pass her but she cried out, Moll Cutpurse on horseback! which set the people that were passing by, and the folks in their shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, Come down thou shame of women or we will pull thee down. I knew not well what to do, but remembering a friend I had, that kept a victualling house a little further, I spurred my horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the adventure. ... [the crowd is distracted by the passing of a fancy wedding party at this point, and Moll continues] I paced the same way back again to the winning of my wager, and my great content, to see myself thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature.
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To summarize, Moll, who is notorious for wearing “men’s apparel”, accepts a challenge to ride though London wearing an entirely male outfit--cap a pie, head to foot. At first, despite deliberately calling attention to herself, people are surprised to see a trumpeter, but take Moll for a man and so see nothing amiss in the clothing. Not until a woman of the streets recognizes her personally is Moll identified as a woman, which provokes a hostile and even violent reaction from the crowd.
If Moll went “all like a man cap a pie” on an everyday basis, why would this particular act result in such a different reaction? The answer is that the description “going in men’s apparel” meant that she wore one or more male-coded garments, but was not meant to be understood as being a form of gender disguise or a full male outfit.
While this may seem a minor thing to a modern imagination, accustomed as we are to women wearing pants, it’s hard to emphasize how differently the two would strike a 17th century viewer. A woman wearing a masculine-style doublet and tall hat, rather than a bodice and cap, was the sort of person one wrote frothing polemics about. A woman wearing breeches was the sort of person who might be assaulted by a mob and thrown in jail.
What was it about a particular style of doublet or hat that drew condemnation? The moral literature about dress and fashion attacked the topic from a number of angles, including fashion as a symbol of discontent with the status quo (or with one's social status) and as an example of wastefulness. Women's fashions were also attacked as designed to inspire lust. But concerns about women in men's clothing were distinct from these more general concerns.
Looking somewhat earlier, texts from the first half of the 16th century rarely addressed cross-dressing seriously, only occasionally forbidding it in terms suggesting it was too transgressive to be considered seriously. The wording used in later 16th century texts suggests that they were primarily concerned with "masquing" or with the appropriation of individual male-coded garments such as doublets or certain styles of hat. This use was felt to erase the distinctions between male and female that clothing was intended to signal.
In the early 17th century, these attacks increased in number and hostility, as represented by works such as the aforementioned Hic Mulier. Critics felt that women’s use of male garments represented "the world...very much out of order". Appeal was made directly to "husbands, parents, or friends" to restrain the women's actions if their own shame did not. The target of these polemics was generally fashion-conscious middle-class women. Behavioral literature aimed at upper class women tended to provide more abstract and philosophical advice rather than critiques of specific behaviors. And working class women weren’t considered susceptible to persuasion, but were more often targets of legal sanctions.
The reaction against women’s adoption of male styles is generally viewed as a response to women claiming more personal and social independence, and the virulence of the moral literature indicated the extent to which those claims were successful. The tract Hic Mulier focused on two categories of danger. Firstly, that the breakdown of gender differences in clothing would encourage illicit sexuality (symbolized by the proximity of male and female garments "in embrace"). But more than that, cross-dressing is felt to foreshadow the breakdown of all category distinctions, including that of class. The use of male dress among women is seen as leveling crucial class distinctions.
A counter-polemic titled Haec Vir--reversing the grammatical word-play by combining the feminine article with the word for "man," thus being “the feminine man--begins by framing these challenges to the social order as desirable, although that message is undermined by the tract's equivocation. In this responding work, a character identified as Hic Mulier supports women's claims to the same rights as men and equates choice of dress with freedom of choice in life generally. Alas, this position is then satirized and abandoned as the focus of the pamphlet moves to the moral hazard of the "womanly man" (represented by Haec Vir), with the implication that women are only becoming more masculine in reaction to men's abdication of their proper "manly" role.
Frith’s diary includes an anecdote that echoes this disdain for effeminate men, as follows:
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There was also a fellow, a contemporary of mine, as remarkable as myself, called Anniseed-water Robin, who was clothed very near my antic mode, being an hermaphrodite, a person of both sexes. Him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him man and woman had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the female, being but one step removed from a natural changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then counted for an artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spight in sending that thing into the world to mate and match me, that nothing might be without a peer, and the vacuum of society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the boys to fall upon, and throw dirt at him, I made him quit my walk and habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my neighbors, who used to say, "Here comes Moll’s Husband."
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If I had time, I might digress on the topic of Aniseed-water Robin who, like Moll Cutpurse, appears to be a combination of history and myth. If historic, Robin may have been a trans woman, as suggested by Frith’s description, or may have been intersex but assigned as male and therefore treated as a deficient man. In any event, this is a lesson that being a gender outlaw did not necessarily make one sympathetic to other types of gender outlaws.
There’s a certain amount of data relevant to Frith’s possible sexuality, but it’s open to vast differences in interpretation, depending on one’s assumptions and point of view. The most obvious example of this ambiguity is the simple fact of her marriage. Despite a public image--as reflected in the depiction of her on stage--as a woman who rejected marriage and had no sexual interest in men, the simple fact is that she did marry a man and made reference to her married state when it suited her purpose. But on the other hand, there’s also strong evidence that it was a marriage in name only and that she never cohabited with her husband or had much, if anything, to do with him after the wedding.
Peculiarly, her biography makes no mention at all of any marriage, neither in the introductory third-person discussion, nor in the anecdotal first-person diary. It goes so far as to say that the idea of the wedding of Moll Cutpurse was something of a proverbial expression for something that would never happen. The third-person discussion includes an anecdote that is meant to specifically explain her antipathy to marriage, involving a close emotional friendship with a man who took financial advantage of her. And in the diary section, there are several passages that portray Frith as contemplating the idea of sexual desire for men, and shrugging it off. Here’s one example, discussing a friendship with a man she had known since they were children.
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Among those Keepers I had contracted a firm and close friendship with Ralph Briscoe the Clerk of Newgate [prison], a notable and famous person, and the best and ablest to go through that place, they ever had or are like to have. He was right for my tooth, and made to my mind in every part of him; insomuch that had not the apathy and insensibleness of my carnal pleasure even to stupidity possessed me. I should have hired him to my embraces.”
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The third-person biographer is somewhat more bombastic and less nuanced in discussing Frith’s relationship to sex, attributing her evident chastity simultaneously to being undesirable to men, and to her own masculine temperament, but presenting this state as a type of virtue. A very little of the following description will suffice to give the sense of it.
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At this Age we spoke of before, she was not much taxed with any Looseness or Debauchery in that kind; whether the virility and manliness of her face and aspect took of any mans desires that way (which may be very rational and probable) or that besides her uncompliable and rougher temper of body and mind also, which in the female Sex is usually persuasive and winning, not daring or peremptory (though her Disposition can hardly find a suitable term for an indifferent expression of the manage of her life) she her self also from the more importunate and prevailing sway of her inclinations, which were masculine and robust, could not intend those venereal impurities, and pleasures: as stronger meats are more palatable and nutritive to strong bodies than Quelquechoses and things of variety, which may perchance move an appetite, provoke a longing; but are easily refrained from by any considerate good fellow, that knows what is the lastingest Friend to good Drink and good Company; her Motto.
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OK, I confess I got a little lost in the rhetoric there. And this passage is followed by the biographer’s opinions on cross-dressing in general among the sexes, which he mostly finds offensive and disgusting. Regarding Frith, he concludes by noting that at least she had the love of a good dog, as seen in this passage:
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So that by this odd dress it came, that no man can say or affirm that ever she had a Sweet-heart, or any such fond thing to dally with her. A good Mastiffe was the only thing she then affected and joyed in, in whose fawnings and familiarity, she took as much delight as the proudest she ever gloried in the courtship, admiration, attraction and flatteries of her adored beauty. She was not wooed nor solicited by any man, and therefore she was Honest, though still in a reserved obedience and future service either personally or by Proxy to Venus.
Her Nuptials and Wedding grew to be such a Proverb, as the Kisses of Jack Adams, any one he could light upon, that is to say, as much design of love, in one as in the other: all the Matches she ever intended was a Bear-baiting, whose pastimes afforded not leisure or admittance to the weak recreations and impertinencies of Lust.
She never had the Green sickness, that Epidemical Disease of Maidens after they have once past their puberty; she never eat Lime, Oatmeal, Coals or such like Trash, nor never changed Complexion; a great Felicity for her Vocation afterwards that was not to be afraid nor ashamed of anything, neither to wax pale or to blush.
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This last gets back to the whole “not like other girls” theme, as “green sickness” was supposed to be a malady of women who weren’t getting enough sexual fulfillment, and for which the symptoms (or perhaps alternate treatment) were the eating of odd substances. It is, of course, a blind spot of her biographer that he would view Frith’s lack of sexual relations with men as a form of virtue, but doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility of other interests.
Frith’s diary provides two anecdotes with somewhat contradictory evidence regarding the possibility that she experienced desire for women. The first involves a sexually charged encounter with a woman who had a habit of kissing men aggressively as a form of prank. Frith describes her as a “natural”, implying some sort of intellectual disability.
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There was a shameless Jade, as noted in this town as my self at this time, but for far more enormous actions; she was called Abigail, her way of living (she being a kind of Natural) was by ringing the bells with her coats for a farthing, and coming behind any gentleman for the same hire, and clapping him on the back as he turned his head, to kiss him, to the enraging of some gentlemen so far as to cause them to draw their swords and threaten to kill her. This stinking slut, who was never known to have done so to any woman; by some body’s setting her on to affront me, served me in the same manner. I got hold of her and being near at home, dragged her to the conduit, where I washed her polluted lips for her, and wrenched her lewd petticoats to some purpose, tumbling her under a cock, and letting the water run, till she had not a dry thread about her, and had her soundly kicked to boot.
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Mary Frith was not a nice person. Did you know that?
When the woman turned her attention to Frith, it may have been in tribute to her masculine performance. Frith’s reaction could be interpreted as being sexually disinterested in women, but as the anecdote indicates that men reacted negatively to the woman as well, she may simply have treated it as a hostile act the same as the men did.
A similarly ambiguous encounter with a woman is related from later in Moll’s life when she has turned her hand to managing a house of prostitution. The passage is worth quoting extensively because it includes a digression where Moll discusses a joking proposition to a man.
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[This is during a period when the events of the English Civil War were making the fencing trade less profitable. Frith turned her hand to keeping a bawdy house.]
...there being always, which I considered both in war and peace, good vent of such commodities. The voluptuous bed is never the less frequented for those hard and painful lodgings in the camp. I saw also, that the former traffickers this way were very straitlaced and too narrow in their practice, as confining their industry in this negotiation to one sex, like women tailors, that if they were to be hanged cannot make a doublet for themselves. In this I was a little prosperous, though to make good the simile, I could never fit my self.
[Frith digresses for a bit on the question of her own sexuality.]
One time...as I was going down Fleetbridge I espied one of my neighbors Mr. Drake, a tailor God bless him, and to my purpose, he was altogether for the women, quoth I in droll, Mr Drake when shall you and I make ducklings? He quacked again, and told me, that I looked as if some toad had ridden me and poisoned me into that shape, that he was altogether for a dainty duck, that I was not like that feather, and that my eggs were addled. I contented myself with the repulse and walked quietly homeward.
[Frith returns to the story of managing sexual services of diverse types. But although one might jump to the conclusion that she’s talking about providing male prostitutes to men, she makes it clear that she’s providing them for women.]
I chose the sprucest fellows the town afforded, for they did me reputation at home and service abroad; my neighbors admiring what this retinue and attendance meant, nor would I now discover it but to unburden my conscience, and shame the private practices of some great women, who to this very purpose keep emissaries and agents to procure stallions to satiate their desires, as confidently as they entertain grooms and laundries. I will stir this puddle no longer, nor dive into the depth of it any further, lest I pollute and inquinate the reader with the filth thereof.
[Despite this disclaimer, she continues to describe how, even when not providing organized sexual services, she lent herself as a private go-between to do sexual match-making. The following encounter was to the benefit of a “noble friend” who later would put in a good word for Moll when she was in legal trouble, as thanks for her services here.]
There was a noted lass a married wife of this time, whose story shall serve to conclude all the amorous tricks and pranks that were wrought by me, for indeed it sums up all that belongs or attends to such doings, and the account I promised; want and shame never failing to bring up the rear of lust and wantonness. She was in her youth a very curious piece indeed, but wanting a fortune competent and proportionable to it, arrived no higher at her marriage than an ordinary citizen, yet of good fame and reputation. For a while in the beginning of this state she lived continently at home, but the flies buzzing about her as they resort always to sweets soon corrupted and tainted her; this was not unknown to me, and thereupon I resolved that she was as free for my turn as for anybody’s, and forthwith I accosted her, using such caresses, promises and invitations as I knew the market would bear, so that I made her entirely mine, and gratified a friend with her first acquaintance, who in short, was that noble friend that preserved me out of the hands of the people at Westminster who had resolved on my mind. He had not long after occasion to leave London, and then I bestowed her on another, and so to a third, fourth, and fifth, etc. according to my best advantage, till such time she had contracted those distempers which not long after brought her to her grave.
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Despite those caresses, promises, and invitations that made the woman “entirely hers”, this doesn’t read like a story of homoerotic desire. The characters of The Roaring Girl speculate on this point, suggesting a bisexual Moll Cutpurse who “might first cuckold the husband, and then make him do as much for the wife.” But in the end, there seems as much suggestion that Frith may have been asexual as any other option.
So what are we to make of Mary Frith, aka Mary Markham, aka Moll Cutpurse? She was a woman of complexity and contradiction. She was forthright, unprincipled, and gave no fucks. She would have been a great companion to go out drinking with, and probably a fiercely loyal friend, but when it comes down to it, she probably wasn’t a very nice person. She took the expectations of gender and twisted them around to serve her own purposes, but she also absorbed and reflected the misogyny that pervaded her times, even as women at all levels were reaching out to seize greater opportunities and to demand rights over their bodies and their lives. She was as queer as they come, but had an uncertain relationship with sexual desire. Just the sort of person who makes a great inspiration for a fictional character--which isn’t surprising, given how much of what we know of her may well be fiction itself. But if so, it’s a fiction rooted in her time and place and reflecting an age that is bursting with possibilities for historical fiction.
A look at the life, legend, and literary figure of Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, 17th century English gender outlaw.
In this episode we talk about:
This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:
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