6. “strange and woonderfull syghts…”

At the beginning of Act 5 of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) Lovewit returns to his house in the Blackfriars; he has been away in the country for a month of “social distancing” escaping an outbreak of plague in London. He encounters a gaggle of his excited neighbours who are trying to convince him of bizarre activities that have been going on in his house, with all manner of strange visitors. Lovewit wonders about what his butler might have been up to in his absence:

                                                                                                What should my knave advance
                                                To draw this company? He hung out no banners
                                                Of a strange calf with five legs to be seen?
                                                Or a huge lobster with six claws?
                                                .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
                                                You saw no bills set up that promised cure
                                                Of agues or the tooth-ache?. . . .
                                                Nor heard a drum struck for baboons or puppets?
                                                .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
                                                The boy of six year old, with the great thing.
                                                Or’t may be he has the fleas that run at tilt
                                                Upon a table, or some dog to dance?

Lovewit continues to muse about what sorts of wondrous shows, pictures, animal acts, freaks or other marvels his butler might have used to draw such crowds. (The real motive for the visits, we know, is avarice.) My point is that Lovewit’s catalogue is not fantasy; the shows that he catalogues were staple entertainment in London and beyond, in the provinces where such shows travelled from town to town, seeking audiences just like players did. We’ve already discussed one such showman, Will Kemp the morris dancer.

“strange and woonderfull syghts…” The title of this page gives us the words of a delighted spectator, in Shrewsbury, remembering one of the shows that might have been in Lovewit’s catalogue, and that are the subject of this discussion.  In Performers Without Patrons you can isolate various performer types by setting a filter on that data-field, and an astonishing array of types of performer(s) presents itself, beginning with “Acrobat” through “Elephant-keeper”, various types of Freak, ending up with “Waits, Musicians”. Isolating the various possibilities under “Acrobat”, for example, turns up nineteen records from seven locations, three of which point to performers from France. One can repeat this filtering throughout the records, looking in turn at each type of performer, and thereby one can gain some insight into the astonishing varieties of performers that traversed the highways and byways of England and Wales. If you exclude all performer-types that allude to players, or musicians of all kinds, over 600 records remain that refer to other types of performer.

By and large the records in question are accounting records, and are often maddeningly short of details about the troupes, performers, types of performances, and so forth. But here are samples of some snippets of records from various places:

  • “to an Italian that thrust himself through the side to make experiment of his oil” (Coventry, 1616). One can only wonder what this performance might have involved! In this year, by the way, half the rewards in Coventry were given to performers without patrons.
  • “to Walter Neare that went about to shew a child borne without Armes” (Coventry, 1637-8). This example is one among many references to grotesque and unfortunate mis-shapen births that were displayed for profit in various localities. Lovewit, in The Alchemist, has given us a list!  In this year 7 performers without patrons, and 2 with patrons, were rewarded in Coventry.
  • A presentment of Ralph Shelmerden, Ape-baiter of Withington, for baiting an ape on Sunday. (Rusholme, Lancs, 1601). One can only speculate about how Ralph, living in a small Lancashire village (Withington) could have acquired an ape. This and the following two references highlight the wide variety of animal acts that were prevalent, besides the frequent references to bearwards. All the animals can be found by surfing through the Performer type field.
  • “vnto the person that brought the Camell hydre” (Rye, 1521).
  • “to the men which brought the baboons by his majesty’s licence” (York, 1607).
  • “the Iugler & the dog” (Ingram of Temple Meads, 1638; this is the first of 5 references to a juggler in these accounts in 1637-8. A performing dog is in Lovewit’s list.)

Two localities provide further details because of local peculiarities in record-keeping, and I will close off this discussion of Performers Without Patrons by spending a little time on some fascinating details from Shrewsbury and Norwich.

First, at Shrewsbury there survives a remarkable manuscript known as ’Dr Taylor’s History’ (bequeathed to Shrewsbury School Library by a Dr John Taylor, Classical Scholar, in 1766). Its author is unknown; he was an enthusiastic local antiquarian whose historical account of the town is filled, from about 1565 onwards, with eyewitness accounts and first-hand reports. The writer was addicted to the monstrous, the marvellous and the entertaining, from near and far. His earliest such reference, from 1572-3, is to “the head of a monsterows callffe which had iiij eyes, two mowthes iiij Eares and but one fyrme & playne head which was calvyd within iiij myles of the sayd towne…” It was exhibited at the Boothall (town hall), likely for an admission charge. In 1579-80 a boy of seven from York was exhibited at the Abbey fair as a living freak, and was advertised by a banner; he was cloven-footed and had other wondrous deformities although he was otherwise of “coomeley vysage & well spocken…” Adult wonders included one Antony Frynpan, a giant who had travelled from Flanders and was in Shrewsbury on 25 April 1581; he was two and a half yards tall and was accounted such a marvel that “many people resortyd both of the towne and coountry to see suche rare syghtes” at the house (presumably an inn) where he lodged. Sadly, he was mugged while travelling from Shrewsbury, and lost all the money he had earned in the town.  A last example shows the ambitiousness of such travelling exhibitors. On 17 July 1582 one John Taylor, of London, exhibited a veritable sideshow of “strange and woonderfull syghts.” Here’s the list:

  • A dead child with 2 heads, in a coffin
  • A live sheep with 6 feet, 2 anuses, 2 penises and 4 testicles. This sheep could respond to commands by doing tricks!
  • A live pig with horns growing out of its head and its tail growing out of its back.
  • A live eagle
  • A dead porcupine-fish
  • A dead calf with 2 heads.
  • A wild lynx.
  • Some type of perspective mirror device “which wolld represent inwardly…soondrye candells, chaynes, facys, Iuells and other thinges myraculously.”

One’s mind boggles at the logistical difficulties involved in maintaining and transporting this menagerie, living and dead. It was obviously undertaken in hopes of profits, and assuredly stopped in other boroughs and households besides Shrewsbury, on its journey from London. How, one wonders, were the three corpses preserved, without refrigeration? How were the eagle and the lynx restrained, and what did they perform while on show?

In Norwich, a fortunate (for us) combination of an often-locquacious Chamberlain and an officious and efficient Mayor’s court provides us with a wealth of detail about all kinds of performances, both by players and others. Exhibitors and other non-dramatic performers were sometimes, like companies of players, given permissions that extended over several days. The first Chamberlains’ account-book entries, from 1546-7, detail the removal/replacement of tables, trestles and forms to create a performance space, the purchase of beer and the payment of 13s 4d to “certen spanyardes and ytalyans who dawnsyd antyck<.> & played dyuerse proper bayne ffeetes at the Comon Halle…” Our puzzlement over “bayne ffeetes” (? probably feats of acrobatics) becomes total bafflement in a later entry, from 12 July 1600, in which “Iohn wheately of London wever did shewe a Lycens made by Edmond Tylney esquire Master of the Revells for the shewing of a beast called A Basehooke.” Presumably Tylney, Wheately and the city’s Chamberlain knew, but who else knows what a Basehooke is? In the words of the editor of REED: Norwich 1540-1642: “In spite of my having consulted scores of dictionaries…I am as far from knowing what a ‘basehooke’ is, as I was when I first came across the ‘straunge beast’ in 1972” (p 396). The Norwich Mayors’ court was careful to record many details about these travelling shows; in numerous instances the licences from the Master of the Revels, under which the performers travelled, are noted, so we learn that many of these exhibitors or performers had gained official permission for their travels, if not the protection of noble or royal patrons.

One striking example is Adrian Provoe and his wife who on 13 July 1633 presented a licence under the seal of the Revels “whereby she beinge a woman without handes is licenced to shew diverse workes &c done with her feete.” They were given permission to perform for four days. Two years later a strikingly similar visiting performer was recorded in Dorchester, where on 5 December 1634, we learn of “a french woman that had no hands, but could write, sow, wash. . .with her feet. She had a commission [from] the Master of the Revels. Not allowed here.” No reason was given for permission denied. It strains credibility that there could be two distinct women without hands but with talented feet within two years, so one suspects that there has been some alterations to identities and to the details of the licence. It is likely evidence of the widespread and continuous travels of some of these performers “beyond the fringe.”

I could multiply examples of the intriguing and remarkable performances that engaged the attention of townspeople in all parts of England, but instead I will let users explore this variety for themselves, in Performers Without Patrons. Enjoy!