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Moll Cutpurse: 17th Century English Gender Outlaw

Monday, September 10, 2018 - 07:00

In conjunction with this month's podcast essay, I'm covering a couple of publications, both scholarly articles and primary sources, about Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse. Moll is a great example of what I'm talking about regarding the details of actual history being far more fascinating than the tropes they often evolve into in popular culture. Moll wasn't simply "a woman who habitually wore male clothing," she was a woman (and proclaimed herself a woman, without any denial or concealment) who used maculine-coded garments to negotiate her relationship to society and to the misogynistic culture of 17th century England while still absorbing and reflecting that culture's attitudes and beliefs about women's nature and place. She knew exactly where the several boundaries were regarding what would be tolerated and flirted with their edges out of a spirit of daring and rebellion. But she was also socially and politically conservative, a staunch royalist during the English Civil War, expressing disgust for men who she perceived as taking on feminine attributes, and disdainful of all parties involved in sex work, even when she herself was willing to profit from them. In popular culture of her day, she was depicted both as a figure of mockery and as a champion of feminist principles. One gets the impression that Moll would have been an entertaining companion to go drinking with, but not necessarily the most restful person to have as a friend.

Stay tuned for this month's podcast essay which will include excerpts from a number of those contemporary records, including the memoir discussed here.

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Todd, Janet & Elizabeeth Spearing ed. 1994. Counterfeit Ladies: The Life and Death of Mary Frith Case of Mary Carleton. William Pickering, London. ISBN 1-85196-087-2

This book is a study and edition of two 17th century “real life memoirs” of women who attracted mythologizing stories due to their unusual lives and criminal contexts. The label “counterfeit” women would seem to apply more obviously in the case of Mary Carleton, who passed herself off as a foreign noblewoman and used that image to acquire financial support and attract advantageous suitors. As there are no overt queer elements to her story, I won’t be discussing that part of the book in detail. Mary Frith (Moll Cutpurse), on the other hand, would seem to fit the category if one views her as a counterfeit of a woman, due to her habitual gender bending, both in dress and in profession. [Note: “Moll” was a common nickname for “Mary” at the time, part of a range of nicknames derived by a set of regular sound changes used to create variants from many base names. In this case, it’s part of the group: Mary > Molly > Moll.]

Their two biographies were published a year apart in the 1660s, shortly after the restoration of King Charles II to the throne. Both women were openly royalist and associated with images of cavalier “glamour”. Autobiography was not an established genre at the time. Both texts are framed as “novels” or “Romance”. Mary Frith refers to the picaresque tradition in literature, into which her life definitely fits! The two texts also suggest the genre of “criminal biography” that became popular in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Criminal biographies often straddled fact and fiction, echoing anecdotes and tropes from previous works in the field that are quite likely borrowed rather than true.

Moll Cutpurse appears as a character across a number of publications, but this is the only text that attempts to portray a real woman, rather than a mythic figure. It was published within three years of her death and survives in a single copy. The events in the text can be traced and corroborated with known events and places with great precision, supporting the accuracy of the contents.

The work contains three sections: an address to the reader, an introduction, and the first-person “diary.” The introduction frames the genre as moral instruction and gives a commentary on Frith’s life. Despite the work’s evident general accuracy, it’s uncertain what level of direct participation Frith had in its composition. The “diary” does appear to have a consistent and distinctive voice, similar to that found in Frith’s will. It is a distinctly oral style, suggesting that the text may have been taken down from her dictation.

Mary Frith was already notorious by the time she was in her 20s and is mentioned in a variety of contemporary texts. In popular culture, Moll Cutpurse is most familiar from Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl (1611), named after a term used for young women of transgressive and assertive behavior. The play’s protagonist wears masculine clothing, uses a sword, hangs out in taverns with thieves, but is also a supporter of the women in the play. The play’s epilogue suggests that Moll herself appeared on the stage while it was playing (although perhaps not in the eponymous role).

The Stationers’ Register (a record of texts authorized for publication) has an entry in 1610 for a work titled A Booke called the Madde Prancks of Merry Mall of the Bankside, with her Walks in Mans Apparel and to what Purpose. Written by John Day. No copy of the work survives and it isn’t certain that it was actually published.

Legal records from occasions when Moll was brought into court include her “confession” that she went about in “the habit of a man,” with boots and sword, to attend plays and taverns. This was not for the purpose of gender disguise. Moll not only openly proclaimed her female sex but offered to prove it to people. “[S]he told the company there present that she thought many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging they should finde that she is a woman.” She admitted to swearing and drinking in this recorded confession and promised to reform, but she denied that she was a “bawd” (a term referring to any woman exercising uncontrolled sexuality, not necessarily a prostitute) or that she had “drawn other women to lewdness.”

But the superficial penitence she shows in the court record (and the moralizing tone of Moll’s diary) is undermined somewhat by a contemporary record of 1612 noting “...and this last Sonday Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to the same place, where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce.” [Note: "doubt" here means "thought, believed" rather than negating the idea.]

Moll also briefly appears as a character in Nathan Field’s 1618 play Amends for Ladies (subtitled With the merry prankes of Moll Cut-Purse: Or, the humour of roaring) and in this case it’s quite possible that Moll played the role on stage herself. The role is very brief and mostly consists of some pointed banter on her gender presentation that is otherwise unrelated to the content of the play.

There is no doubt that Moll made her living by largely criminal means, though not necessarily as directly as her nickname of “cutpurse” suggests. Crime 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 easily identifiable by unique characteristics. This meant that the most profitable outcome of stealing an item was to receive a “finder’s fee” for returning it to its original owner. 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. The following description appears in a court record from 1621 when Moll was defending herself against a different charge.

“...became to this Defendant [i.e., Moll] and desired her to doe her endeauour to try if she could by any meanes fynd out the pickpockett or helpe him to his monie, he being before of this defendant’s acquaintance and hauinge heard how by this defendant’s meanes many that had had theire pursses Cut or goods stollen had beene helped to theire goods againe and diuers of the offenders taken or discouered...”

In contrast to the officially sanctioned feminine virtues of silence and modesty, Moll was brash, outspoken, and assertive. One feature of her diary is her rejection of the usual domestic skills expected of a woman, such as sewing. (In fact, she expresses a clear disdain for women’s lives, someone in contrast to the proto-feminist stance she is given in The Roaring Girl.) Having early rejected marriage and the usual alternatives for a single woman (food service trades, domestic service, prostitution, thieving) Moll created her own role on the edges of the criminal world.

Her life played out in a time of enormous political and religious upheaval, but also social and sexual upheaval. The structures relating the genders were being challenged and Frith’s life could be considered a representation of that. Frith’s adoption of male clothing is recognized by her contemporaries as a claim to male social power. Many of the activities she was condemned for, were not illegal per se for a woman but traditionally restricted to men. Even “walking abroad alone while female” could be cause for being brought into court on suspicion. On one occasion, Frith was charged with “unseasonable and suspicious walking” for being out alone at night, compounded by a charge of a “strange manner of...life.”

In 17th century English, full cross-dressing was illegal, but only on a few occasions did Frith wear an entirely male outfit. Her diary notes that typically she wore male-style upper garments with a skirt, a style that was not technically illegal. This was the sort of mixed signifiers in clothing that had become common enough to have inspired polemic pamphlets calling the fashion out, such as Hic Mulier. King James is recorded as having issued instructions for sermons to be given against this sort of gender mixing in clothing: “the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne, and some of them stillettaes or poinards, and such other trinkets of like moment.”

While Frith’s presentation resulted in descriptions of her as being “masculine” or “hermaphroditic” (a term that at the time didn’t necessarily imply intersex anatomy, only the use of a mixture of gender signifiers), she was far from unique (though perhaps extreme) in her style of dress.

There is little evidence for Frith’s sexual interests, if any. The tone of her relationships with men in her diary is one of non-sexual camaraderie. There is an episode related of a prostitute teasing Frith by accosting her and kissing her as she was wont to do with men, to which Frith reacted violently. On another occasion, Frith tells a story of seducing a woman of ill repute with kisses and caresses in order to provide her to a third party. [Note: this is a motif that occurs in plays of the era and is one of the contexts on stage for the appearance of female homoeroticism without implying the reality.] But in both cases, Frith expresses hostility and disgust for the other women, so it would be difficult to see either incident as evidence of homoerotic interests. Although the Moll Cutpurse of The Roaring Girl is sympathetic to the social plight of women, the voice of the diary is generally hostile to conventional femininity and carries a strong “not like other girls” tone, verging on outright misogyny.

Below are some excerpts from Mary Frith’s diary that particularly speak to questions of gender performance and sexuality. These excerpts do not provide a full and balanced picture of her biography but are most relevant to forming an understanding of her relationship to gender and sexuality.

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From the address to the reader:

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! where she would not fail, tide what would, if she heard of any such thing, to be a busy Spectator: so that she was very well known, by most of the rougher sort of people thereabouts, when she was yet very young and little.

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 would fight with boys, and courageously beat them, run, jump, leap or hop with any of them, or any other play whatsoever: in this she delighted, this was all she cared for, and had she not very young, being of a pregnant docible wit, been taught to read perfectly, she might well through her over addiction to this loose and licentious sporting have forgot and blotted out any easy impression. But this Learning stood her much in stead afterwards.

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.

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.

She could not but know moreover (for I suppose her of a very competent discretion and sagacity of mind as well as maturity and suitable growth at those years) that such Prostitutions were the most unsatisfactory, that like an accidental scuffle or broil might end in danger, but never in Love, to which she was no way so happily formed; nor was so much a woman as vainly to expect it.

[This is followed by a discourse on the topic of cross-dressing in general among the sexes, which the author of the introduction generally finds offensive and disgusting.]

No doubt Moll’s converse with her self ... informed her of her defects; and that she was not made for the pleasure or delight of Man...she resolved to usurp and invade the Doublet, and vie and brave manhood, which she could not tempt nor allure.

I have the rather insisted on this, because it was the chief remark of her life, as beginning and ending it; for from the first entrance into a competency of age she would wear it, and to her dying day she would not leave it off, till the infirmity and weakness of nature had brought her a bed to her last travail, changed it for a waistcoat and her Petticoats for a Winding Sheet.

These were no amiable or obliging vests, they wanted of a mutual correspondence and agreement with themselves, so unlikely were they to beget it abroad and from others: they served properly as a fit Covering, not any disguise of her, (according to the Primitive invention of apparel) wherein every man might see the true dimensions and proportions of body, only hers showed the mind too.

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.

[Note: although not mentioned at all in this publication, there is documentary evidence that Moll did marry at one point, although it seems to have been in name only.]

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.

[Note: "Green sickness" was a supposed malady of women resulting from lack of regular sexual satisfaction.]

[Mention of a close friendship with a shoemaker who took financial advantage of her, resulting in her breaking off the friendship.]

...she resolved to set up in a neutral or Hermaphrodite way of Profession, and stand upon her own legs, fixed on the basis of both Concerns and Relations; like the Colossus of Female subtlety in the wily Arts and ruses of that Sex and of manly resolution in the bold and regardless Rudenesses of the other, so blended and mixed together, that it was hard to say whether she were more cunning, or more impudent.

From the diary

[regarding her attitude toward gender-bending men]

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 thng 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 hi quit my walk and habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my neighbors, who used to say, here comes Moll’s Husband.

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 trupeters 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. In my own thoughts I was quite another thing: that I was Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso the most incomparably beloved Lady of Don Quixote and was sent of a message to him from my mistress in the formalities of knight errantry, that I might not offend against any punctilio thereof which he so strictly required; and also to be the more acceptable to my lovely Sancho Pancha, that was trained up by this time in chivalry, whom I would surprise in this disguise. These quirks and quillets and that instant possessed my fancy, but presently I had other representations. ... [the crowd is distracted by the passing of a fancy wedding party] 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.

[her encounter with a flirtatious prostitute]

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 [i.e., intellectually disabled]) 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.

[During a period when the events of the English Civil War were making the fencing trade less profitable, Moll 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.

[Moll 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.

[Moll 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 the 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 hereof.

[Despite this claim, 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 any bodies, 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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