134:  In Search of Snakes-Purr

A grey tabby cat who is missing the tip of one ear.

Picker and Stealer, knowing they had informations I longed to hear, did not hide their triumphant selves away for long.

Onix brought word that they wished to meet me beyond the citie wall where we first became akwaynted

“And they bade me tell you,” sayt Onix, “that nothing will come of nothing.  What mean they?”

“Recompense for their pains,” sayt I.  “A fresh-caught rabbit will suffice.”

After they’d eat their fill, eyeing me all the while, they told me of their search for villain Snakes-Purr.

A grey tabby licking her nose.

They spake in turns as is their way, but oft paused to cleanse their whiskers or gnaw their paws.  (A trick to try my patience, and keep me in thrall.)

“We went first to Newgate, though we knew that we ourselves would gain nowt by it.”  

“There are more prisoners in Newgate jail than six cats could number on their claws, and all are starved.  They writ to Mr Secretarie [Sir Robert Cecil], complaining of their hunger and the cold.  They sayt things were better in his father’s day.  Hah!”

“But when we was last there we’d learnt of a poet confined for killing a player, and we sought first to know if that player were Snakes-Purr.  It were not.”

 “So why was this player killed?  I arrkst.  “Did he speak the poet’s lines ill?”

“They fought, and the player died of it.  That’s all we know.”

Ben Jonson, from the cover portrait of Ian Donaldson’s ‘Ben Jonson: A Life.’
No stranger to trouble, he killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in 1598.

“The poet – his name is Pen – was not hanged, because he knew the neck verse.  Who does not know it?  And what’s one player less in this world?”

“Next we set forth to find Pen, thinking he might lead us to Snakes-Purr.”

“We went clean across the citie to Sore-Ditch [Shoreditch], where we met the cat who told us of the playhouse that was carried across the river.”

“That cat’s a mad fellow.  He haunts the playhouses, yet he swore that all poets – yes, and players too – stank alike to him, and he knew not one from the other.”

“Then he complained that dogs are oft upon the stage, winning great applauds, but his best entrance was two winters past.” 

“Now hear these fine words, sayt he.  Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a cat, up-tails all.  He took them for his kew [cue] and ran on with his tail held high, to the joy of all beholders.  But no sooner had he quit the stage than an envious player seized him and cast him out the door.”

“We told him of your uncle who’d penned finer words that were stole by a player called Snakes-Purr and given out as his own.  And we sayt your uncle had wrought a play most fit for cats, but what hope of its being enacted here where players are so envious?  None.”

“The player cat then cried: Thus and thus are we poor artists abused.  He told us that Snakes-Purr could be found over the river where the Theater had been builded anew.” 

“He sayt wickedness abounds there.  No honest cat may go safe about his business, but if it be thieves and murtherers we sought, that were the place to go.”

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) had escaped hanging by claiming “benefit of clergy”.

This was a hangover from medieval times when secular courts had no jurisdiction over the clergy.  Clerics were tried by ecclesiastical courts (discussed here by April Munday) which couldn’t impose the death penalty.  That gave anyone indicted for a capital offence an incentive to be tried as a member of the clergy, and the way to achieve it was to demonstrate you could read a verse from the Bible. 

In medieval times the verse would have been in Latin.  By Elizabethan times it was in English, making the task easier for an increasingly literate population.  Better still, the courts customarily asked people to read Psalms 51:1, which became known as the neck verse because it saved your neck. 

There’s no doubting Ben Jonson’s literacy, but Picker and Stealer – well-acquainted with crime – talk of knowing the neck verse, rather than being able to read it.

Also well-acquainted with crime in late 16th and early 17th century England is Professor Keith Wrightson whose lecture here on Crime and the Law includes some then-and-now statistical comparisons, and a discussion of the use of benefit of clergy in Elizabethan courts with particular reference to sheep-stealing.

Picker and Stealer did well in their search for Shakespeare.  They would have made this excursion across the city in early 1600, and Shoreditch was the logical place to start looking. 

There are definite traces of Shakespeare in the vicinity – failing to pay his householder’s tax in Bishopsgate, and acting in Ben Jonson’s comedy Every Man in his Humour at the Curtain playhouse in the autumn of 1598.  I do hope he wasn’t the envious player who cast out the cat with theatrical aspirations.


25 thoughts on “134:  In Search of Snakes-Purr

  1. April Munday June 7, 2018 / 7:00 pm

    Welcome back and thank you for mentioning the blog.

    I’m surprised that people could still claim benefit of the clergy in Elizabeth’s reign and even more surprised that reading something was considered evidence that someone was a cleric. Literacy must have been fairly high by then. There are so many Edward the Sixth grammar schools across the country that I always assumed that there was a great leap in the number of boys learning to read in the middle of the sixteenth century.

    Liked by 2 people

    • toutparmoi June 7, 2018 / 11:12 pm

      It’s good to be back, and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do on my blog reading! The benefit of clergy provision seems to have hung around for a long time, although it was subject to changes, particularly with regard to which crimes were “clergyable” and which not.
      Professor Wrightson says that by Elizabethan times it had become a “complete fiction” but suggests it served the useful purpose of allowing judges to impose lighter sentences on first-time offenders.
      From that perspective, whether or not the offender was a cleric would have been irrelevant, because the benefit seems to have applied to the sentence, rather than the type of court the offender was tried in. I suppose that any judge looking to impose a lighter sentence probably wasn’t bothered if the verse was recited from memory, rather than read.

      Literacy rates are said to have climbed slowly but steadily in the 16th century – particularly for males, from around 10% in 1500 to 30% in 1600. I think that estimate is made on the percentage who could write their names, rather than sign documents with an X, so the number who could read print may have been even higher.

      Liked by 2 people

    • April Munday June 8, 2018 / 1:35 am

      30% sounds massive compared to the fourteenth century, when it was less than 5%.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi June 8, 2018 / 9:30 am

      It is massive! Part of the Protestant push, I suspect, to get people reading the Bible and other good books. The 30% of men (plus the estimated 10% of women) wouldn’t have been equally distributed across the country, but more likely found in the cities, so it explains the extraordinary range of reading matter available in London at the time.

      Liked by 2 people

    • April Munday June 8, 2018 / 5:59 pm

      Yes, I thought it probably had something to do with enabling people to read the Bible in English.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Claudio LeChat June 7, 2018 / 11:09 pm

    Welcome back. Glad to see that Tricks is back. I trust you had a good break. Claudio

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi June 7, 2018 / 11:17 pm

      Thank you, Claudio. I’m glad to see that you’re still one of Tricks’ constant readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. larrypaulbrown June 8, 2018 / 1:35 am

    Missed you, happy to see your return. Interesting that Psalm 51:1 is referred to as the “neck verse”. That is appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. dornahainds June 8, 2018 / 7:11 am

    Such an Awesome return of Creativity. 😎🥀😎🥀😎🥀😎🥀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Rachel McAlpine June 8, 2018 / 8:12 am

    The tradition of the theatre cat remains strong to this day. But it must be disconcerting when your playhouse is peripatetic.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Dave Ply June 11, 2018 / 4:17 pm

    Welcome back. I was wondering where you’d wandered off to. Somewhere where the snakes purr, perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi June 12, 2018 / 12:17 am

      Close, Dave. I was in England, but nowhere near Snakes-Purr’s home town of Stratford.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. S June 11, 2018 / 10:08 pm

    I always think Jonson looks strangely abashed in that portrait, especially for such a combative chap. Maybe sketches were made while he was awaiting trial 😉

    I’d love to go to the National Portrait Gallery and see the original, to see if it’s still the case “in the flesh” (or as close as we can get)..

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi June 12, 2018 / 12:31 am

      I’d like to see the original, too. I visited the NPG a couple of years ago, but don’t recall it – maybe it was away on loan. “Strangely abashed” is a good way to describe him – something to do with his sideways look and the set of his mouth. He’s definitely got a combative nose, though!


  8. mitchteemley June 15, 2018 / 12:16 am

    Welcome back, Denise! Perhaps it’s just my theatre background, but I particularly enjoyed this installment. I’d not heard of Ben Johnson’s claim to clergyhood by way of knowing “the neck verse.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi June 15, 2018 / 10:23 am

      Ben’s a fascinating man. He’d been in prison a year or so earlier with Gabriel Spencer because of a play called ‘The Isle of Dogs’ (popular title) that Ben co-wrote with Thomas Nashe. Gabriel presumably acted in. The play gave such offence to the authorities that no known copy survives.

      Lucky for Ben (and us) that he never killed anyone else – the neck verse only saved you once, and you were branded on the thumb by way of record.

      Reciting it still might come in handy if you’re ever tempted to kill an actor…

      Liked by 2 people

  9. trashonthemonocacy July 26, 2018 / 7:55 am

    I’ve been missing a while and am so glad to get back to Tricks! Honestly, a cat walking on stage with such a cue would be cause for laughter, no matter how literate. Clearly not all actors have a sense of humor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi July 26, 2018 / 11:04 am

      Definitely envious, as the player cat said.


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