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A death’s head on their middle finger | The Dutch Courtesan

The Dutch Courtesan

A death’s head on their middle finger

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    Until recently a play’s objects have been an under-examined component of the early modern repertory.[1] Editors’ glosses may go some way towards explaining the meaning of a now-forgotten implement, but even seemingly straight-forward explanations seldom manage to reinvigorate the cultural currency the playwright and original audiences once understood that object to have. Rediscovering some of the specific cultural contexts of an object offers an important insight into the nature and reception of that object and its owner, and can provide insights into a character’s position, behaviour and attitude within the world of the play.

    In The Dutch Courtesan, one such object is the ‘death’s head’ ring which, Cocledemoy insists, commonly adorned bawds’ middle fingers. Editors have done little to elaborate: Jackson and Neill’s gloss on the subject simply reads ‘bawds commonly wore rings decorated with a skull’ (I.II 65n), while in their editions neither David Crane nor M. L. Wine is any more revelatory. We are, therefore, left unenlightened as to what the ring might look like, or what significance it held. The casual reader might be tempted to dismiss such a fleeting reference as something that holds no importance for that particular moment on stage or for the wider performance. However, the ring does have a deeper significance: it simultaneously evokes a rich and longstanding cultural phenomenon while also twisting and repositioning the object’s place in the early modern world view.

    If the editors of The Dutch Courtesan do not provide us with further clues, we can instead turn to collections of contemporary objects and jewellery for objects which seem to be similar to Cocledemoy’s description. Both the Victoria and Albert (V&A) and British Museums hold numerous rings, from the relatively plain to the highly ornate, which might help us envisage what the bawd Mary Faugh wore on her middle finger.

    At one end of the scale we have an example from the V&A, a gold ring made some time between 1550 and 1600, which displays an enamelled skull, around which is inscribed ‘BE HOLD THE ENDE’ (fig.1). As was common in the period, the ring doubles both as a wedding ring – on the reverse of the head the initials M and L are connected by a true lover’s knot – and as a memento mori (literally ‘remember to die’, or ‘remember that you must die’). An equally ornate example dates from around 1550-75, on which the bezel of the ring shows an enamelled skull and cross bones surrounded by rubies (fig. 2). At the other end, plainer examples come in the form of an engraved signet ring (fig. 3) or even a simple engraved gold band (fig. 4).[2]

    The practice of invoking skulls or skeletal imagery to remind the observer of their mortality is part of a tradition that stretched back into the Middle Ages. (The British Library gives a useful introduction  here: In pre-Reformation England, the prospect of a sudden death was a real concern – to die without preparation, confession and last rites risked a long stay in Purgatory. While the threat of purgatorial fires under the old faith no longer held the same potency by the 17th century, the Protestant religion continued to emphasise the importance of a ‘good death’, and depictions of the macabre served to promote a sober, austere way of life. As such, medieval skeletal iconography enjoyed a healthy afterlife throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and on, and was particularly manifest in jewellery. As well as rings, pendants like that from Torre Abbey (fig. 5) and even elaborate items like the Skull Watch – once owned by Mary Queen of Scots (fig. 6) – all embraced macabre imagery.

    Such items were worn for show as well as a personal reminder. Hans Eworth’s ‘Portrait of a Man Wearing a Ring with a Skull’ (1567) (fig. 7) shows a man soberly but well dressed, with a gold chain about his neck to proclaim his position as a gentleman, and a death’s-head ring on his index finger (fig.8). The subject’s choice of attire and accessories is deliberate: in a society in which status and identity were entrenched and cultivated through clothing and jewellery, the gentleman’s ring and clothes demonstrate a certain seriousness and gravity of character.

    Seriousness and gravity of character are not, however, characteristics we might associate with Jacobean bawds and prostitutes. Yet it does seem that the ring Cocledemoy describes as a signifier in some way of the bawd’s profession matches memento mori rings in many respects. The fuller line reinforces this:

    Cocledemoy: … As for their [i.e. a bawd’s] death, how can it be bad since their wickedness is always before their eyes, and a death’s head most commonly on their middle finger? (I.II 52-3)[3]

    Cocledemoy suggests that the bawd’s constant exposure to wickedness  – and, presumably, the disease to which both she and her customers are exposed (she is ‘smooth-gummed’, having lost her teeth to the pox (48)) – and her ring’s constant reminder of human mortality, supplies the stimuli that would help a sober, religious person towards a good, pious end.

    But Cocledemoy is not playing straight here: his speech, extolling the virtues of the bawd’s profession, ends with a firm Latin ‘dixi’ (literally ‘I have spoken’, i.e. ‘I rest my case’). Cocledemoy is parodyinga formal legal debate. The link between the bawd’s death’s head ring with memento mori rings is convenient, but it is not the whole story.

    The link between death’s head rings and bawds is not confined only to Mary Faugh and Marston’s imagination: there are a number of other plays that make the same connection. In Dekker and Webster’s Northward Ho (1607), the prostitute Doll declares

    as if I were a baud, no ring pleases me but a deaths head (IV,i , E4v).[4]

    In The Old Law (1656)[5], Gnothos berates his wife Agatha, telling her to

    sell some of thy clothes to buy thee a Deaths head, and put’t upon thy middle finger, your least considering Bawds doe so much. (IV, i, H1v)[6]

    Whether or not a bawd’s ring retained some of its religious meaning, it certainly seems that a stronger link is being made between the death’s head and her profession. That both The Old Law and The Dutch Courtesan stress that the ring is worn on the middle finger suggests a specific meaning that would have been recognised by an early modern audience, even if the significance is now lost. Mary Hazard has stated (without supporting citations) that

    sixteenth-century custom assigned ring position according to the station of the wearer: the thumb for doctors, index finger for merchants, middle finger for fools, annular finger for students, and auricular finger for lovers; the forth finger also had a special association for betrothal and marriage (2000, 113)

    but bawds are rarely fools. They are, after all, canny saleswomen. Frank Gullman’s mother has already sold her daughter’s maidenhead fifteen times by the time A Mad World My Masters! begins.

    The majority of death’s head rings that survive today in the collections of museums like the V&A and the British Museum are overwhelmingly classified as memento mori, and from the inscriptions made in the inner side we can see that they frequently doubled as tokens of marriage, betrothal or love. The exchange and wearing of rings formed part of making a contract, and in this mode rings often feature in early modern plays, as, in The Dutch Courtesan, Freevill receives and wears Beatrice’s ring. Another significant sequence of stage action hinges on Caqueteur’s borrowing of a  diamond ring from Tysefew so that he may flaunt it in front of Crispinella. The kind of contract into which a bawd enters has but one thing in common with a marriage; in the eyes of the pious, as for Malheureux at the beginning of the play, it represents a perversion of morality. The bawd’s ring would have offered a mocking reminder of a true marriage ring. Not only this, but the piety normally associated with memento mori is also twisted. The bawd’s death’s head ring does not remind the wearer of her own mortality: it turns the bawd herself into a sinister warning to those who would enjoy the company of her protégés. ‘Smoothed-gummed’ from the ravages of the pox, the bawd embodies the likely future of both customer and courtesan, beset by disease and, ultimately, death.

    Was such a warning taken seriously, or did the added risk offer an extra frisson of excitement to men who sought the company of courtesans? Cocledemoy arguably seems calm in its presence, but how might Freevill or Malheureux react to such an object?   In rehearsals the dramatic resonance of such a striking object remains to be explored.




    Further reading

    Paul Binski, Medieval Death (Ithaca 1996)

    Jacques le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (London 1984)

    Mary E. Hazard, Elizabethan Silent Language (Lincoln, NE 2000)

    Nigel Llewellyn, The Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual c. 1500-1800 (London 1991)

    Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (Oxford 2004)

    John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. David Crane (London 1997)

    John Marston, The Selected Plays of John Marston, ed. Macdonald P. Jackson and Michael Neill (Cambridge 1986)

    John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. M. L. Wine (London 1965)

    Catherine Richardson, Shakespeare and Material Culture (Oxford 2011)

    Diana Scarisbrick, Tudor and Jacobean Jewellery, 1508-1625 (London 1996)

    Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton (Oxford 2012)


    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. 1) Catherine Richardson has been a prominent exception to this rule, and has published widely in recent years on early modern material culture, notably Shakespeare and Material Culture (Oxford 2011).
    2. 2) Most examples of this style of ring held by the British Museum where the precise date is known date from the latter half of the 17th century; however, there are a number of examples that cannot be precisely dated and may originate from the earlier half of the century.
    3. 3) Unless stated, all quotes are taken from Crane’s edition.
    4. 4) Quotes from EEBO
    5. 5) The play was probably first performed around 40 years before, and was later revised by Massinger for performance by the King’s Men in 1626. The play is now attributed to Rowley, Heywood and Middleton (see Taylor and Henley 2012).
    6. 6) Quotes from EEBO