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LHMP #213 Ungerer 2000 Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature

Full citation: 

Ungerer, Gustav. 2000. “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, in Life and Literature” in Shakespeare Studies, 28:42-84

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It was hard to escape two underlying themes in this article, neither of them speaking directly to the scholarship: the author appears to have something of a personal grudge against Elizabeth Spearing’s edition of Frith’s biography, and he seems determined to conclude that there was nothing particularly queer or transgressive about Frith’s life—she just thought dressing in men’s clothing was a useful career move. Now, it’s not as if I don’t have personal interests in the interpretation of Mary Frith’s life, but I’m startled at the amount of evidence Ungerer feels compelled (and willing) to brush away to come to this conclusion. So this will be one of those summaries that involves a number of editorial asides, clearly identified in square brackets.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this article is the catalog of documentary references to Mary Frith, under her various names.

Ungerer notes that one of the difficulties in sorting out Mary Frith’s sexual and gender identities is the fragmentary nature of the evidence and that it is filtered through male-oriented and prejudiced records. He early stakes out a position that the memoir attributed to Frith is a complete fiction representing the “criminal biography” genre. With regard to gender and sexuality, she is contradictorily presented as “a transvestite usurping male power, as a hermaphrodite transcending the borders of human sexuality, as a virago, as a tomboy, as a prostitute, as a bawd, and even as a chaste woman who remained a spinster.” [Note: these are not as distinct and contradictory identities as he implies, regardless of their accuracy.] Ungerer goes further to suggest that the question of whether Frith might have been an entirely fictional figure is not adequately addressed, although the question isn’t treated as seriously in doubt within the rest of the article.

Ungerer’s first serious dig at Spearing comes in suggesting that she had made a mistake in doing her analysis of the full version of Frith’s memoirs and not considering the chapbook version “extracted from the original” published by G. Horton in the same year, which sensationalizes the material further. I haven’t had a chance to compare the two editions, but neither does Ungerer discuss specific points of difference. Mostly he delves into Horton’s treatment of other criminal biographies, such as that of highwayman James Hind, that include a suspicious amount of royalist propaganda. Frith, too is given a highway robbery incident in Horton’s work, which clearly seems unlikely to be truthful. But I can't seem to find that reference in the full biography. Additional mythologizing can be found in later works, such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Shoplifts, and Cheats of Both Sexes (1719), who seems to be the inventor of the story that Frith robbed the Parliamentarian General Fairfax on Hounslow Heath. Ungerer points out that obvious fictions such as this can’t be used to answer questions about Frith’s actual life and character.

The author then lays out the program of his arguments: that the 1662 “diary” of Mary Frith was structured to add a few historical facts to a standard template for the criminal biography genre. And that therefore the 1662 document presents a mythic construct that tells us little about Frith’s life. And that the fact that Frith is recorded as having married a man contradicts more transgressive theories about her gender and sexuality. [Because, of course, no person ever entered into heterosexual marriage who had anything other than a cis identity and heterosexual orientation.] And lastly, that Frith’s cross-dressing was entirely a deliberate professional theatrical performance and not an expression of personal identity. [Note: Ungerer argues so strongly, in the face of the evidence, against viewing Frith as a queer figure—though the word “queer” doesn’t figure in the terminology here—that it makes me curious to know what it would have taken to convince him.]

Ungerer argues (somewhat in contradiction) that the hypothetical author of Frith’s biography (rejecting the possibility that it was, indeed, based on Frith’s own dictation) didn’t have access to the archival data that modern scholars have identified (though presumably they had living memories to work from) but that on the other hand, whatever data they had was reshuffled to fit the genre, so it didn’t matter. The following points are presented as arguing against the biography’s accuracy: that it includes a standard “sinner turned penitent” speech, that it frames Frith as a royalist, that it presents her as the mastermind behind two other highwaymen, that it presents her as a popular defender of the poor, and that in contradiction to all that, it presents her as a “sexual monster”.

[Note: The suggestion that these features undermine the truthfulness of the work as a whole runs up against similar themes in documents not derived from the biography. For example, Frith’s will uses similar “penitent sinner” language. Middleton and Dekker’s fictionalized Moll Cutpurse, penned four decades earlier, present her as a defender of the downtrodden and an enemy of hypocrites. And I would argue that the degree to which Frith is presented as “monstrous” in any of these texts is simply a product of the limits of how her contemporaries could envision gender roles, not a personal indictment.]

Ungerer agrees with Spearing that the full text of Frith’s biography constitutes three separate authors, corresponding to the three separate sections of the work. (I.e., the address to the reader, the third-person introduction to Frith’s life, and then the first-person section presented as her own story which is referred to here as the "diary" section.) He notes that the structure is “three incoherent, uncoordinated, and at times contradictory parts”.  [Note: It’s unclear to me how the addition of what is self-identified as a different person’s introduction to the diary is proof of the fictional nature of the diary itself.] The address to the reader acknowledges the discontinuous nature of the text, saying, “excuse the abruptness and discontinuance of the matter, and the several independencies thereof…it was impossible to make one piece of so various a subject, as she was both to herself and others, being forced to take her as we found her, though at disadvantage.” [Note: it would seem to me that this would argue for the validity of the “diary” part of the text, as otherwise why not simply write it to be more continuous and coherent?]

The second section of Frith's biography presents an analysis and commentary on Frith’s life and person with an insight that suggests personal familiarity with her. However there are clear errors and omissions. Some dates don’t align. [Note: the second writer also fails to include several facts—like Frith’s marriage—that are also absent from the diary section.] The third section is framed as a first-person narrative, forming an autobiographical confession. It begins by running through a number of pranks and anecdotes, then there is a break and the setting shifts more towards the later part of Frith’s life and includes more contemporary political events and diatribes against Cromwell and the Puritans.

The numbers for birth and death dates and for Frith’s age, as given in the various sections of the work, do not entirely align. She died in 1659 and the diary has her claim (when ill, shortly before her death) that she was 72 years of age, placing her birth in 1585. But the second writer in the work assigns her a birthdate in 1589.

Frith left a will, written in June 1659 a month before her death. But in the diary Frith asserts, “I did make no will at all,” and then relates various disbursements of her fortune that she had made while living. [Note: these wouldn’t be contradictory if the dictation of her diary occurred before the drawing up of her recorded will. But the person named in the diary to receive the remainder of her estate is not mentioned at all among the various people listed in her recorded will.]

One of the most curious omissions from the diary in any of its sections is reference to Mary Frith’s marriage in 1614 to Lewknor Markham, esquire. For all that it seems to have been a marriage in name only, quite possibly for legal advantages, Frith made reference to her status as a widow and used “Mary Markham” as an alternate name in records throughout her life (including in her will). There are several references in the diary and the 2nd writer’s discussions that refer to Frith as not only unmarried but deliberately so. This would seem to be the strongest argument undermining the diary’s authorship. [Note: Though it’s possible that Frith-as-hypothetical-narrator simply didn’t consider it interesting or relevant to mention when relating the more adventurous events in her life.]

Ungerer suggests that the strongest argument for the fictional nature of the diary section is how it follows the pattern of the fictionalized biography of highwayman James Hind, as shaped by author George Fidge in 1651-2. And that the encoding of Mary Frith as another “royalist criminal” is evidence of the deliberate fictionalization of her life as given in the diary. An “origin story” given in the diary for her nickname as “Mary Thrift” that connects it with a political event in 1639 is contradicted by evidence of the nickname being in use perhaps two decades earlier. Frith asserts various politically pointed activities and inveighs against various various parliamentarians in the diary section covering events in the 1640s. The insertion of the anecdote about Frith masterminding the robberies of James Hind and Richard Hannam is suspect, if only because Frith’s sphere of expertise was London and not the region where they operated. These highwayman exploits were expanded in Alexander Smith’s (aforementioned) 1719 treatise on highwaymen, in which Frith is credited with robbing General Fairfax. [Note: however the implausibility of this anecdote doesn’t reflect on the diary, as it is a later work.]

Another feature of the fictionalized criminal biography was the “penitent sinner” motif. This element in the opening of the diary section is offered as evidence against its fictionalization. [Note: But similar language appears in Frith’s will, and the use of penitential language is pervasive in texts of this era. So it seems a weak thread to hang an accusation of untruth on.] Similarly, the presentation of Frith as a protector of the poor against injustice is a standard feature of criminal biographies. [Note: But see similar themes in The Roaring Girl, suggesting that this motif had been a part of Frith’s legend all her life.]

In considering theories about Frith’s gender identity and sexual orientation, Ungerer entirely discards the diary and its accompanying material as evidence and turns instead to the record of her marriage in 1614 to Lewknor Markham, possibly a son of author Gervase Markham. He says that marriage, “imparted an air of cultural normalcy” to her status and erases the framing of her as unmarriageable, as monstrous, or as a hermaphrodite who refused to marry. Ungerer’s position (which he spends some effort to support) is that “She turned out to be a self-fashioning individual who had taken to transvestism as an alternative strategy for economic survival. … she was a scheming and calculating woman with an ingrained instinct for upward social mobility and determined to exploit to the full the ambiguous legal position of women under common law.”

[Note: I’m going to come back to this. Hold that thought.]

Marriage provided several changes to Frith’s legal status. A married woman could either be a feme covert, a woman whose legal identity was “covered” by her husband and who could take no independent legal or financial actions. Or, even though married, the marriage contract could specify that she would remain feme sole, in effect, a legally single woman, able to run her own business and take actions in her own name. Frith acted regularly as  feme sole, especially with regard to her business as a fence. But on other occasions, she claimed to be feme covert, when it was convenient to dodge legal consequences by claiming to have no ability to act independently under law. So, for example, in 1624 when a hatmaker sued her for money owed, he was warned not to sue her as feme sole because she would only respond by claiming to be feme covert and that therefore he must apply to her (long-absent) husband for redress.

In point of fact, the testimony in that case provide strong evidence that the marriage was a polite fiction. Frith claimed that she couldn’t even remember how long she’d been married to Markham, and the attorney for the other side asserted that she had not lived with her husband “these ten years or thereabouts” (i.e., the entire period of the marriage).

Ungerer notes that engaging in marriage is in direct contradiction to the character portrayed in Middleton and Dekker’s play who rejected the very concept of marriage. [Note: As the play was published in 1611 and Frith’s marriage was in 1614, this needn’t be considered a contradiction. At the time The Roaring Girl portrayed Moll Cutpurse as disdaining marriage, the character’s namesake was, in fact, unmarried and perhaps had every intention of remaining so at the time.]

Documentation concerning Frith’s career as a licensed broker of stolen goods (a fence) makes her status as a legally independent woman clear. The article returns to her criminal and crime-adjacent career, starting with her arrests in 1600 and 1602 for theft (the literal cutting of purses for which she was nicknamed), along with the absence of any reference to cross-dressing at that time. Ungerer then asserts that Frith’s cross-dressing correlates specifically with the beginnings of her involvement with the Bankside entertainment industry and he speculates, “that her transvestism was a commercially and professionally motivated ploy to increase her income.” He continues, “It would definitely be dangerous to diagnose the case of Mary Frith as that of a lower-class woman in quest of her sexuality; hers is far more likely to be the case of a pickpocket turned transvestite for gain.” The reasoning was that Frith’s appearance on the streets in male clothing would draw and distract a crowd who would then be victims of pickpockets who would presumably share the proceeds with Frith.

[Note: the flaw I see in this reasoning is that Frith’s cross-dressing would make her highly memorable and identifiable, which surely would be the opposite of the desired effect.]

Ungerer concludes that the conjunction of her cross-dressing and her association with criminal elements means that the cross-dressing was a professional strategy, and further that this “confirms that there was a relationship between transvestism and crime.” He claims that Dekker and van de Pol’s study of female cross-dressing in the Low Countries demonstrates a “paradigm of the criminal female transvestite”.

[Note: I have no idea how one could draw this conclusion from Dekker and van de Pol’s work. They discuss a wide range of contexts and motivations for female cross-dressing, and although a few examples involve criminality, the majority do not. To focus on this one specific context and then claim that there was an inherent relationship in 17th century northern Europe between female cross-dressing and criminality is  the strongest tell that Ungerer has a preconceived conclusion here that he is working hard to “prove.” Whether that preconceived conclusion stems from his own prejudice against gender transgression in women, or whether he feels a need to erase gender/sexuality as a factor in Frith’s life, I don’t know. But this was the point when I decided to discount his conclusions entirely and to flag this article as “useful only when quoting primary source material.” So from this point on, I’ll add my back-talk without bothering to flag it in brackets.]

Ungerer supports his conclusion that Frith’s appearances in male clothing were a deliberate performance with such things as her confession in the Bishop’s court that she “had long frequented all or most of the disorderly and licentious places in this city as namely she hath usually in the habit of a man resorted to alehouses, taverns, tobacco shops, and also play houses there to see plays and prizes.” Of course, many other people frequented this same list of locations and activities without doing so for the purpose of performing as an entertainer, or of participating in criminal activity. Frith certainly engaged in “pranks” like the wager that led her to ride horseback in a fully male outfit through the streets of London, as well as the sort of rude practical jokes that make up much of her biography. But Ungerer spins an invented scenario where he depicts Frith singing bawdy songs in a tavern and distracting patrons with the startling sight of a woman smoking a pipe, solely to enable her confederates to pick their pockets more easily, and then he uses this invented scenario as proof of his interpretation regardin her motivations.

The direct evidence for Frith as a professional entertainer is limited: an announcement at the end of the script for The Roaring Girl that Frith herself would appear on stage “some few days hence” to perform, and a corresponding confession in court records that she appeared “at a the Fortune in man’s apparel and in her boots and with a sword by her side...and also sat there upon the stage in the public view of all the people there present in man’s apparel” during which she sang to the lute and made speeches. Ungerer plumps this up with speculative elaborations and then concludes that, “She seized the opportunity to bring home to the audience that her self-fashioned cultural identity as a public persona, that is, as a female entertainer in male disguise, was not identical with her private self. Thus, she let it be known in unmistakable words that she was not a transvestite, nor a hermaphrodite, nor a sexually ambiguous character of any kind.” The sole evidence he gives for this conclusion is Frith’s declaration that she knew many in the audience thought she was a man, but she’d be happy to disabuse them of that idea if they came with her to her lodging. As if identifying as a woman were incompatible with having a “sexually ambiguous character.”

To push further on the erasure of Frith as a gender outlaw, he argues that Frith’s message was that crossing gender boundaries was not transgressive or disruptive, not immoral or reprehensible. But the authorities clearly disagreed (just as they considered the wearing of cross-gendered clothing by non-criminal women to be morally suspect--a factor that Ungerer doesn’t seem to consider).

The crackdown on Frith after her stage appearance in connection with The Roaring Girl was not aimed at her alone or even at cross-dressing women in general. In October 1612, there was a legal ban on theaters staging the performance of “jigs, rhymes, and dances after their plays” because of the disruption to the peace they often caused. (Though Ungerer implies that it was Frith’s performance in particular that drove this action.) Ungerer discusses Frith’s shift to working as a fence, accompanied by a lot of speculative “whether X was a factor is unknown” and “it would also seem logical” and “she conceivably had opportunity”.

Ungerer sums up the preceding with his predetermined conclusion: “[Mary Frith] had made a name for herself as a street and tavern performer, as a light-fingered instrumentalist and dancer of jigs, who apparently sensed that the time was ripe to confide to her audiences that her cross-dressing had nothing to do with her sexual identity and should be taken for what it was: a simple trick of the trade consisting in a costume change. In her promotion of this view, her male dress or playing apparel had become, as it were, her signature as a popular entertainer.”

The next section of the article discusses gendered aspects of the tobacco trade and the act of smoking. Frith’s pipe-smoking was part of her masculine performance, and her social presence in tobacco shops was another example of entering male-coded spaces. But despite a claim in her biography, she was hardly the first English woman to engage in smoking.

The last section of the article is the most useful, as it provides transcripts and source annotations for pretty much all the documentary references to Mary Frith’s life. If one sifts out Ungerer’s commentary and unwarranted assumptions about the various documents, this is the only part of the article that I can whole-heartedly recommend as useful to the researcher.

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