Librarian’s Pick #1

Over the course of Trinity Term 2020, the library staff at St. John's College will be taking you on a 'tour' of some of their favourites among our special collections. Every Monday, we will upload a new note on the item of the week. Read on to discover more about our chosen items...

‘Soften your cheeks to a jocular smile’: a little light relief in a relic among our manuscripts

– Ruth Ogden, Deputy Librarian

St John’s is fortunate to have a collection of over 400 manuscripts, ranging in date from the 9th to the 20th century, including some of great historical and artistic importance, which are deservedly well documented and consulted. But not all our manuscripts are wholly serious. Among the post-medieval manuscripts is a curious item, SJC MS 325, which may not be worthy of much scholarly scrutiny but shows that there is a variety and breadth in our collections that may not always be apparent. This single sheet fragment of pure frivolity probably survived merely by chance. It was only ever a piece of fun.

An anonymous letter, written in the late 17th or early 18th century, it comprises a mock-heroic poem about an encounter between a knight and an amazon.

Headed ‘Vernoni & Arnoldia’, its 34 long lines are evidently the lyrics for a ballad. At the top is the instruction: “to the tune of K. John & the Abbot of Canterb.”

to the tune of K.John & the Abbot of Canterb.
to the tune of K.John & the Abbot of Canterb. 

Vernoni & Arnoldia

Ye lusty old Blades who so gravely implore That God whom young Maia and Jupiter bore, 

Come leave off your plodding & drudging awhile, and soften your cheeks to a jocular smile. 

Not far from your city you know there’s a well, whose virtues your wives & your daughters can tell     

For if too retentive it will set them free; if t’other, ‘twill bless them with that faculty. 

To this well all the Beaus & the Ladies resort; some come for their pleasure & some for their sport 

And near it a Palace they call the Long Room, where many poor virtues receive their last doom. 

To this room on a day, a stout Amazon came, sublime in her person & great in her fame 

That Boadi-(what d’ye call’t)cea of old, at the head of her Britons look’d hardly so bold. 

Nor did her stout deeds her demeanour belie, as many can tell more experience’d than I: 

But if you want proofs of a much later date, attend to the conquest which now I relate. 

Amongst the brave heroes that honour’d the Ball, A knight of great splendour did outshine them all 

For he was a knight, and a knight of great weight: his mail was all gold & his buskins all plate, 

His stature was neither too high nor too low: his strength was collected with arms a kembow 

Like a cross bow bent inward & ready to fly; which should have defended the heart that hung by. 

Or have you not seen on the top of a chest, an empty gilt doublehand candle cup plac’d 

With the Belly out blown & the handles at rest? Oh then you have seen my brave champion dres’t. 

Ye Muses assist me whilst now I relate the seeds of fresh discord & horrid debate 

Which joyn’d (so the Pow’rs above had decreed) this so valiant pair in unnatural deed. 

Some God no good friend to this Champion’s fame, some people will have it ‘twas Pallas that came 

But be that as may be ‘tis sure one did come and quickly found out this bright knight in the room 

In disguise like a mortal this God did inspire our knight the stout Amazon’s sex to enquire 

Man, woman or either: which name she lik’d best. Her dress spoke the woman, her actions the rest,

Nor think such a question below his great name, all actions alike but [redoubled his fame]. 

If a male, such a hero knew well what to do. If not, he was skill’d & could take t’other cue. 

Ye Gods! Who can say what confusion & ire in the heroine’s breast this demand did inspire? 

With truncheon uprais’d & prepared for the blow, she brandished her arms o’er the insolent foe,

As Hebrew Judith as I have been told did o’er Olofernes that captain of old. 

And had not repentance redeem’d his great head, our knight had been brought full as fairly to Bed. 

Nor did his repentance his honour debase; such a conquest as this never carries disgrace 

When ladies add strength to their Prerogative it is prudent & decent their laws to receive.

So begging for quarter & bowing as low, one knee to the ground as for floor it could go 

He gave himself up to her conquering arm, and worship’d the brave that had done him no harm. 

In triumph she led her captive around, the victory pleased that was gain’d without wound 

This comfort the vanquish’d receiv’d from defeat: He was not the first that a Woman had beat. 

***************************

Beneath the text is a note:

“You will deliver this with my service & good wishes to the Gentleman & Lady above if not gone.”

On the back is the address: “Mrs Hannam at the Sun near the Conduit in Cheapside. London.”

It has an Oxford postmark with an illegible date and the remains of a red wax seal.

*****************************

So what can we tell about this curious bit of doggerel? We have no record of how the library came to have this scrap of paper. It was added officially to our manuscript collections in the 20th century but that may be when it was found somewhere in the library or elsewhere in the college.

The title characters remain unknown to us but tales of knights and amazons were typical themes in mock-heroic verse, a style of verse popular 300 years ago.  Audiences would have understood and enjoyed the parodying of an epic tale of battle between two larger-than-life characters.

The lines, always intended to be sung, are written in anapaestic tetrameter, a poetic meter often used for light verse or for comic effect.  The ballad ‘King John & the Abbot of Canterbury’ was very popular at the time. A recent rendition of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8whARtsDpUU gives some idea of how the lyrics may have been set to music.  There is a reference to a fashionable well with a place of entertainment nearby. Towards the end of the 17th century there were various ‘medicinal’ wells in London, for example at the original Sadler’s Wells, which began life in the 1680s as Sadler’s Musick House. Crowds flocked there to take the waters of the ancient well next door and to enjoy alcohol and light music.

As for the address on the back of our letter? Cheapside was the City of London’s high street and marketplace. The Sun Inn, behind the Royal Exchange at the east end of Cheapside, was a popular tavern mentioned in plays by George Farquhar and by Samuel Pepys in his diary. On occasions such as royal coronations or Lord Mayor’s Parades, when Cheapside was on the route of the public procession, travelling players put on their shows at various stopping places. Stalls and stages were set up, especially near the Great Conduit. Here exuberant and colourful masques and pageants were performed, many featuring characters such as ours.

The Cheapside Cross, with the Great Conduit to the right of it.
Illustration: Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty

Perhaps our Mrs Hannam was a singer who needed new lyrics for some forthcoming performances. But who was the gentleman with her? And who wrote these ridiculous lines? There are plenty of unanswered questions about this manuscript but one thing is certain:  then, as now, entertainment helped to lighten the load.

References:

British History Online. Version 5.0. Institute of Historical Research. Web. 19 April 2016. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol1/pp315-332; https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp140-164

https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1661/11/24/

Morrissey, L. J. “English Pageant-Wagons.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, 1976, pp. 353–374. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2737515.

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