One of the things I love most about history is the stories of people who lived in the past, particularly those who don’t have a historical event attached to their names. We find them in diaries, in footnotes, and in anecdotes. I often wonder what they must think if they were suddenly transported to the present and shown proof that their name and their story has been somehow preserved hundreds of years later. I’m reminded of the young man who went courting but ended up embroiled in a skirmish (“Young” Cambusnethen), or the mayor of a small Midlands town who caused consternation when he switched sides (Major Peter Burgoine).
While researching 17th century Ireland, I came across a volume by John Dunton called Teague Land or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Dunton was a travelling bookseller (or rather he enjoyed travel and managed to combine his profession while he was at it). Along with great details of houses, places and food that he encountered, Dunton was a storyteller and often shared stories of people. If you missed it, check out my earlier post, Rambling through 17th century Ireland.
One anecdote tickled my funny bone. In this case, he was recording a tale that someone else had told him. It’s possible that his friend embellished the tale, based it loosely on someone he knew, or entirely made it up. We’ll never know, but it is an amusing little anecdote that I wanted to share.
And then there was Sheila
It happened one day that a married couple, having heard a moving sermon on the benefits of confession, decided that should give it a try. Only they were not comfortable confessing to complete strangers, so they decided they’d confess to one another and get the business done that way. Probably not the best idea these two had, but there you have it.
Willing to jump first, the wife confessed to her husband that she skimmed a little from the household wheat, malt and fleece to make a bit of coin so that she could, now and then, make merry with her friends. She even raided his pockets when he came home “fuddled” (with drink) and took a few coins here and there for the same purpose.
Her husband cheerfully forgave her these transgressions because after all, he reasoned, the money and goods were hers as well. Now, before you praise the man for his wisdom, you must know that he just had to stir the hornet’s nest. “Have you always been true to my bed?” he asked his wife.
Well, the blushing woman said, “It was once my misfortune to violate your bed tho indeed I could not help it.” And then she told him how during the last harvest, exhausted about getting food for the labourers and the heat of the day, she laid herself upon a pallet of green rushes to take her rest. One of the labourers, Hugh the Rogue, came upon her at that moment “committed that base thing upon me before I was well awake.” Instead of telling her husband, she decided to keep the peace but swore that was her only time.
Her husband took her in his arms and forgave her, saying it was past and they’d not talk about it again.
Now it was the man’s turn to confess. Taking a cue from his wife, he confessed that when he sold their goods at market, there were times when he told her that he received a lesser amount for them and kept the rest for making merry.
His wife readily forgave him in the spirit that she had received absolution. “But,” she said, “have you not done the thing with anyone else since you were my husband?”
The man hung his head and admitted, yes he had. When their last son was christened and he was “fuddled” entertaining their gossips (godparents) and guests, he “committed the fault” with their serving wench Sheila.
After giving it some thought, his wife forgave him. He was after all, overcome with drink, and she herself was not fit to relieve his needs after having just given birth. But then the good woman asked, “Did you never do it but that once?”
Well, he says, there was that time when you had a toothache. “Being unwilling to disturb you, I applied myself to Sheila again who was as condescending as before.”
And then the fireworks started.
“The wife hereat, all enraged, slug the jugg at his head calling him a damned rogue, and wishing he might never be forgiven in heaven any more than she would forgive it here. For, you base fellow, sayd she, could you think that any paine, tho greater than the toothach, could make me an unfitt match for you?”John Dunton, Teague Land or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698)
Nothing more was said of poor Sheila, but I suspect she lasted no longer than their felicitous marriage. I wonder what became of her. That is probably a story in itself.