Mary Frith: Roaring Girl

Holly Kyte

A 17th century hellraiser is the perfect subject for International Women's Day
An image of Mary from The Roaring Girl
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On Christmas Day 1611, a woman named Mary Frith – better known to her contemporaries by the nickname Moll Cutpurse – was arrested at St Paul’s Cathedral for a whole host of ‘unwomanly acts’: she drank, she smoked, she swore, and worst of all, she walked the streets of London dressed in men’s clothes. The result was a charge of public immorality, and a punishment designed to humiliate and correct her: she would do public penance in a white sheet, at the open-air pulpit of St Paul’s Cross within the cathedral grounds, where all could bear witness to her forced repentance and the symbolic purification of her soul.

There was just one problem. The ecclesiastical court, which dealt with all lapses in personal morality, was attempting to shame and reform a woman who would not be shamed or reformed. When the day came, Mary Frith could barely bring herself to take the thing seriously – it was noted by one onlooker that this ‘notorious baggage’ was drunk throughout proceedings and weeping only crocodile tears. The priest’s sermon, meanwhile – a lengthy oration denouncing her sin – was so mind-numbingly tedious that most of the crowd lost interest and wandered off halfway through. But then it was not a moralising lecture they had come for that day. It was to see Moll Cutpurse herself – one of the most infamous women of Jacobean London.

Thomas Middleton

Since her teenage years Mary had had a remarkably successful career as a cutpurse, or thief. Despite being caught several times, she always managed to wriggle out of trouble and avoid the hangman’s noose. In Shakespeare’s London, she plied her trade in the streets, playhouses, taverns and bear pits of Bankside, the entertainment district of Southwark that lay conveniently outside the City’s jurisdiction, and by her early twenties had risen through the ranks of the criminal underworld to become its very own Fagin, managing a coterie of thieves who went out to do the dirty work for her. By this time she had also developed an unusual sideline in street entertainment, dressing in men’s clothes and performing skits for the public, while her gangs of pickpockets ducked and dived through the crowds, cutting purses as they went.

By 1611, she had such a reputation as a curious local personality that London’s playwrights began to take notice. In the spring of that year, the prolific dramatists Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton presented their city comedy The Roaring Girl at the Fortune Theatre, which put the notorious character of Moll Cutpurse – a woman most people in Jacobean England would consider a ‘monster’ – at its heart. The moment Moll swaggers onstage, however, it’s clear that she is no monster; she’s a model of chastity, wit and integrity, the moral heart of the action and the play’s undoubted heroine.

That was radical enough, but the playwrights had a final coup de théâtre up their sleeves. One day, at the close of the play’s performance, the Roaring Girl herself appeared onstage, in full male dress, to play her lute and sing a song. And, given that in Jacobean England women were barred from performing on the public stage, this was a daring act that would land her in prison.

No matter what the punishments, however, Mary Frith remained an unreformed Roaring Girl to the end, and after her death, her story became legend. She seemed to represent the emergence of a new kind of woman who was both alarming and deeply thrilling: outrageous, irreverent, transgressive – who broke the rules and didn’t care what people thought.

Which is why I wanted to write about her, and other women like her. It’s why I named my book after her. Roaring Girls: The Extraordinary Lives of History’s Unsung Heroines tells the life stories of eight women who lived in the 300 years before the first wave of feminism, and who all in their own inimitable way rewrote the rulebook on what a woman could be and do. These Roaring Girls were loud when they should be quiet, disruptive when they should be submissive, sexual when they should be pure, masculine when they should be feminine. They were everything a woman was not supposed to be. And in a world before feminism, they were society’s worst nightmare. Through their courage, determination, individuality and downright disobedience, they can still teach us a thing or two about how to face down the challenges of modern inequality. More than that, I hope, they can teach us how to roar.

Holly Kyte is the author of Roaring Girls: The Extraordinary Lives of History’s Unsung Heroinesnow available in paperback.

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