Heroes of Slang 22: Moll Frith

the roaring circle

The latest in Jonathon’s irregular (and irregularly numbered) Heroes of Slang series is actually a heroine…

I took Maths O Level in late 1962 and passed. It was my last encounter with the subject. Only geography from which I was removed having managed to claim the wooden spoon three terms in a row, provided a shorter experience; and ‘science,’ education being as it then was, failed even to enter the picture. I mention this merely to note that on pondering the ‘Heroes of Slang’ I notice that I have adopted what might at best be termed a cavalier take on their numbering. There is an alternative: it is ‘innumerate’. There are two no. 10s, no sign whatsoever of 11 or 12, though Dickens pops up at this point and perhaps transcends mere numerology, no 20 and a pair of 18s. No-one, I tip the hat to your politeness, has complained. Perhaps no-one has noticed.

Still, it is time for another Hero. Or, I am pleased to say, Heroine: Mary Frith, who bestrode both criminal London and the stage as her alter ego: ‘Moll Cutpurse.’

Frith was born near Ludgate around 1584. Her first recorded appearance was, fittingly, in a court record, accused of stealing a purse. No verdict is recorded, but there were further court appearances, again for thefts, at all of which she managed to obtain a verdict of ‘not guilty’.  In 1612, however, her luck seems to have run out. Writing to his friend Sir Dudley Carleton on 12 February John Chamberlain told him how:

Mall Cut-purse a notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to [Paul’s Cross], 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.

The punishment was for wearing ‘indecent dress: which as Chamberlain  makes clear, referred to Frith’s frequent sporting of male clothing.

By then she was indeed notorious. In a male-dominated hierarchical society she had come to epitomize much that that world feared and thus condemned. Her cross-dressing was seen as undermining the established separation of genders, her frequenting of tobacco houses – the first woman recorded as so doing – and her boast that it was a lifetime’s consumption of the weed that had ensured her longevity, was similarly subversive: women should not smoke. In these contexts, modern studies of her life have claimed her as a proto-feminist. In addition there was her image as a 17th century ‘Moriarty’, controlling every aspect of contemporary crime. In her role as both receiver and broker of stolen goods she resembled her 18th century successor Jonathan Wild.  Thus the modern historian John McMullen:

She acquired some control over the organization of thieving… and established a warehouse to handle stolen property. Her subordinates were paid higher rates and worked mainly for her; she in turn returned the stolen goods to their owners. Her influence as a receiver and thief-taker was institutionalized. Her informers and accomplices advised her about robbers and pickpockets, and advertised her reputation. She cultivated specific crimes, instigating a lucrative trade in stealing and returning shopbooks and account ledgers that had specific value only to business owners. She established a market in high-value items such as personal jewels, rings, and watches. Her influence in the underworld stemmed from her power as defender of the public interest…she provided shape and discipline to thieving gangs and she expanded the frontiers of theft.

In 1614 Frith married one Lewknor Markham, probably son of the author Gervase Markham (apostrophised as ‘the earliest English hackney writer’). Predictably, she kept her maiden name and the marriage did not last. She established a fencing school, but this was probably a front and perhaps ‘fencing’ was a pun. In 1624 she was summoned before the Star Chamber: her crime an unpaid bill, but the evidence focussed on her subversiveness.  In 1644 she was listed among those recently discharged from Bethlem Hospital, better known as ‘Bedlam’; it appeared that at least for a while she had been considered mad. She died on July 26 1659.

NPG D28538; Mary Frith ('Moll Cutpurse') after Unknown artist, published by  William RichardsonFrith became a symbol, as such celebrated and/or vilified in the contemporary media. There were verses (one by John Taylor) and pamphlets, but Frith’s finest hour came via the stage: Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girle, or Moll Cutpurse, first performed in 1611. There was no pretence about the heroine’s identity and Frith, perhaps egged on by the playwrights for purposes of publicity, even appeared on stage at the Fortune Playhouse. She was dressed as a man and closed the evening’s performance with a jig. Critics have argued over the play: some see it as an early demonstration of feminism in action; others, given the final scenes in which ‘Moll’ is re-absorbed into law-abiding society, as a sell-out, a means of ensuring that the audience left the theatre in the comforting knowledge that all was right in the larger worlds and the underworld was no more real, let alone threatening, than a stage performance. More important here is Moll’s cheerful revelation of the supposedly secret language of the underworld, its cant.

In the first scene of Act V the Roaring Girl meets a fellow low-lifer, one Tearcat, and as her guests, a gaggle of aristocrats, look on, puts him through an interrogation:

Moll: And Tearcat, what are you? a wild rogue, and angler or a ruffler…?

Tearcat: Brother to this upright man, flesh and blood, ruffling Tearcat  is my name and a ruffler is my style, my profession.

Trapdoor: I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben bouse, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat and a quacking cheat…

All good stuff no doubt – no less than nineteen discrete cant terms in this brief example and the whole scene carries on in the same way – but it reads less like a feasible dialogue and more like a cursorily dramatized slang glossary, bereft only of alphabetical order and explanatory definitions. A set of on-stage aristocrats are initially appalled by the language: ‘The grating of ten new cart-wheeles,’ complains one, ‘and the gruntling of five hundred hogs comming [sic] from Rumford market, cannot make a worse noyse then this canting language does in my eares’, but distaste leads to fascination. It is likely that the off-stage audience were similarly fascinated and equally keen to learn.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

8 thoughts on “Heroes of Slang 22: Moll Frith

  1. Brit
    March 28, 2013 at 13:18

    As Editor I feel I must bear most of the responsibility for the erratic numbering of this series. However, I hope that Dabblers will forgive, and perhaps even agree that it adds to the amateurish charm of this corner of the web.

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      March 28, 2013 at 16:20

      I will fifth that. I assume that it would be pointless writing a post for the Dabblers, on the subject of the hexadecimal numbering system, or vector quantities or even differential calculus.

      Or sums.

      • jgslang@gmail.com'
        March 28, 2013 at 18:23

        ‘Sums.’ Now that was the word for which I was grasping. I think for those who passed O level in style there were murmurs of something called ‘calculus’ but they took my hand and led me elsewhere. I have been told that mathematics can attain the rank of a language. My question: in which case, does it have a slang?

      • philipwilk@googlemail.com'
        March 28, 2013 at 19:42

        Yes, sums. As one who scraped through O Level Maths without understanding equations, a relative’s conversation with an old codger in a remote corner of Gloucestershire struck a chord with me. Asked how his grand-daughter was doing at school, the codger replied, admiringly, ‘She is doing ard sums – with letters in them.’

  2. Worm
    March 28, 2013 at 15:15

    What a shame that, with the exception of ENRON and possibly The book of Mormon, we seem to have lost the topical play as caricature.

  3. jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
    John Halliwell
    March 28, 2013 at 18:42

    I recall a visit to the dentist in the early seventies. In the waiting room was a battered Reader’s Digest (c1966?) which I decided to browse as a diversion from the aaarghs and oooohhs and “put it away, doctor, I feel faint!” escaping through the paper-thin dividing wall. I came across an article titled something like Ascent From the Savage. The thrust of the article was that human beings had come a long way since the 17th century when it was quite common for a child to be hung at Tyburn for housebreaking, or out in the shires for setting fire to a barn or a haystack. On reading today’s post, I thought immediately of that magazine article and asked myself: ‘How the heck did Moll Frith get away with it for decades with barely a slap across the wrists?’ She must have had something over the most influential members of the Star Chamber. Perhaps it was the capital crime of ‘having it away with a cross-dresser.’

    As they couldn’t nail her for anything remotely serious, did they conclude that the only way of getting her off the streets was to certify her as bonkers and put her away in Bedlam? And would her treatment have complied with current NHS guidelines? Possibly: strapped to a trolley, denied water, clipped around the ear, shouted at for breathing. Well it must have worked, they let her out.

    It’s a mystifying case. Last week Mike Fink, this week Moll Cutpurse. You do leave your readers longing for the next edition, Jonathon. Dickens’ followers must have felt much the same over the serialisation of Oliver Twist.

  4. becandben@gmail.com'
    March 29, 2013 at 08:33

    I just told the kids about this, their immediate reaction was to ask if she stole Nintendos. Such is the youth of today.

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