In continuing my Female as Shapeshifter paper, the first part of which focused on “The true discripcion of a childe with ruffes,” I will now look at a popular seventeenth century ballad that has its roots in the thirteenth century, “The Lamenting Lady.”
(facsimile of the ballad in Pepys 1.44-45)
I have reproduced the entirety of the ballad at the bottom, but briefly, it is told from the first person perspective of a Countess, whose identity has varied among different accounts of the tale over the centuries, and who, while refusing to help a poor beggar woman carrying twins with her, heaps myriad insults upon her, among which are allegation of infidelity, for which the Countess is cursed to give birth to 365 children at once. The Countess dies shortly after the monstrous birth, but not before instructing her audience on proper moral behavior.
This ballad operates two-fold as it overtly preaches against the sins of pride, greed, and envy, resting squarely upon the shoulders of materialism to guide the argument opposing the byproducts of relying upon earthly wealth to garner superiority above another, which can be gathered by the original categorization of this ballad in line with others on “devotion and morality.” However, it also serves as a reminder of the dangers associated with fertility.
Further, through her refusal to the beggar the Countess negates ties of reciprocal obligation which helped bind society; the Countess was too proud to ever believe her efforts would be reciprocated by a poor woman who could barely feed herself and her two babes. Of course this too relies on the notion of materialism, where the expected repayment would be equal in physical value. Mere repayment with kind words or deeds was removed from the equation, and ironically replaced with reciprocal malice. As the Countess relentlessly defames the poor woman to the point of accusations of harlotry, the beggar repays her word for word with a curse. Most interestingly, the curse is an inversion of the Countess’s crime, and her reasons behind her transgressions. Her barrenness leaves her bitter as she balks at the fertility bestowed upon a woman whom she believes to be less deserving. Despite the Countess’s numerous efforts at conceiving, including partaking in only the best foods, another woman who in all probability doesn’t even have food achieves not a single birth, but twins. Thus the Countess’s spite against the beggar’s conspicuous fertility is rewarded with excessive fertility. Pregnancy, a perceived desirable state of being, especially for the Countess, takes on the attributes of the grotesque, and transforms into a curse, or burden she must literally bear.
Fertility and the pregnant body were causes for anxiety for both practical and sociological reasons. First, for the general population, unlike the Countess of the ballad, fertility lead to pregnancy, which logically lead to another member of the family, and consequently another mouth to feed. Excessive fertility that brought about multiple children in sequence, or worse, all at once, could severally deplete the familial stores. Secondly, and for my purposes more importantly, this preoccupation with the pregnant body was tied in with the idea that childbearing had multiple extraneous influences, brought upon by the mother’s conduct or even her thoughts.
While the beggar in the ballad is asking for money or food to support herself so that her babes may continue successfully suckling, the curse placed upon the Countess is not the result of refusing to perform charity, but rather a punishment for her conduct as she doesn’t just turn the woman away, but berates her in the process. Her womb is then reconfigured in accordance to external stimuli, namely her vitriol conduct. She operates outside of socially condoned behavior, as noted by the shame she feels afterwards, and as a repercussion the sins of the mother are visited upon her unborn children. Additionally, her actions not only dictate the amount of children that are about to pour forth, but also their size. In a similar vein to the child with ruffes I looked at in my last post, here the children’s deformities are found in their size, as they are as big as newborn mice. This obviously is meant to add “credibility” to the story since the idea of 365 full sized babies would be even more physically impossible to carry, but it also plays on the anxiety of premature labor that would often result in small, and consequently weaker babies that would have a slighter chance of survival.
Much like “The true discripcion of a childe with ruffes” was created as a means of admonishing women for their immodesty during such a precarious period in their lives, this ballad also functions as a guide for women who are told to “regard” the results of the Countess’s transgressions, and heed her warnings against improper behavior. In short, it is created in response to society’s unease at the idea of female autonomy, underscoring the potential negative consequences of women being left to their own devices; women must be corralled into proper conduct for their own well-being, and to ensure the safety of their progeny.
Here is the full text of the ballad (reproduced from A Pepysian Garland, Black-Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595-1639 – Chiefly from the Collection of Samuel Pepys. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins):
REgard my griefe kind Ladies all,
my heart now bleeding dyes,
And shewers of silver pearled teares
falls from my weeping eyes:
I was once lovely, faire, and young.,
by nature sweet and kinde,
And had those joyes that might content
a gallant Ladies minde.
But barren grew my wished hopes,
no children I could have,
Which twixt my wedded Lord and me
much cause of sorrows gave:
My tender body pure and faire,
and of a princely frame
Could not abstaine these surged joyes
that came by Cupid’s Game.
Yet beggers borned of low degree
such blessings did possesse,
Which when I saw my heart grew full
of woes and heaviness:
O why should people poore (quoth I)
those happy joyes obstaine
When I that am a Lady brave
should barren thus remaine?
Crawford, Patricia. “The construction and experience of maternity in seventeenth century England.”
Macfarlane, Alan. Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840.
Evans, Jennifer. Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England.