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Friday, April 28, 2006

An Odd Ballad: "My Bird is a Round-head"

Here's a strange item I found while trolling through EEBO today for something else, and so in keeping with our EEBOnics project that Truewit founded, and following up on my earlier post about the Book of Sports, I present it here. Printed in the fateful year of 1642, the ballad, by Humphrey Crouch, is a mockery of puritans, but a truly odd one, featuring a madcap Northamptonshire man who loves "sports and pastimes" and sets up a maypole, which annoys a local puritan. When the puritan scolds him, the man's reaction is bizarre: he goes inside and gets his pet owl, whose name just happens to be Roundhead. What follows implies some sort of humor at the puritan's expense, but this segment of the tale is not exactly made crystal clear; maybe it was one of those you-had-to-be-there sectarian-bird jokes. You know the kind I mean, I'm sure. It's an interesting ballad, bird-humor aside, because of its take on those who "with mere toys do trouble [their] pates," an attempt to ridicule religious extremists for making such a fuss over trifles--and to convince others, in one of the period's most popular oral and print forms, to shun such extremes. All of which gains an added poignancy, I think, from being published in the first year of the civil war.

The ballad features a nice, custom-made woodcut on the left-hand side of the broadsheet:
That's the maypole in the foreground, for those of you who have never danced around one. To save money, the publisher simply used stock woodcuts of a town and a man for the right-hand side (which, following customary practice, is called the "second part" even though there is no break in the narrative):
You can see that these cuts are not in as good shape as the Maypole/bird cut, no doubt having deteriorated over years of use.

Here's the ballad in its entirety, and we'll see if we can use our collective critical-historical skills to decipher the comedy. I mean, why an owl? And why exactly does the puritan bring the other man before a justice of the peace? Bird-related slander?

My Bird is a Round-head
Being a very pleasant and true Relation of a man in Northamptonshire, that kept a tame Owle in his house, whome he called Round-head; and how one of his neighbours had him before a Justice, for calling his Owle Round-head.

To the tune of, let us to the wars againe.

As I to London tooke my way,
A pretty passage caus'd me to stay,
Which you shall know if you attend,
No honest man I will offend;
You that are wise in your conceits,
That with meere toyes doe trouble your pates,
[chorus:] To whit to who, come say what you will,
My Bird she is a Round-head still.

In Northamtonshire a man did dwell,
That sports and pastimes loved well,
A May-pole he set up on hye,
To recreate all Commers by;
But one that was more nice then wise,
Was much offended and tearm'd it a vice:

Neithbour (quoth he) you are prophane,
I wonder you will be so vaine,
A May-pole here for to erect,
Methinkes such toyes you should reiect;
Young folke about it dance and play,
It leads their minds too much astray:

Ile have it downe beleeve me friend,
Although that halfe my estate I spend,
Tis but a kind of an Idoll vaine,
Against it honest men complaine;
And thus this understanding Clowne,
Did still protest to have it downe:

Kind neighbour quoth the other man,
How long have you beene a Puritan?
Zounds the May-pole here shall stand,
It shall not downe at your command;
Youd have it downe, I pray Sir, why?
Come show me your authority:

This man he had an Owle in his house,
That killed many a Rat and Mouse,
And cause he would doe what he list,
He brought her out upon his fist;
And to his neighbour shew'd her straight,
That still stood bawling at his gate:
The second part, to the same tune.

Neighbour, what Bird is this (quoth he)
That here upon my first you see?
Tis a Mag-howlet tother reply'd,
That on your fist doth now abide;
No, tis a Round-head on my fist,
I hope I may call my Bird what I list:

The man began to fret and chafe,
Whilst he with his Owle did heartily laugh,
His laughing made him almost made,
The one was merry the other sad:
My pretty Round-head hurteth none,
Among other Round-heads my Bird is one:

She meddles not with State affaires,
Or sets her neighbours by the eares,
No Crosse nor May-pole makes her start,
Nor can she preach in Cup or Cart;
She seekes to pull no Organs downe,
Nor on an Image casts a frowne:

To be reveng'd the other sought,
He cal'd him knave and all to nought,
Before a Justice he did him bring,
And told the Justice every thing;
Before the Justice they came I wis,
But all they could get of him was this,

Sirrah quoth the Justice hold your tongue,
Good men methinkes you should not wrong,
Sir quoth the man, nor have I yet,
Though he thinks so for want of wit;
I have a Bird he sayes she's an Owle,
But I may call her Round-head or foole:

The Justice knew not what to say,
But friendly bid him goe his way,
Then home he went being dismist
With his Round-head upon his fist;
I wonder men so simple be,
They can be so displea'd with me:

There's none my Round-head will despise,
But such as are knowne to be unwise,
Giggy-headed fooles and dolts,
Sisters and unbridled Colts;
My Round-head is a gallant Bird,
Good words to her I pray afford:
To whit to who, come say what you will,
My bird it is a Round-head still.

(Wing C7285B)

A few notes and queries:
  • subtitle: Northamptonshire] What were the religious politics in Northamptonshire at the outbreak of the civil war? I believe the county favored the parliamentary cause fairly heavily, but I'm not sure. Would the setting have immediately told contemporaries something that we need to work to recover?
  • stanza 1, line 5: wise in your own conceits] see Romans 12:16, Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.
  • 6.1-2: Owle, Rat, Mouse] is there some significance to these animals? is there anything about the owl in particular that makes the balladeer choose it? or to the rat and mouse, in the context of mid-century politics and religion?
  • 6.3: cause he would do what he list] a rather poor line filler, I think.
  • 9.1-6] I like this stanza the most of the whole ballad; I actually find the combination of this list of typical puritan grievances and an owl pretty funny. The owl can't set up a cart and preach on it, nor will she get really upset about church-organs and try to destroy them. Even though she is, in the most technical of senses, a Round-head.
  • 10.3-4: Before a Justice he did him bring, / And told the Justice every thing] Ok, here's where it gets even weirder: it seems to be taken for granted that one could get a hearing before a JP on the basis of mockery involving a bird ...
  • 11.1-2] ... and the JP takes it quite seriously; I can see someone in 1642 claiming that being called a roundhead is slander, and early modern England thought a lot about slander, but the whole bird aspect?
  • 11.5-6: I have a Bird he sayes she's an Owle, / But I may call her Round-head or foole] The Maypole-loving man's winning argument: Judge, I have a pet owl, and as we all know, it's every true-born Englishman's right according to the ancient constitution to name his bird whatever he pleases, even to go so far as to name the bird Round-head or Fool. Isn't that in Magna Charta? No wonder the "Justice knew not what to say."
  • 13.3: Giggy-headed] I don't find this word or giggy alone in OED; probably a misprint for Giddy-headed. See Simplicius's comment for an explanation of this word.
  • 13.4] Sisters] Why does the owl hate sisters? I don't think I've misread the text here, though the EEBO reproduction is, as always, a bit hard to read. Fools, dolts, unbridled colts I can understand, but sisters? It's possible that it actually reads Sifters but what would that mean? People who "sift" matters of controversy too nicely and precisely?

  • At 4/28/2006 10:09:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Love this post.

    Not knowing whether there could be some sort of symbolic code attached to owl, mouse, and rat, I read 6.1-2 as a simple explanation of why someone would own a pet owl: "Why would that guy have an owl in his house? Oh, right, they kill mice and rats." I kind of needed that for the narrative.

    Also, is it possible to that an owl is a poor man's hawk? And do people still own pet owls? I've never heard of it, but I'm not quite the birder that some people are.

    I depresses me that you recognized Romans 12:16 without the aid of a footnote. I wouldn't have (sigh).

    My favorite couplet: "His laughing made him almost made, / The one was merry the other sad." Cracks me up for some reason. Poor, sad Roundhead.


  • At 4/28/2006 10:21:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    That woodcut of the man isn't quite so general: I think it's Thomas Nashe. Or, the woodcut was used to represent Thomas Nashe in a 1597 pamphlet called, "The Trimming of Thomas Nashe." But Charles Nicholl, at least, seems to think that it's actually a woodcut portrait. Now, if it is the same cut, it's been a while, and it's been altered: in 1597, there are chains on his legs, which are linked to some kind of a cord that he holds in his right hand: you'll see in this cut that that hand is positioned oddly, as though it were holding something, but there's nothing there. And I think if you look at his ankles, you can see that what looks like socks weirdly pulled up are actually the leg braces to which the chains were attached.

    How -- or if -- this tells us anything about the 1642 text, I have no idea. But the image looked familiar to me. Could Nashe's role in the Marprelate controversy have something to do with this?


  • At 4/28/2006 10:30:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    "You'll see in this cut that that hand is positioned oddly, as though it were holding something, but there's nothing there."

    Well, he could be about to hold something there--that "there" being an overdetermined "there," yes. Inkhorn has made that woodcut much dirtier than it first was in my eyes. Surely not what anyone intended, but I can't unthink the thought, unsee the image.


  • At 4/28/2006 11:12:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    On the Romans quotation, first of all, I love that this ballad quotes Romans--just shows you how pervasive and central the text was to early modern England. Here we have the cheapest of cheap print alluding to it, in a text that mocks extreme religiosity.

    Second, the quote is from the Authorized Version, since Geneva has: Be of like affection one towardes another: be not hie minded: but make your selues equall to them of the lower sort: be not wise in your selues.

    At Romans 11:25, the AV also has For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits, while Geneva has For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this secret (least ye should bee arrogant in your selues).

    Not surprising, of course, that an anti-puritan text would quote AV over Geneva.

    Finally, while I recognized the phrase as biblical, I can't claim to have known chapter and verse off the top of my head. What do you take me for, a roundhead? Here's a great web resource for searching/comparing English bible translations. Most of the search engines and translations, of course, are provided by our latter-day puritans-on-the-web, but what can you do?


  • At 4/28/2006 12:24:00 PM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    This is fabulous!

    Am I wrong in thinking that the guy in the first woodcut IS the roundhead, rather than the bird's owner?

    One thing that seems suggested to me by the use of an owl--aside from its inarguably round head--to represent a puritan is the implied contrast between the two: owls are proverbial for wisdom, right? And that puritan looks pretty uncomfortable and silly with that bird on his hand. He's no Athena, is what I'm saying.

    And could "sisters" just be a way of saying "young maids"? If "giggy" is assumed to apply to them as well, that might make sense, though I don't entirely like that explanation.

    I'm also pretty sure that Northamptonshire was strongly parliamentarian, though I don't have any resources here to check on that right now. (And whether that fact would have been popular knowledge is another question.)


  • At 4/28/2006 12:52:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Well, the woodcut of course may not agree with the text in all particulars, but I'm pretty sure in the text, at least, it's the maypole-lover who has the owl on his fist:

    He brought her out upon his fist ...
    ...tis a Round-head on my fist,
    I hope I may call my Bird what I list...

    The text gets pretty confusing around here because of all the poorly identified personal pronouns.

    I like your suggestion about "sisters"--that may be right.


  • At 4/28/2006 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Not quite the same credibility as the OED, but there's this definition of "giggy" from the world of jazz:

    "'gig' the musician's engagement, probably derives immediately from the 'gig' that is a dance or party, but 'gig' and 'gigi' (or 'giggy') also are old slang terms for the vulva; the first has been dated to the seventeenth century."

    I haven't been able to track down anything related to "the vulva," but there are these related OED definitions.

    A "gig" (n1.II.4) was "A flighty, giddy girl."

    And there's also this adjective: "giggish," which means "Lively, flighty, wanton," which was related to the word "giglet," which was "Originally, a lewd, wanton woman (obs.)" and became "A giddy, laughing, romping girl."

    And there's this adjective too, "gigly," which means "Lascivious."

    I would place "giggy-headed" among these similar, and similar sounding, words. The "giggy-headed fools" were those with the ladies on their minds a bit too much.

    My seventh-grade English teacher would have considered me "giggy-headed." She wrote in my yearbook, "Blah blah blah, and keep the girls at a distance."


  • At 4/28/2006 01:09:00 PM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    Yeah, it doesn't make sense that the roundhead would have the bird on his fist--but look at that hat! That haircut! And especially the perplexed and consternated expression on his face!

    It looks to me as though someone was trying to draw a comparison between the two by placing them side-by-side.


  • At 4/28/2006 01:14:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Nice philology, S. I've updated the post to reflect it.

    The connection of gig with dancing and whirling (whirligig) probably resonates here as well, given the whole maypole-dancing thing.

    I should have examined that one more closely.


  • At 4/28/2006 01:17:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    LL: yes, or else the woodcutter wasn't reading the ballad too closely.


  • At 4/28/2006 02:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Quarrelling neighbours could turn to JPs with all sorts of trivial and odd-sounding (to us) complaints about each other. Mind you, even the JP is a bit nonplussed by this...


  • At 4/29/2006 03:29:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Narratively, the guy can't be the Roundhead, but visually, he very well could be. And it's much funnier if he is. But is his hat a particularly "Puritan" hat? I don't know enough about headware in the period to say. Any chance someone wants to do a post on hats (and the politics of headware) during the Civil War?


  • At 5/01/2006 11:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I agree with LL: your readings are terrific, and fun to engage even for us out-of-fielders.

    More Bulwer, please.


  • At 6/25/2006 03:00:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    In bestiaries, the Owl is often emblematic of the 'Jew', and sinners at large, since it is blind to the light of the sun/Son. Iconographically the Owl is often presented as such, with a hooked beak, or horns, both common 'features' highlighted in medieval representations of Jews. (The owl in the woodcut has horns, but the beak seems reasonably straight to me).

    The Owl is also often depicted as being mobbed by other birds, which is what happens when they venture out during the day – their poor eyesight makes them easy targets – a fact used by medieval hunters to snare other birds by using owls (real and fake) as bait. This 'mobbing' is often used to reflect the 'justified' persecution of the Jews/sinners by righteous folk. For me, the choice of the Owl is appropriate for a satirical ballad on Puritans, since they are often derided as Jews/Judaizers.

    Further, the fact that the Owl is the only bird that has eyes in the front of its face, which is round, explains the use of the Owl/Roundhead motif.


  • At 6/25/2006 11:56:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    that's fascinating--never knew about those associations.


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