O the highways of the Middle Ages,
Lined with gallows and chapels!
The nineteenth-century French poet Paul Verlaine probably had the fifteenth-century poet François Villon in mind as he wrote those lines. Villon had no doubt seen his fair share of chapels, and probably a few more sets of gallows than he would have liked to. A religious scholar (all scholars in his era were religious, of course) at Paris and later –though not much later, a robber and vagabond. His crimes included the killing of a friend in a brawl, the robbery of a chapel, and, possibly, the leadership of a gang of thieves. At one point he was condemned to death, although the punishment was not carried out. He wrote some long, disarmingly direct autobiographical poems, humorous, bawdy and touching, full of stand-alone epitaphs like this one...
The name’s Frank, and so’s my curse
Born in Paris, near Pontoise
And this here rope, a canny length,
Will teach my neck the weight of my arse
(Jesuis François, dont il me poise
Né de Paris, emprès Pontoise,
Et delacorde d’une toise
Saura moncolque mon cul poise)
Villon, we may imagine, was rather a humorous fellow in the first place – but it was perhaps the thought of his impending (and ignominious death) that brought out the funniest in him. I suppose the essence of gallows humour is the desire to make light of the very darkest moment – one is disgraced, and about to die, painfully, but one can still at least elicit a laugh from the crowd with a pithy joke or, as here, a skilful rhyme.
In the north-west of Europe, the medieval era ended definitively with the Protestant Reformation that quite abruptly ended the business of shrines, pilgrimages and many of the roadside chapels of which Verlaine spoke. In England, as elsewhere, the Catholics did not let their ancient traditions go without a fight: there was a ready supply of young men ready to die – or to kill – for the old faith. One such was ChidiockTichborne, who was involved in the so-called Babington Plot to kill the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I, and replace her with the imprisoned Catholic queen, Mary Queen of Scots. The plot was, in fact, a set up from the start, and when it unravelled the young gentleman was taken to the Tower of London with his co-conspirators, and condemned to death. While awaiting his execution, he wrote one of the most famous and most touching elegies in the English language. The middle stanza is perhaps the darkest:
My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
In this sad poem, regretting a life to be cut down in its prime, indeed, a life hardly yet lived, there are foreshadows of the terrible execution to come. The metaphorical connection between gallows and trees was frequently employed in the 16th century (as in later centuries too), most famously in the nickname that Londoners gave to their public gallows – the Tyburn Tree. And while the cut thread refers to the thread spun by the classicalFates and cut at the end of your life, it also portends the rope that Tichborne would hang from, that would be cut after he was hanged, but not yet dead. It could even remind us of the intestines that would be pulled out of the still breathing young man’s body and would be wound around a wooden spindle – for that, too was part of the punishment for those deemed traitors. Darkly ironic puns seem to find their way into even the saddest poems about the gallows.
Tichborne’s elegy conferred on him a kind of immortality, but most of the men and women who met their end on the gallows were not talented poets, defenders of the faith like Tichborne, nor eloquent ne’er-do-wells like Villon, but members of the voiceless masses. The 16th and 17th century
Spanish poet, Luis de Góngora mentions them in his lament against the vicissitudes of fortune in Da Bienes Fortuna (What Fortuna Grants):
Down in the village
The poorest of fellows
Just for stealing an egg
Is slung from the gallows
While another walks free
Of a hundred thousand crimes.
Hoping for reasons,
You’re lumbered with rhymes.
The injustice for Góngora’s peasant is great – he is killed for a trivial crime, while another fellow – perhaps not quite as poor, we may surmise, gets away with his. Even if noblemen were condemned to death, they could unless, like Tichborne, they were condemned as traitors, choose a more dignified, and quicker matter of passing – in England, for example, the sword and chopping block were favoured by the upper classes.
But the gallows, though no longer public, lingered on into the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde, in Reading Gaol witnessed the hanging of a fellow prisoner, of that dire event, made a long, quite beautiful narrative poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Like Tichborne, he plays, bitterly, on the similarity between the gallows and the tree:
For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
With its adder-bitten root.
And, green or dry, a man must die
Before it bears its fruit!
Similar imagery appears in Abel Meeropol’s1930s song Strange Fruit, sung, famously, by Billie Holiday, and later by Nina Simone:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Meeropol’s lyrics referred to the lynching and hanging of the American South of his era. The poetry is bitterer, even than Wilde’s, which similarly mingles the pastoral and murderous. For though Wilde disagreed with, indeed abhorred, the execution he witnessed, he was at least witnessing the execution of a murderer, who had been tried and sentenced by a court. The victims Meeropol sings of were victims of injustice, black men beaten and killed by mobs on the basis of rumour, hearsay or mere lies. The imagery is brutal and tragic, recalling the grim illustration of Jacques Callot’s, La Pendaison, while the anger is remarkably controlled, both in the lyrics themselves and in Billie Holiday’s delivery. And even here, as with the above poems, there is humour – in the incongruity between the pastoral idyll of the South and the gruesome results of the work of the mob, a satirical stab most definitely aimed at the murderers.
The Verlaine line is taken from Leon Bloy, The Pilgrim of the Absolute, Transl. John Coleman and Harry LorinBinsse, Cluny Media, 2017
Tichborne’sElegy and The Ballad of Reading Gaol are in the public domain.
The translations of Villon and Góngoraare my own, and fairly loose. The last couplet in the Gongora poem translates a Spanish phrase ‘Cuandopitosflautas,cuandoflautaspitos’. ‘When [you’re expecting] whistles [you get] flutes, when [you’re expecting] flutes [you get] whistles.
Strange Fruit lyrics as reprinted in Tom Glazer (ed.), Songs of Peace, Freedom & Protest, Greenwich, CT, 1970, pp. 294-296© 1940, E. B. Marks Music Corp.