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Welsh rabbit, anyone?

Posted by: CEWBJ Team 7 years, 5 months ago



Contribution by John Cunningham, editor of the Music Editio

Readers of this blog will be familiar with Jonson’s exquisite lyric ‘Have you seen the bright lily grow’ and perhaps also with the suitably excellent contemporary setting attributed to Robert Johnson, which was most likely heard in performances of The Devil Is an Ass. Arguably Jonson’s most famous lyric after ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’, two stanzas are found in the play and a third in The Underwood. The famous stanza is the final one. It inspired similar lyrics by Sir John Suckling, William Cavendish, and James Shirley. The song too was very popular, and survives in eight contemporary manuscripts. But perhaps the clearest testament to the lyric’s familiarity is the tradition of parodic verses that it inspired, the most popular of which began ‘Have you seen a black-headed maggot’.

These parody verses were of marginal interest in the compilation of the Music Edition, as there was no evidence that they may have been sung, until I came across a setting of Jonson’s lyric with the parody included as a block of text after the song (Clark Library, Los Angeles, MS C6967M4, fol. 14):

Haue you seene the blacke little maggott                 

yt: Creepes vpon a dead dogge                                 

Or an olld woeman wt:h a ffaggott              

A smootheninge of a heoge hogg                  

Haue you seene Cawes bobbie tostd                          

Or a sheepe skinne rosted                           

Or haue smellt to the babe                            

in the whitle or a leap in ye: spittle               

Or haue tasted the savine tree                                 

O so blacke o so foule o so ruffe                   

                    o so fowle is she                                                      

Clearly these lines contain some rather grotesque (and somewhat bizarre) imagery, far removed from Jonson’s depiction of virginity. The survival of the lyric alongside the original song led me to include an editorial setting of it using Robert Johnson’s music, as part of the textual apparatus of the Music Edition.

In preparing the setting one of my tasks was to modernize the text. However, in doing so the meaning of one line proved intractable: ‘Haue you seene Cawes bobbie tostd’. Elsewhere the line is rendered as ‘Haue you smelt Coues bobby tosted’ (in Bodleian MS Eng. Poet. F. 25: the only other copy of a similar parody I came across). My initial thoughts leaned towards a bobby calf, ‘an unweaned calf slaughtered soon after birth’ (OED). This term, however, dates from the early 20th century (with the related ‘bob veal’ originating in the mid-19th century). Dead end.

Nevertheless, allowing for early modern spelling quirks, some bovine reference seemed plausible, visual or olfactory. Perhaps ‘Cawes bobbie’ was a vulgar reference to a cow’s udder, or some such. I thus left the line as ‘Have you seen/smelt cow’s bobby toasted?’. A year or so passed. Then reading an article by J. O. Bartley* memories of a foundational course in Welsh were sparked, and the answer revealed. Rather than a mammary gland or member, ‘Cawes bobbie’ was none other than Welsh rabbit!

The exact etymology of ‘Welsh rabbit’ is apparently unclear (‘rarebit’ is a corruption of ‘rabbit’); it was presumably intended as a disparaging implication that where rabbit was offered only cheese would be presented. ‘Welsh rabbit’ is first recorded in 1725, while the corruption is first recorded in 1785 (OED). In Welsh the dish is known as caws pobi, which literally translates as ‘baked cheese’. An appetite for cheese was a well established aspect of the Welsh national stereotype by the early 16th century. Early modern Welsh characters were especially fond of caws pobi (variously bobi, boby, bobe).** Indeed, Bartely noted that references to cheese, particularly in its baked form, are found in two-thirds of the early modern plays with Welsh characters that he consulted. The earliest printed reference, as far as I’m aware, is in one of the anecdotes from The Hundred Merry Tales (1526). In no. 78, God becomes tired of the rowdy Welshmen in heaven and instructs St Peter to intervene. Peter’s response is to shout ‘cause bobe’ (‘yt is as moche to say rostyd chese’) from beyond the gates, at which the Welshmen suddenly egress. Crafty Peter steps back into heaven and locks the gates. Hence there are no Welshmen in heaven! Caws pobi is also mentioned by Andrew Broode in his discussion of Wales, in The First Book of Knowledge (1547). His Welshman declares ‘I do love cawse boby, good roasted chese’.

I would be interested to learn if any readers know of other early modern references to caws pobi or of other sources of the ‘Have you seen the black little maggot’ parody:


Have you seen the black little maggot

That creeps upon a dead dog?

Or an old woman with a faggot

A smoothening of a hedgehog?

Have you seen caws bobi toasted?

Or a sheep skin, roasted?

Or have smelt to the babe

In the whittle or a leap in the spittle?

Or have tasted the savin tree?

Oh, so black! Oh, so foul! Oh, so rough!

                    Oh, so foul is she!


* J. O. Bartley, ‘The Development of a Stock Character. II: The Stage Scotsman; III: The Stage Welshman (To 1800)’, The Modern Language Review, 38/4 (1943), 279–288.

** ‘Caws’ is a masculine noun in modern Welsh, a soft mutation from ‘p’ to ‘b’ in the adjective – i.e. ‘pobi’ becoming ‘bobi’ – is not required. The variations between ‘pobi’ and ‘bobi’ are perhaps phonetic. Where an ‘sp’ combination is found in loan words, from English to Welsh, the ‘sp’ is often rendered as ‘sb’: e.g. ‘spare’ becomes ‘sbâr’ or ‘special’ becomes ‘sbesial’. In modern Welsh, caws pobi is more common than caws bobi. I am grateful to Stephen Rees for his advice on this; any errors are, however, my own.


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