Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Sticky: Erasmus as a source for ‘Cast our Caps’

In the play ‘The Beggars Bush’ the election of Clause as the King of the Beggars in Act II Scene 1 is celebrated with a song sung by “orator” Higgen. The song was reproduced as a seperate text in many collections of songs. It is generally ascribed to John Fletcher. Much of the beggars material in ‘The Beggars Bush’ was taken from the rogue literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeeth century. However, the source for the song is a much earlier and more respectable text – The Colloquies’ of Desiderius Erasmus, the “Prince of Christian Humanists”

The Colloquies were a series of dialogues in Latin in which Erasmus examined Christian ethics, and included criticism of some of the injustices and follies of his day. They were written between the end of the fifteenth century and 1533, published in Latin throughout Europe as used as exercises for schoolboys and students. It is likely that Fletcher, or one of his fellow authors, had been set the text as part of their education, and recalled it when writing the play.

One is a ‘Beggars Dialogue’ between Irides and Misoponus which gives examples of cheating, tricks, making sores, and using palmistry. The conclusion is that nothing is more like being a King than the life of a beggar. “Wherein consists the greatest Happiness of Kings?” asks Misoponus. “Because in that they can do what they please” responds Irides.

The theme of the dialogue and the song is the same as that in John Taylor’s ‘The Praise, Antiquity and Commodity of Beggary, Beggars and begging, etc.’ printed in 1621. I have set out below the text from Erasmus and the text of the song.

The Colloquies

“As for that Liberty, than which nothing is sweeter, we have more of it than any King upon Earth; and I don’t doubt, but there are many Kings that envy us Beggars. Let there be War or Peace we live secure, we are not press’d for Soldiers, nor put upon Parish–Offices, nor taxed. When the People are loaded with Taxes, there’s no Scrutiny into our Way of Living. If we commit any Thing that is illegal, who will sue a Beggar? If we beat a Man, he will be asham’d to fight with a Beggar? Kings can’t live at Ease neither in War or in Peace, and the greater they are, the greater are their Fears. The common People are afraid to offend us, out of a certain Sort of Reverence, as being consecrated to God.
But then, how nasty are ye in your Rags and Kennels?”
“What do they signify to real Happiness. Those Things you speak of are out of a Man. We owe our Happiness to these Rags.”

Cast our caps and cares away!

This is beggars’ holiday:
At the crowning of our king,
Thus we ever dance and sing.
In the world look out and see,
Where so happy a prince as he?
Where the nation live so free,
And so merry as do we?
Be it peace, or be it war,
Here at liberty we are,
And enjoy our ease and rest:
To the field we are not prest;
Nor are call’d into the town,
To be troubled with the gown:
Hang all offices, we cry,
And the magistrate too, by!
When the subsidy’s increased,
We are not a penny cess’d;
Nor will any go to law
With the beggar for a straw.
All which happiness, he ‘brags,
He doth owe unto his rags.

William Dinsmore Briggs, First Song in The Beggar’s Bush, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Jun., 1924), pp. 379-380

Desiderius Erasmus, The Colloquies of Erasmus, translated by Nathan Bailey. Edited with Notes, by the Rev. E. Johnson, M.A. (London: Reeves and Turner, 1878). Vol. 1.

Posted: December 28th, 2014 | Filed under: Writers, The Play | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

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