Anna FC Smith poses by her work

The Merry Wagtail Jades, The Breeches They Do Carry: Impudent women and cuckold’s horns.

The title of the work I exhibited at Eminent Domain derives from the broadside ballad ‘A new summons to all the merry wagtail jades that attend at horn fair.’ Printed and sold by J. Pitts in England in 1802 and 1819, it reads: “Come all you wagtail jades, Who love to play the game: And whilst your husbands are abroad, To have some of the same”… “The breeches they do carry, And swear they will them wear, And have their sparks when they please, Though husbands jealous are.”

I exhibited three sculptural banners capped with cuckold’s horns “tipt (sic) with silver” as the broadside ballad describes. The banners themselves were Edwardian bloomers made from a fabric printed with colourful splattered eggs. Their accompanying film echoes with the dissonant sound of crashing and banging pans as the spirit of the impudent women of the past blows through the bloomers.

I was commissioned by Alexandra Arts as part of their Pankhurst In The Park centenary celebrations to explore the history of the Suffragettes and their relevance to contemporary radical feminism. I decided to explore older forms of female carnivalesque, unruly behaviour to draw comparisons with the actions of the Suffragettes and how they were perceived. My work aims to highlight a chain of symbolism in the raucous practices of dissent. My research began with the actions of spitting, pelting and egg throwing undertaken by and against the Suffragettes and led me to rough music and the phenomenon of the Horn Fair.

Anti-Suffragette propaganda shows shrill and shrew-like women — ugly, dishevelled, spitting and sluttish. They are representations of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, grotesque body. Bakhtin referred to this as the lower bodily stratum — symbolised by eating, defecation, birth, death and sex — where the boundaries between bodies and the world are obscured.

If being ladylike is enacting the constraints imposed on women by male-dominated systems, then the female protester transcends this. Her body is liberty: messy, loud, impossible to constrain, abject, and flowing.

In ‘Impudent Women: Carnival and gender in early modern culture’, Kate Chedgzoy examines carnivalesque implications of the representation and social agency of the unruly or impudent woman. She describes an incident in 1575, where Dorothy Clayton, a spinster, had been arrested in London on the grounds that:

“Contrary to all honesty and womanhood [she] commonly goes about the City appareled in man’s attire. She has abused her body with sundry persons and lived an incontinent life. On Friday she is to stand on the pillory for two hours in men’s apparel and then to be sent to Bridewell until further order.”

Dorothy Clayton suffered a carnivalesque punishment of being pelted at the pillory. This echoes the suffragettes who were pelted with rotten eggs in Newton Abbott, 1908, when blamed for causing the Liberals to lose a byelection.

Chedgzoy refers to many recorded instances of “disorderly women in the early modern period taking riotous or carnivalesque action on their own behalf”. She describes that in May or at Shrovetide, “women were allowed to take revenge on violent husbands by making them ride an ass”. This was one of the forms of the ritual of rough music.

Rough music or ‘Riding the Skimmington’ was a form of public shaming ritual and popular protest that had many carnival undertones. It was a method to ridicule people in power but mostly to shame those considered to transgress social mores. It ranged from lighthearted goading of married couples to the violent Devon stag hunt. It was usually processional or ‘anti-processional’ playing on the ‘rites of inversion’. People would process with banners of blouses, shirts or breeches and capped with cuckold’s horns, parading the object of their disdain with a proxy or an effigy on a pole, or backwards on a donkey.

Women were organisers and participants in rough music, but also, in many cases, it was enacted against ‘women who wore the breeches’. In ‘Customs in Common’, E.P. Thompson explains that the women at odds with the values of a patriarchal society — the scold, the husband beater, the shrew — would be ‘called out’ and their men mocked for being cuckolds. The degeneracy of women wearing trousers was an obsessional topic for the anti-suffrage movement, often represented in their satirical postcards; however some women embraced the liberty of trousers, for practicality when cycling and in the rebellious fashion statement of the hareem trouser.

The main feature of rough music was its cacophony of noise, with participants yelling, rolling stones in pans, banging pots, drums and blowing pipes and whistles. E.P. Thompson describes rough music’s “raucous ear shattering noise” as “satiric noise” similar to that of the `rascally serving women’ of 1637 Edinburgh, who, making so much noise in church in their riots against the Book of Common Prayer, that they drowned out the service, or the Suffragettes screaming ‘Shame’ to those in power.

A version of rough music spawned the Charlton Horn Fair in London. It was described by Daniel Defoe thus: “at Horn-Fair; the rudeness of which I cannot but think, is such as ought to be suppressed, and indeed in a civiliz’d well govern’d nation, it may well be said to be unsufferable. The mob indeed at that time take all kinds of liberties, and the women are especially impudent for that day; as if it was a day that justify’d the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency and immodesty, without any reproach, or without suffering the censure which such behaviour would deserve at another time.”

The idea of the raucous woman, ‘loose in all manner of indecency and immodesty”, is repeated in the above broadside ballad, as ‘wagtail’ and ‘jade’ were both terms for prostitutes. Chedgzoy notes this immorality of the impudent woman was also described by a Royalist newspaper, which “complained of the `impudency’ of the 1643 women’s peace petition in daring to demand a political voice”. It described the women who marched on the House of Commons as a “mob [of] Whores, Bawds, Oyster-women, Kitchenstuffe women, Beggar women and the very scum of the Suburbs, besides abundance of Irish women.”

The banners marched in a rough music procession, which, for me, encapsulates the themes of the protesting woman, mimicking the banners of the Suffragettes. In ‘A History of the Cuckold’s Horns’, Deborah Swift described the cuckold’s horns as signifying a man who could not control his wife, but I wanted to invert this idea and claim them as an abiding emblem of the unruly woman. The symbol of the breeches are at once the bawdy bloomers of the whore, and the hareem trousers of the Suffragette. They are the breeches that the impudent woman “swear[s] they will them wear”. The fabric design is messy, having been pelted with eggs, symbolizing the carnivasque lower bodily stratum, the ungoverned and the acts of protest. The film animates these timeless manifestations in a mystical space drowned by ‘satiric noise’, a cry of the demanding and ‘rascally’ woman of eternity.

The Merry Wagtail Jades

Anna FC Smith: Artist Portrait

Chedgzoy, Kate. Impudent Women: Carnival and gender in early modern culture. The Glasgow Review Issue 1

Swift, Deborah. A History of the Cuckold’s Horns. 2017

Thompson, E.P. Customs In Common. The Merlin Press Ltd. 2010

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