Early Modern Women protesting with vim and vinegar

I am on the <research> road again.

I love the moment of researching for a new book, which will be my fourth. The title shall remain nameless for now. I have learned that if I publicly announce the title, something invariably will arise that would leave me no choice other than to change the title (Writer Murphy’s Law No. 10*), and I really like The Book That Should Not Be Named. [*Side Note: This is why writers use shorthand and just refer to the project as WIP, in case you’re wondering.]

But I digress . . . already. But then again, research is an endless digression. At least I am in the proper frame of mind. I will say in my defence that only through digressing does one find the nuggets of gold that end up holding the entire plot together. But that’s for another day.

Where was I?

Leveller tracts!

I am currently researching the Leveller movement. The Book That Should Not Be Named (and this can be safely be announced) will be set in London during the Interregnum around the time that Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector. The height of the Leveller movement, led by John Lilburne, or Freeborn John as he was also affectionately known, was during the English Civil War before Charles I was executed by Parliament, many years before this book is set. The Levellers believed in freeborn rights for all English men, which was revolutionary at the time. Unfortunately, this radical faction, who were very convenient when Parliament was trying to depose of the king, became very inconvenient when Cromwell tried to rule instead. I seem to have an affinity for the last dying breaths of a movement, so here I am poking around history to learn more about its final days.

I have a notion that my new heroine will be a Leveller or harbour Leveller leanings. The Leveller ideology did not extend to women’s rights, but that did not mean that women weren’t activists or out there protesting. I’m currently combing through Leveller tracts and learning more about the women behind this movement. Ironically, the first pamphlet I dove into was written not by a Leveller but a Royalist. Are you really surprised? Rather than moving on, of course I had to read it (divergence #1).

The author, Mary Stiff, had a great deal to protest about, and she was no shrinking violet in her criticism of the Commonwealth (the interim between the Monarchy and the Protectorate). In fact, Mary Stiff and her publication The Good Womens Cryes Against the Excise of All Their Commodities (4 January 1649/1650)* was an absolutely delightful full-on rant against Cromwell and his Regicide cronies in the most entertaining way possible. [*Note: Mary Stiff’s pamphlet would have been printed January 1650, nearly a year after King Charles I’s execution. To read more about date nomenclature, check out this article.]

Mary referred to the style of her prose as “vinegar verse“. I’ve never heard of this term before, so obviously I had to google it (Divergence #2. This is how things go). Unfortunately, I could not find any other examples, or references, of vinegar verse. Perhaps it was an invention of Mary Stiff (she was creative, to be sure). As to its meaning, it becomes very clear when you read the full pamphlet. The words are sharp and tart and full of piss and vinegar (a much later term, but you understand what I mean).

From the first page, I decided I liked Mary Stiff very much. In these old publications, the front page serves to summarize the content and catch readers’ interest, but it also records the more mundane publication details: publisher, publication date, as well as where it was to be sold. With the opening page, Mary Stiff grabs the bull by the horns (literally) and runs away with it:

"Printed at the Sign of the Hornes in Queen-street, near my Lord Fairfax's House, and are to be sold at the Dildoe in Distaffe-Lane, 1650."

Yes, she did write “dildo”.

Sign of the horns is a reference to a man who has been made a cuckold by his wife with another man. I don’t believe Mary is really talking about adultery, but a man who has become a cuckold would have been looked on by his peers as a useless, weak man. It’s possible that Mary and her sisterhood may have been fed up with the state of affairs and decided that if the men didn’t have the balls to speak out, they would do it for them.

Mary starts her rant by complaining about the crippling excises that the new Commonwealth government enacted in 1650. The people did not go meekly before these taxes. Besides protests in London, there were riots in Worcester, Stafford, Derby and Nottingham. Ironically, when the late king levied the Ship Tax to finance his expenditures, Parliament had been hotly opposed. The irony was not lost on Mary Stiff who clearly expressed the opinion that their lives were not improved after Parliament seized control of the country and vanquished the monarchy:

"Good People all that heart our Cryes, Pitty poore Womens Miseries. WE cannot now set on the Pot, with a Sheeps-head dyd of the rot, Oynon nor Oatemell use God-wot; (pox take them). When that we goe to salt our meat, or to make Pyes to bake and eat, this damn'd Excise lies in the heat that bakes them." 

Love the bolded passage. What a great turn of phrase! I’m intrigued, and there’s no way I’m moving on at this point.

"Excise on Ale, Excise on Salt, Excise on Cloath, Excise on Malt; Excise on what so ere you call’t, and feare not. All Linnen fine or course must pay, Excise, or else they’l tak’t away, Lord who ere thought to see this day, in England? for Feather-beds, for Chairs, for Stooles; for Childrens Babyes, Caps for Fooles, and for all handy-crafts-mens tools, these Knaves stand Excise for Paper I must pay, or else my Muse must pine away;"

The bolded line makes me think that Mary was a writer, for only a writer would understand the power of the Muse and the need to keep them well-fed and content. It’s not likely that she published this under there true name, but I have to wonder if she had been a scrivener or worked with a publisher. Certainly she had connections and the means to get her diatribe published. Literacy grew exponentially during the Early Modern period, even for women, and yet by this time only about 30% of women would have been considered literate. Mary clearly was, which leaves me thinking that she must have come from a family of some means.

With another spicy verse, we can assume she’s a wife and mother, and she’s not above hitting a few shots below the belt. I have this image of a seasoned woman deciding she had enough. I can feel her frustration and anger and appreciate the risk of criticizing Cromwell and his own:

"Our Husbands they no work can get, our Children starve for want of meat, and all we earne must make Knaves great, in bravery; whilst Cromwells Trull sits like a Queen; in Cloath of Silver, Sattin green, eats all the dainties can be seen, by slavery: Then doth her Stallion feed his fill, and of his Lust then has his will."

But Mary doesn’t stop there. Oh no. She then turns her sights on the regicides who were responsible for setting the high taxes, calling them out for their hypocrisy.

"They butcher’d Charles at his owne gate, they tooke his Jewells, Money, Plate; and call themselves a Free State, by plunder: They sold his Haire, his Blood, and Crowne; they keep the Prince too from his own, were ever such damn’d Traytors knowne, O wonder! They sold his Houshold-stuffe & Goods, his Mannors, Forrests, Chases, Woods; yet seek to shed his Childrens bloods, like Devills: They damn’d their souls by treacherie; sacriledge, and perjurie; of covetousnesse no end we see, of evills."

And now we get to the part that I find particularly intriguing, leading me full circle to women as activists:

"Then in come Meg and loyall Doll, and bid a pox of God take Noll [Oliver Cromwell], and all the Rebells in VVhite-hall, confounded; quoth Meg the Devill take them all; quoth Doll I hope to see them fall, or else be hang’d before VVhite-hall, each Roundhead. Quoth Sis, a plague take Bradshaw Iack, quoth Sue, the devill take the pack; Heaven grant they ne’re may hanging lack, nor curses: and when they’r at the point to die; Heaven nor Physitian hear their cry, all Ministers comfort them deny, and Nurses. Quoth Moll, some plague give them their hire, that they may dye like Pym their Squire, like Dortslaw, or like Macquire, be hanged: quoth Besse, a while Ide have them stay, till. Destruction makes them way; and when the King shall win the day, be hanged, Quoth Kate, my wishes they shall have, each perjured Rebell, Foole, and Knave, may hang in Chaines and want a grave, to bury: quoth Ruth, professe I doe not think, but that the Knaves begin to stink; being even now at Destructions brink, to ferry. Quoth Prue, Charon will surely take then in, and Furyes whip them for their sin; not sparing VVeaver, not Evelyn, nor Grimston: quoth Deb, may Fairfax, Pride, and Rich, Hewson, and Ioyce, that lowsie stitch, have fire and scorpions at their breech, and Brimston; quoth Peg, good Sisters I could curse, but ’twill but make them worse and worse, like Foxes they thrive better thus, in Treason: give them but Rope, they’l hang themselves, and wrack their hopes on Rocks and Shelves, and thats the end of all such Elves in Reason. Lets all set forwards and redresse our grievances, quoth Madge and Besse, and snatch these Sonnes of Wickednesse, in sunder: content (quoth Meg) my Distaffe shall upon their pates so heavy fall, that Ile goe neere to beat them all, with wonder. Lets chuse a Generall (quoth Kate) and we their Pride will soone abate; it is not done with talke and prate; but action:"

A sisterhood of activists. I can see them all in my mind, especially Meg who is brandishing her distaff or fierce Deb who wishes scorpions and fire upon them. If I were Thomas Fairfax, Thomas Pride, John Hewson or the others, I’d take give my clothing an extra shake in the morning for good measure.

Before I slip back into the rabbit hole to find more pamphlets, I’ll leave you with this…

"They then proceeded to a Choice, and every Woman had her Voice."

Amen, Sister.


The Good Womens Cryes Against the Excise of All Their Commodities can be read online through Online Library for Liberty.

8 Comments

  1. Kathleen

    Cryssa, this is why I love and appreciate your work. The research you put into your stories, the history you share with us, all the while weaving a heartfelt story around it all. I see other “authors” who seem to churn out a book each month and their lack of effort shows IMO. I can’t wait for The Book that Should Remain Nameless, or whatever you are calling it. However, I just had a thought..where does this leave Nathaniel?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so very much for your kind words! I really appreciate it. 🙂 People are at the heart of every story, no matter if they lived centuries ago. The Book that Should Remain Nameless is Nathaniel’s story and I’m enjoying digging into the unsettled world of 1653-1654 London. I plan on sharing more of my research as I go instead of releasing it all at the end of the project.

      Like

  2. This is great, Cryssa. What a hoot, and what a poet! You are having way too much fun with your research — I’m envious! Can’t wait to read Book 4.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I am having fun with it. Can’t wait to see what other stories I dig up.

      Like

  3. A great find. The sentiments apart, Ms Stiff had a fine sense of rhyme and rhythm which I hadn’t appreciated existed way back then. I wonder are there other examples of her work?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question. I’ll be searching for more. I’m glad others found her work intriguing.

      Like

  4. Cryssa, informative and enterrtaining, and so nicely written. Your hard work shows.

    Liked by 1 person

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