Wednesday, October 23, 2013

With Pointy Shoes & Bells on

                                      —For Adair

Writer Adair Lara asked on Facebook: "How come people declare they will be coming to a party "with bells on"? Derivation?"

Someone lifted an old Yahoo Answers post to answer the origin of "with bells on" was when peddlers roamed the Appalachians selling wares, they traveled silently to avoid Indians, until they reached a settled area. Then they unmuffled the bells around their horses' necks to announce their arrival "with bells on."

And why were the horses wearing bells around their necks?

Well, I just couldn't pass that one up as it was wrong on so many levels. I'd just finished reading a paper on medieval shoes posted by, so I was all fired up with useless pointy medieval shoe trivia, and nowhere to go dance it off.

The saying that Adair was referring to: "With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes" is from a 1700s nursery rhyme, Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross. How much older the rhyme is, we don't know but nursery rhymes were passed on orally. I discovered that there are several motifs to follow: the role of hobbyhorse, white horse, rings and bells, and music (wherever the rider goes). 

William Wallace Denslow's illustration from1901—Wiki

The 1901 variant is based on this much older version:
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross, 
To see an old woman get up on her horse,
Rings on her fingers, and bells at her toes,
And so she makes music wherever she goes."
           —Warwickshire variant, from Gammer Gurtotis Garland (1783)
 Here's another variant (no date, sorry):
Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes. 
It's a safe bet to assume the ditty predates the nursery rhyme published in 1744-84. But how far back it goes, nobody knows. (See Roud Folk Song Index # 21143). Some scholars think the words are associated with 11th c. noblewoman Lady Godiva (the horse tax-relief story appears two centuries after her death), or with Queen Elizabeth I, but it could be much older (or not). 

BTW, I know what you're thinking, a cock-horse is a hobbyhorse, a rocking horse, or a dandle horse. (It also could refer to helper horses who pulled  carriages up steep hills. First use, ca. 1541.)

I found this on Yahoo (it sounds spurious):
Queen Elizabeth I of England travelled to Banbury to see the new stone cross. 'With rings on her fingers' relates to the jewellery which would adorn a Queen. 'And bells on her toes' refers to the fashion of attaching bells to the end of the pointed toes of each shoe! Banbury was at the top of a steep hill and a white cock horse (a large stallion) was made available to help pull the carriages up the incline. When the Queen's carriage wheel broke, the Queen mounted a cockhorse to reach the Banbury cross. Her visit was so important that the people decorated the cockhorse with ribbons and bells and provided minstrels to accompany her "she shall have music wherever she goes". The big cross at Banbury was later destroyed by anti-Catholics. (NB: I shortened this piece, so it's not quite a quote).
Another train of thought is that it's an Anglo-Celtic nursery rhyme, merging Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Lady Godiva (gift of God), and Welsh goddess of the crossroads, Rhiannon (divine/great queen). A white horse, white mare, or a milk white steed is also a reference to the Celtic Otherworld (Open House is Oct 31, May 1), as is the symbol of Rhiannon who rode a white mare. A Gaulish Epona (Irish cognate: Macha) reference is embedded. 

A white mare, a symbol of sovereignty, is a kingmaker because through her, the sacral king marries the sovereignty goddess, or the land itself. Giraldus Cambrensis described a "Celtic ritual, the king mates with a white mare thought to embody the goddess of sovereignty."—Wiki The millennia older Bronze Age white chalk horse of Uffington was also embedded in the folk memory of southern England.

The Bronze Age white horse of Uffington, on the Berkshire Downs in southern England, ca. 1400 BC.

It's been suggested that Rhiannon is the archetype for Lady Godiva, and the nursery rhyme is about Lady Godiva. If Lady Godiva rode through Coventry town on a cock-horse buck-ass naked, where would she have hung her bells? Detail. Not buying it.

Lady Godiva by John Collierc.1897, note the white horse.—Wiki

To finish Rhiannon's story, though betrothed to Gwawl of Annwyn, Rhiannon married Pwyll, Lord of Dyved; at their wedding feast, she turned the jilted conniving Gwawl into a badger, and Pwyll bagged it—and thus, badger in the bag was born. There will be blood! Rhiannon was framed for her babe's murder, and forced to stand at the city gates wearing an asses' collar, proclaim to all that she killed her son, and carry visitors on her back like a horse into the keep. Throughout all the Welsh tales halo of birds is Rhiannin's enduring motif.
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross (or Coventry)
To see a fine Lady ride on a white horse
With birds as her halo and bells on her toes,
She will/shall have music wherever she goes.  
Note a distinction is made between She shall, or will have music versus She shall make music. Sorry, no date on this one either.

Banbury, Banna's 5th c. Saxon stockade in Oxfordshire, was built atop a 200 BC Iron Age fort at an ancient crossroads; it was the site of a battlefield between Anglo-Saxons and Britons in 556 AD.
The name Banbury derives from "Banna", a Saxon chieftain built a stockade in the 6th century (or Ban(n)a possibly a byname meaning ‘felon’, ‘murderer’, and "burgh" or settlement. The Saxon spelling was Banesbyrig. The name appears as "Banesberie" in Domesday Book. Another known spelling was 'Banesebury' in Medieval times.
Fittingly, Banbury has a Hobby Horse Festival. Hobby horses have a deep Epona connection, and in Wales, Cornwall and Somerset, they are associated with May Day, and Bealtaine celebrations (later moved to Christmas / New Year); Mummers PlaysMari Lwyd, and the Morris dance. Aka morisk, moreys, morisse daunce, it may mean a Moorish dance. But that may be a convenient assumption. First documentation in 1448 was a bill for seven schillings. There were definitely lots of bells on the Morris dancers' shanks' mares (shins). )

Welsh Mari Lwyd with Christmas ornaments for eyes.

Maybe the origin of the phrase With birds as her halo came from the Mabinogion recorded in the White Book of Rhydderch (scribed ca.1350, but from the 11th century), but I cannot find a reference to rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes in English translations. I did find this lovely line: "The birds of Rhiannon, they that wake the dead, and lull the living to sleep…"

Did the idea cross the Welsh border and enter into English? Lady Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion was published in 1877. Or is the line solely an English provenance? The English phrase is attested in English in 1745. Rhiannon's halo of magical birds of music didn't make an appearance in that edition, but the line with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes has managed to remain intact in English for at least 275 years. Maybe longer—though the wording is modern. It may be two different traditions merging.

How would an Elizabethan have said the phrase, or someone from the Middle Ages? (Surely they wouldn't refer to Elizabeth I, or Lady Godiva as old ladies!)  When does the phrase With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes enter into our language banks? The terminus ante quem question still begs and I'm far too lazy to drag my old bones to the musty basement of UC Berkeley's Doe Library, or Kroeber Folklore archives, to look up the rhyme like my folklore professor, Alan Dundes would expect of me. Maybe someday.

     *     *     *

Leaping forward to time present, in the 19th century, there was a merging of folk traditions, other versions of the line in question were published in Alice B. Gomme's Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (1894), and the line appears again in a nursery song,"The Wind," aka  "I'll Tell Me Ma" in Scotland and England, or "The Belle of Belfast City" in Ireland. It was sung as a matrimonial ring game, a skipping song, and a dandle.

English localized versions include "Golden City" or "London City." (Roud Folk Song Index # 2649—I wish it was online). I learned it as "Dublin City" as my family is from the south of Ireland. Most people are familiar with the Belfast version with Van Morrison, and The Chieftains, on Irish Heartbeat (1988). The folksong has been recorded by most Irish singers. The Clancy Family kids rrecorded it in the 1960s.
Here she comes as white as snow
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
d Jenny Murray says she'll die
If she doesn't get the boy with the roving eye.       
Here she comes, with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, means the party's arrived. The white horse is long gone, as have Rhiannon's birds, but the belle is white as snow. The multiple name changes: Old Jane/Jenny Murray, Johnny Mary, Johnny Morrisey—are all indicators of lively folkstream variants, as are the varied city names and titles of the song. This song put on its travelin' shoes, it got around.

Despite vaudeville varations, ("I've Got Rings On My Fingers" 1909) and sendups ("Ahab the Arab" 1962), The Clancy family was probably the first group to record an the song in the 1960s. Why is that important? Because, once passing from a regional oicotype of oral tradition, traveling from child to child, to the printed page (or vinyl), songs and nursery rhymes become codified. It's a folklore death, a terminus post quem.

Interestingly, the 1909 British music hall hit, "I've Got Rings On My Fingers" a popular culture adaptation, retains a court jesterly motif: Jim O'Shea, was a castaway on an island in the East Indies, the natives named him Jijjiboo Jay and made him Chief Panjandrum because they liked his red hair and smile. He sent a letter to his sweetheart to join him.
Sure, I've got rings on my fingers,
Bells on my toes,
Elephants to ride upon,
My little Irish Rose
So, come to your Nabob
And next Patrick's Day
Be Mistress Mumbo Jumbo Jijjiboo J. O'Shea.

RP Weston also wrote I'm Henery the VII, I Am.
     *     *     *

A little historical background:

Medieval court fools of the 12th c. (jester is an Elizabethan term) wore asses' ears and bells at the end of their very long pointed elf-shoes. And I do mean long—more than two shoe-lengths long. They were mimicking the nobility who had special little ropes to hitch up their pointy "crakows" or "poulaines" to their knees so they wouldn't trip over them. (We know this as there were laws prohibiting the length of pointy shoes.)
The toe gradually became longer and longer to the point of absurdity for some were so long it was difficult to walk. Some even attached small bells to the end to indicate they were interested in a little flirtation. Bells. Flirtation. Of course the church tried to ban poulaine shoes spouting their “apparent indecent phallic symbolism” but the fad continued well into the next century. —The History of Shoes
Edward IV ordained that "beaks of shoon and boots should not pass the length of two inches."The nobility wore poulaines that were two-foot-lengths long, merchants one-foot-length, and peasants one-half, or none at all. At the 1396 Battle of Nicopolis French Crusaders were forced to cut off the tips of their poulaines in order to run away. I know, we were talking of bells here, but I wanted to show off…I mean, give you some background.

So, one school of thought has it that medieval court jesters took the extreme poulaine thing to a whole new level—with bells everywhere. They kicked it up another notch with jingle bells on the belt, three pointed hat, donkey-eared hat, or coxcomb hat, etc. Whether true or not during the middle ages, it certainly is true now to envision medieval court jester costumes with curly-toed elf shoes and adorned with bells everywhere. This 19thc. painting of a jester has bells everywhere.

Jester replete with bells, by American impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase ca 1900—Wiki 

And what's a Shakespeare play without a fool? In Twelfth Night, Feste, the jester" who merrily sang "With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain," was Olivia's father's favorite fool. Like madmen, jesters, fools and clowns were considered divine, touched by God.

Elizabethan clown and Shakesperian actor Will Kempe morris danced from London to Norwich—over 100 miles in nine days—in 1600. Note the bells are below his knees.

Why bells? Lepers were forced to wear bells so people could clear out and not see them (or catch leprosy). People wore bells to keep away evil spirits. Church bells symbolized paradise, or the voice of God. Livestock wore bells so herders could find them. MIne bells warned of disaster.

Medieval and Tudor jesters were the Lords of Misrule. Medieval mock-monarchs were given free reign, and they misruled (and presumably wore bells on their toes) from Halloween to February. Think of it as an extended Saturnalian April Fool's season. 
…there was in the King's House, wheresoever he lodged, a Lord of Misrule or Master of merry disports, and the like had ye in the house of every nobleman of honour or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal.…These Lordes beginning their rule on Alhollon Eue [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonlie called Candlemas day. —John Stow, Christmas Book, 1859

Laughing jester in motley clothing and asses' ears, ca 1500 —Wiki

I used to wear bell on my shoes (but no ass ears) when I went backpacking to forewarn the bears and big cats to clear out. It generally worked, until we nearly stumbled across a cranky grizzly in Montana. Luckily a ranger headed us off on time.

Extreme pointy toe shoes are still with us. No bells though. But maybe it'd be a good idea to add them—because the people in Matehuala, Mexico are in danger of being ass-goosed by the yard-long extreme curly cowboy dancing shoes of the vaquero walking too close behind them. Maybe the cowboy boots should be called Pinnochio shoes. You gotta go see the photos to appreciate it. Suffice to say, they make the Burgundian shoes below look tame.

Burgundian poulainesFoliant de Ionnal presents his text to Rudolph of Norway, L'Instruction d'un jeune prince, a book on good manners by Guillebert de Lannoy, c. 1468-70Wiki


Crakows & Poulaines (medieval shoes) from Wiki

Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross from Wiki

Medieval Shoes from

The jester-style boots that are no laughing matter: How Mexican men have embraced bizarre trend for pointed footwear

Origin: I'll Tell Me Ma (Mudcat folksongs)

Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac Songfacts

"English folk-rhymes; a collection of traditional verses relating to places and persons, customs, superstitions, etc" 1892 (free download) See p. 357: a horse as white as milk; p. 379-80 for variants on I'll Tell My Ma; a matrimonial ring game called Town Lovers—no rings on fingers or bells on toes, but the birds will sing and the bells will ring. P 422-23:
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see an old woman get up on her horse,
Rings on her fingers, and bells at her toes,
And so she makes music wherever she goes."
           —Warwickshire variant, from Gammer Gurtotis Garland (1783)
In the Eastern Counties "A fine lady ride on a grey horse." In CI. iii. 441 the rhymes commences " Hight a cock horse," and resembles the Warwickshire version save that it has will for "[shall." It is extracted from Infa7it Institutes, by the Rev. Baptist Noel Turner, London, 1797.

AW. 114. Banbury Cross seems to be the proper form, or one might imagine the rhyme to have reference to Lady Godiva and Coventry. It is worthy of remark that in AW. 114, occurs—Ride, etc., to Coventry cross.

Ride A Cock-Horse To Banbury Cross & A Farmer Went Trotting Upon His Grey Mare: R. Caldecott's Picture Books  1846 (free download)

Ride A Cock-Horse To Banbury Cross & A Farmer Went Trotting Upon His Grey Mare, by Anonymous Project Gutenberg EBook (free download HTML v. w/ illustrations)

The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales translated by Patrick K. Ford, 1977. My copy was so dog-eared and mutilated, that when I presented it to Patrick to sign it, he was shocked by its condition, he shrugged, then laughed, and signed it  "With very best wishes."

The Mabinogion (Everyman) translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones 1983. "The birds of Rhiannon, they that wake the dead, and lull the living to sleep…" (p. 97)

With rings on her fingers, and bells on her toes. / She shall have music wherever she goes.—Project Gutenberg

Note Bene: Long ago and far away, I once played a taking captive game, kick the can, in a dirt crossroads at dusk in a Lagunitas gulch with Mickey, Adrian and Adair (Lara) Daley, maybe Shannon Daley too, Neal and Scott Weaver, there were many Weavers, Rosemary and Danny Magnusson—there were a lot of us. I don't remember who else was there, but I loved the game, but puzzled over the saying, olly-olly-oxen-free, asking what it meant. Someone said it was Swedish; this was perhaps my first pondering of folklore as I walked a long walk home in the dark, under stars and moon. I remember the nights were drawing in, All Hallow's feel in the air. An odd moment  of childhood etched in my brain like a photograph. I probably also caught hell for coming home so late after catechism class. That would make it a Thursday. A school night.

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