Ballads and Performance: The Multimodal Stage in Early Modern England

"She’s Crafty, She Gets Around: Women’s Craft and Commodification in Ballads"

the late seventeenth century, probably between 1680-85, according to the ESTC, an amatory ballad titled “The Scotch Souldiers Kindness” appeared on the early modern scene, to be sung “To the Tune of, The Crafty Miss. Like many other broadside ballads, “The Scotch Souldiers Kindness” does not point to the definitive title of a known tune, but rather to the title of a known broadside ballad whose tune could be used to perform this ballad as well. Likewise, in the same years, “The West-Country Wedding” was printed with the tune direction “To the Tune of, The Crafty Miss, Or, Moggies Jealousie. Both tune directions suggest that a broadside ballad with a title that had the words “The Crafty Miss” in it predated these ballads of the 1680s and the tune earned this alternate title accordingly. Indeed, the 1670s saw the production of “The Crafty MISS: Or, An Excise man well fitted” sung “To the Tune of, Moggies Jealousie. The Pepys edition of this ballad, in addition to citation information and facsimile/transcription images, can be heard sung by an English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) singer:

The “Crafty MISS” broadside ballad must have been popular enough that its title could be used as short-hand for an existing tune, which was titled originally either “Moggies Jealousie,” or—if “Moggies Jealousie” also referred back to an even earlier popular broadside ballad, such as “You London Lads Be Merry”—an earlier title associated with the tune. In either case, by the 1680s, ballads relied upon the popularity of “The Crafty MISS” for both their performance in song and their marketing by that earlier ballad’s name for the song. This essay takes these connections even further; it argues that “The Crafty MISS” ballad referenced by these other ballads is merely part of a late seventeenth-century trend for ballads about crafty women, a trend which highlights the performativity of gendered expectations alongside the commodification of gendered texts and bodies.

Craftiness in Context

When Anne Page marries Fenton against her parents’ wishes in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, her new husband makes her case for her, explaining that eloping with him was a holy choice, not a crafty one:
Th’ offense is holy that she hath committed;
And this deceit loses the name of craft,
Of disobedience, or unduteous title,
Since therein she doth evitate [avoid] and shun
A thousand irreligious cursed hours,
Which forced marriage would have brought upon her.
Here craftiness is aligned with disobedience and lack of duty, although Fenton lists it as distinct from such behavior. Craftiness is “like” being disobedient, in other words, but it is not the same thing. Instead, craft connotes skill used for trickery, which may or may not be used to ill, as when Prince Hal takes on the voice of his father to characterize Falstaff (who uses craft to effect villainous deeds): “wherein cunning, but in craft? / wherein crafty, but in villany?” (1 Henry IV, 2.4.457-458). Strikingly, Fenton readily admits that what Anne has done is a form of “deceit” and, yet, he suggests that is it forgivable because it was not crafted deceit. In this way, deception is less of a transgression for its purported lack of cunning. Anne’s parents readily forgive her “holy offense” and resign to the fact that she has married for love rather than money.

In this context, craftiness takes on a particular valence linked to both labor and profit as well as to wooing and sex. As the late seventeenth-century popularity of broadside ballads about crafty women demonstrates, the crafty woman (unlike Anne) channels practical skill into her romantic and sexual desire and, simultaneously, into her potential for economic independence neither of which would be sanctioned as harmless deceit by Shakespeare. This paper provides a survey of seventeenth-century ballads that describe women as crafty, on the contrary, in very positive ways, if not always unambiguously. I hope to suggest through this examination that, first, what marks these women as crafty is that they act as agents in their own financial circumstances; second, that these depictions of financial control or gain appeal to an audience of women and inspire them as consumers of ballads; and, third—and this is where the crafty woman motif can be turned against women—that this dynamic creates and sustains the “crafty” woman as a commodity in ballad culture.

Shakespeare predates the ballad fascination with crafty women, at least the fascination recorded in extant ballads, which appears to peak in the 1670s. At least fifteen different ballads with crafty women in the title were published by the end of the seventeenth century. Based on ballads in the English Broadside Ballad Archive in which “craft*” (i.e., “craft,” “craftily,” “craftiness,” or “crafty”) appear in the ballad text, these timelines show a marked increase in the 1670s and 1680s of ballad titles in which “craft*” appears in the title with specific reference to a female character.

While, on the whole, ballads referencing “craft*” are more likely to ascribe craftiness to the male character, those ballads that use “craft*” in the title to market the ballads are more likely to be about crafty women.

Correcting for ballads in which the “craft*” term refers to the “gentle-craft” (shoemaking), “priestcraft,” or “witchcraft,” the interest in ballads titled for crafty women is even more evident.

Late in the seventeenth century, in the heyday of the blackletter ballad, multiple publishers returned to the crafty woman genre. For example, sometime between 1678 and 1680, Francis Coles and his partners published “The Crafty Maid’s Approbation” (Euing 36, EBBA 31687) and then in the early 1690s William Onley and Alexander Milbourn published a variant edition with a more prominent title and larger woodcut illustrations. Yet, earlier in the seventeenth century, while Shakespeare returns again and again to notions of craftiness in his plays, rarely are his women described as crafty. Only when Cymbeline’s Second Lord identifies the Queen as “a crafty devil” in contrast to her son, Cloten, “the ass,” does a woman earn this epithet from Shakespeare (2.1.52, 53). Cressida, however, also ironically evokes her own potential craftiness while flirting with Troilus, joking that perhaps by confessing her feelings she has shown “more craft than love” to get him to reveal his thoughts (Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.153). Since she has also just lamented, “Where is my wit? I know not what I speak” and goes on to promise her ever-abiding faithfulness, the actuality of Cressida’s craft ultimately holds a similar ambiguity as her fidelity (151). In contrast, “crafty” men abound in Shakespeare, from, as instances, the Greek “crafty / swearing rascals” (Troilus and Cressida 5.4.9-10), to the “crafty knaves” of the English court (2 Henry VI, 1.2.103), to Gremio’s “crafty withered hide” (Taming of the Shrew 2.1.404), to Hamlet’s “crafty madness” (Hamlet 3.1.8). Ballads likewise give attention to a number of crafty men. “The Crafty Scotch Pedler: Or, The Downfal of Trading,” for example, argues that due to their craftiness in illegally pedaling wares, Scotsmen are not to be trusted (Pepys 4.326, EBBA 21989).

Like most crafty women in ballads, the crafty men frequently use their skill and cunning in conjunction with matters of sex and romance. These crafty men highlight the degree to which the exchange of sexual favors is imagined as a function of the exchange of commodities. In “The Scotch Hay-Makers: Or, Crafty Jockey’s Courtship To Coy Jenny of Edenbourough,” for instance, the eponymous character tells Jenny that Marriage has “grown a meer joak” but that, if she should stop resisting his sexual advances, he will “give [her] Gloves, and a Bongrace to wear, / And a pretty filly Foal to ride out and take the air. Indeed, this offer of “Trinklits” seems to be Jockey’s only strategy to gain her “Maiden-treasure” outside of marriage—an offer that Jenny outright rejects: “No, no, it ne’r shall do, for a Wife I’ll be to you” (stanza 3). Jockey thus demonstrates that, for men, craftiness in wooing is simply the act of offering gifts in exchange for sexual favors, perhaps with the added implication that he is clever not simply through this seduction tactic but also in his attempt to avoid marriage. Jockey is a familiar character type in these “Scotch” ballads regularly appearing along with Jenny, Moggy, and Jemmy in ballads about the courtship of Scottish folks. Accordingly, in “Coy Moggy: Or, The Scotch Lass’s Lamentation,” as Moggy relates her rejection of Jemmy, Jockey, and Sawny, she recounts how:
Jockey came, my Beauty to behold,
And offe[r]’d me a greater sum of Gold
Then Ise in all my Days had ever seen,
If Ise would let him, you know what I mean.
In response to his offer of money for sex, Moggy calls Jockey a “cunning crafty Loon” (29), once again defining the approach of purchasing sexual favors as craftiness. Similarly, the argument for “The Biter Bitten,” depicts a broker as a “Crafty Knave” because he attempts to seduce the wife of a joiner with gold. Another “crafty knave” appears in “The Undutiful Daughter of Devonshire” as a spendthrift motivated by the hope of depleting the eponymous daughter’s dowry. In sum, descriptions of a men as “crafty” overwhelmingly portray acts of seduction, in which they use craft in the attempt to seduce women, after which they abandon them. Under such conditions, at least as depicted in ballads, it is understandable that women would not want to become involved with crafty men. 

All the Single Ladies

While men’s craftiness is fairly homogenous in ballads, women’s craft takes several forms, the first of which is in simply embracing the single life, avoiding the pitfalls of seduction by crafty men. “The Subtile Damosel: Or, Good Counsel for Maids” advises young women to “take heed of false young men” by cataloging their ploys. The first stanza of the ballad reveals the motivation behind her railing:
I Once had a Servant,
            as other Maids have
That pretended to love me
            but he proved a knave:
He thought by his tricks
            to overcome me,
But I was as cunning
            and crafty as he.
The servant’s craftiness, defined by his use of knavish “tricks,” is matched by his maid’s craftiness, which takes the form of refusal.

If what makes the men crafty is their attempt to obtain access to women’s bodies by offering them money or goods, furthermore, then women are crafty when they attempt to maintain control in this exchange. For example, “The Crafty Maid: Or, The Young Man Put to His Trumps” sings the praises of single life, explaining how men generally cannot be trusted because they will spend all of their money on prostitutes. This crafty maid takes comfort in the fact that she can have her own money:
Farewell, be gone, thou sawcy Jack,
With thy Wealth and Money prithee pack,
My Portion is an hundred pound,
In Silver, and in good Gold so round,
Besides my Mother she doth cry,
I shall have all when she doth dye,
Then what need I care for thy Wealth?
Even as thou sayest, go hang thy self.
She explains here in the antepenultimate stanza that she does not need his money; she has her own and will soon have more. The crafty maid entices others to join her ranks, as the ballad ends with a standard lesson to “All Maids” that they “be wise, / And have a care who you do wed, / For fear you bring a Knave to Bed” (115-117).

Despite the relatively typical nature of the moralizing end here, that the crafty maid has the final word is remarkable since this ballad is composed as a dialogue between the maid and “the young man.” Her dismissal that he should go hang himself is in direct response to his passive aggressive threat, after she rejects him:
Before that I will Marry thee,
I’ll hang my self upon a Tree,
Rather I’ll give my Wealth and Store,
To one that begs from door to door. (89-92)
Abandoning his courtship of her because she has rejected him, he insultingly tells her that that he will live instead a “single Life … void of Care / for married Wives must pinch and spare” (72-73).

This ballad, when read, and especially when performed by a woman and man together, not only offers a straightforward lesson for all single ladies, but models and allows them to enact behaviors that resist their commodification in the marriage market. “The Crafty Maid” provides talking points for unmarried women to maintain control of their own craft in exchange with knavishly crafty men. Moreover, while economic factors loom large in these depictions, as these crafty women choose the single life to avoid being tricked out of their potential financial autonomy, the ballads make the case for crafty maids to be not only the subject or performer of the ballads and the audience of their performances, but also their consumers. Pamela Brown argues, “The ballad market responded to women’s lively interest by anticipating the concerns of the female buyer and casting many songs in women’s voices. In particular, “The Crafty Maid” genre ballad makes an implicit argument for its indentifying audience to purchase it: married women may have to “pinch and spare,” but surely crafty maids can afford a penny for a ballad.

Marketing the Crafty Maid

Indeed, “The Crafty Maid” appears to be a highly marketable figure. “The Crafty Maid, Or the Young Man Put to His Trumps” is dated by EBBA as likely the earliest of at least five different extant “Crafty Maid” ballads, including: “The Crafty Maids Invention”; “The Crafty Maid’s Approbation”; “The Crafty Maid of the West”; and “An Excellent New Song, Call’d the Crafty Maid. Not only do each of these titles employ the “crafty maid” trope, they also each advertise this figure in large and prominent typeface.

In fact, the only ballad sheet on which “Crafty Maid” is not the largest lettering is “The Crafty Maids Invention.” Here, “To all Young Maids” is slightly more prominent, thus emphasizing the audience and potential customers. Yet the address simultaneously calls out to the audience to pay attention to the subject and speaker of the ballad, the crafty maid, who is highlighted in black-letter font. The choice of font size and the distinct typefaces used for these first two lines of the title foreground women as both subject and target audience of the ballad, implying at once a moralizing distance from, and political allegiance with its female speakers and consumers. 

In addition to simply embracing the single life, a second subset of the ballad culture’s crafty woman finds the maid not only philosophizing about avoiding partnership and marriage, but also actively applying her craft to trick her way out of unwanted sexual encounters. “The Crafty Maid of the West” eludes a seductive miller, who dresses up like a gentleman and gives her money, thus exhibiting what has been identified as craftiness by men. She manages to avoid going through with the sexual activity he has contracted by putting horse hair and nettle seeds in the bed of the private tavern room he has secured for the deed, so that when he climbs in he is made so itchy and uncomfortable that he runs out in public naked, whereupon the tapster “whipt him about the Chamber so sore, / Made him to bepiss all the Chamber floor / Because he perceived his actions were base.” His public humiliation culminates with the maid laughing at him and jeering that “Your mony you ne’r shall have more out of me, / You’st pay for your wit, thou you thought me beguild.” Once again, female craftiness hinges on autonomy in both sexual and financial matters. Driving this point home is “An Excellent New Song, Call’d the Crafty Maid,” in which the crafty maid initially accepts the offer of ten shillings and a new pair of blue stockings for sex but then sends a cross-dressed harness-maker to bed in her stead, and—to add insult to injury—aims the final stanza’s lesson at young men:
And now all you young men that lead single lives,
Part not with your mony, but be well advis'd,
For maids are deceitful, and will not prove true,
Although you do promise them stockens of blew. 
This “Excellent New Song”—a favorite title for ballads rehashing old themes—capitalizes on the crafty maid trope by ironically aligning the character with the figure of the crafty knave who is untrue to his word. Ultimately, these crafty maids stay true to their titular names: though they maintain their virginity, they do so through knavish craft, and achieve financial gain to boot.

Sexual Agency as Craft

At least three additional ballads sell the attraction of women as “crafty” because the maids manage not only to avoid unwanted sexual encounters, but also to make something of a business out of gaining from their “craft”: they show their upper-hand to deliberately take revenge on and profit from their would-be seducers. In all these ballads women are sexual agents who promote the idea that women are in charge of their bodies and of their life situations. Just as women who consume and perform these ballads might subvert gender expectations by actively engaging in the literary marketplace, the crafty women subjects who take control of their own sexual lives exploit the expected performances of gender roles to access both agency and power. They craftily play the role of the submissive and obedient woman to undermine the authority of the male characters, who only think that they—as men—have the control when it comes to sex.

In “The Lady’s Policy; Or, The Baffled Knight,” the lady is described as “crafty” for repeatedly tricking the eponymous knight each time he thinks he has successfully seduced her: first she locks him out of her father’s house, then she pushes him into a river, then she abandons him with his boots halfway-off in a summer bower, and finally she secretly saws the plank crossing her moat so that it snaps—and he falls—as he attempts to walk across to her. In “The Trappan’d Maultster: Or, The Crafty Ale-Wife,” the ale-wife, frustrated by the maltster’s advances, gets her husband to meet him in her stead. The maltster is promptly beaten and humiliated, and ultimately forgives the ale-wife and her husband their debts, again demonstrating how crafty women both gain the financial upper hand and exact punishment through sexual humiliation. Similarly, in “The Crafty Miss of London: Or, The Fryar Well Fitted,” a friar in disguise as a gentleman bribes the crafty miss into accompanying him to a tavern by giving her money. While scampering around the room together, his wig flies off, and she realizes he is not a gentleman but an old friar. Taking her revenge for his attempt at craft, she tricks him into switching clothes with her in the guise of foreplay, but then promptly leaves him with nothing but her women’s clothes. As with so many other such ballads, the man who tangles with the crafty woman finds himself publicly humiliated and without his gold. The public humiliation underscores the degree to which crafty women exploit the public performance of expected gender roles, such that the lecherous men become subversively feminized objects of scorn. It also turns out badly for the man who tries to turn the tables and financially benefit from dealing with a crafty woman, as in “The Westminster Frolick Or, The Cuckold of His Own Procuring. Here, a vintner attempts to prostitute his “crafty lass” of a servant “for a considerable quantity of Guinnies” to a young man. The crafty maid protects her virginity by informing on her master to his wife, her mistress, who goes to bed with the young man in her servant’s stead, thus cuckolding her pandering husband.

These examples of crafty women who, as powerful agents, avoid unwanted sexual encounters and both punish and profit from the men courting them, are much like another subset of crafty women who, sex aside, simply use their crafty skills to “correct” men. Perhaps the most striking of these women is “Crafty Kate of Colchester,” who dresses up like a devil to frighten a clothier who had promised to marry her but then abandoned her for a lawyer’s daughter. The clothier is adequately persuaded by “Lucifer” and stays true to his original vows to Kate (78). In the end, after a year of happy marriage, Kate reveals her plot “at her Gossiping” (84):
It pleasd the Women to the Heart,
Who said, she bravely playd her part;
Her Husband laughd as well as they,
This was a jovial merry Day. (85-88)
Crafty Kate’s cleverness in this ballad, on the one hand, teaches her clothier a lesson, but, on the other, also secures the social and financial position that was almost lost to the already financially secure lawyer’s daughter. Moreover, the final stanza implicates the women who enjoy this tale as consumers of the ballad—especially when they perform it together as a group—showing how women participated as agents in jesting culture rather than merely serving as passive objects of jest.

Most of the ballads discussed so far suggest that women are crafty for financial gain, but also that these women are nevertheless virtuously chaste, insofar as they evade salacious sexual encounters: they embrace the single life, avoid unwanted sex, or punish seducing or untrue men. However, a number of women in this genre of ballads earn the label “crafty” by using their cleverness to secure their sexual autonomy in that they initiate or maintain desired sexual encounters. In “The Fickle Northern Lass,” for instance, a shepherd vows never to trust women again after the changeable lass he loves uses her “crafty wiles” to cheat on him with another man. Likewise, the crafty wives of “The Dyer Deceiv’d: Or, the Crafty Wives Policy, “The Country Cozen: Or The Crafty City Dame, and “The Innocent Shepherd and the Crafty Wife each cuckold their husbands through their craftiness. All of these wives significantly maintain the financial security of marriage—only the “City Dame” is eventually caught, but she receives no punishment—while also channeling their craftiness into fulfilling their sexual desires outside of marriage. They are perhaps the most striking examples of women who are agents over themselves and their social situations, whether to moral ends or not.

Craftily Commodified

Each of the crafty women of these ballads participates in jest culture as the perpetrator or agent—rather than as the object—of the jest, with the sole exception of “The Crafty Lass of the West: Or, A Pleasant Ditty of a Modest Maid, Who Mortgag’d Her Maiden-Head for a High-Crown’d Hat. This tale of a young woman who trades sex for a fashionable accessory, a hat, brings into sharp relief the issues of sexual and financial autonomy at work in other crafty women ballads. Here, the epithet “crafty” is steeped in irony, as both the young woman and her mother appear completely clueless about the nature of virginity and the basics of female anatomy. The crafty lass is delighted with her bargain, arriving back home and bragging to her mother, “A Hat I have and Money too” (48)! Anger erupts from the mother, though the maid continues to think she’s gotten a great deal:
Why sawcy Slut, her Mother said,
How was the good Shop-keeper paid?
He had my Maiden-head, quoth she,
Which has been long a Plague to me.
Although the daughter is relieved to be rid of her maidenhead, her mother wants the situation remedied immediately, and threatens to disown her
If this new Hat she did not take,
And with all hast a Journey make,
To give it him to whom she'd lain,
And fetch her Maiden-head again.
Fortunately for the crafty lass, the shopkeeper is happy to oblige. The shopkeeper’s restoration of her maiden-head leads to the culmination of the jest, in which the crafty lass cries, “Thrust it in further Sir, I pray, / For fear I loose it by the way.” The ballad ends with moralizing from, of all people, the lass’s mother: “Be sure you play the Fool no more.” While for the audience of this ballad, both female characters have played the fool repeatedly, the lesson aligns with the consistent message of the other crafty ballads: men will attempt to exchange goods for sex and women must be crafty to secure both sexual autonomy and financial control, not to mention vengeance. The deep irony of calling the lass crafty in this instance is only matched by the ridiculousness of the notion that she can restore her maidenhead through further sexual activity. Yet this double irony highlights and dramatizes the commodification of women’s bodies. In the literalization of maidenhead as an object of exchange, this seemingly unique ballad in fact underscores the way that women are treated as goods not just in economies of sex and marriage but also in a ballad market that trades on the image of the crafty lass. While the crafty women of these ballads rely on wits and guile to secure both sexual and financial autonomy, this last discussed ballad underscores that their independence remains a fiction, subsumed in the broader consumer market in which their craft if a capital good.

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