Mary Frith, Moll Cutpurse, and the Development of an Early Modern Criminal Celebrity
From Firenze University Press Journal: Journal of Early Modern Studies (JEMS)
Lauren Liebe, Texas A&M University
In a letter dated 12 February 1612, John Chamberlain described the latest news from London to his long-term correspondent Dudley Carleton, with whom he exchanged hundreds of letters during the first decades of the seventeenth century. These letters ‘were designed to be useful to an ambitious diplomat eager to keep up with the latest English news’, and their content often relayed matters of both local and international political import (Finkelpearl 2004). In this particular letter, Chamberlain recounts two new proclamations from King James, movements of the Spanish navy, the Queen’s impending travels to Bath, colonization efforts in Virginia and Bermuda, the beginnings of Thomas Bodley’s library, and tales of recent penitents at Paul’s Cross. In this last category, he details the penance of Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, a notable local woman who had been arrested for public lewdness:
this last Sonday Mall Cutpursea notorious bagage (that used to go in mans apparell and challenged the feild of divers gallants) was brought to the same place [Paul’s Cross], where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted that she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce: she had the daintiest preacher or ghostly father that ever I saw in pulpit, one Ratcliffe of Brazen Nose in Oxford, a likelier man to have led the revells in some ynne of court then to be where he was, but the best is he did extreem badly, and so wearied the audience that the best part went away, and the rest tarried rather to heare Mall Cutpurse then him. (Chamberlain1939, 334)
This incident reveals a great deal about Frith’s life and her place within London society. While she was, in fact, a criminal, her crimes and punishments alike were seen more as spectacle than as condemned violations of societal rules. Frith was apparently well known enough, even if only by reputation, that Chamberlain did not have to offer substantial context for her penance, even to a correspondent quite removed from London. Finally, this incident highlights Frith’s own skill at shaping her public persona as a performer and one of London’s first female criminal celebrities. Mary Frith (1584?-1659) is one of the most intriguing and well-documented female criminals of early modern London. Her story can be traced through both court records and popular literature, both under her own name and under her increasingly fictionalized persona as Moll Cutpurse.
When considered as a whole, the documents and tales about Frith delineate an evolution from petty criminal to local celebrity to mythical antihero. However, the fictional accounts of Frith’s life, which generally adopt the Moll Cutpurse persona, often overshadow the actual events of her life. Frith is Moll, in the sense that she is Moll’s model and her creator, but Moll quickly evolved into an archetypal figure who could stand for and speak to myriad audiences in a rapidly urbanizing London. However, separating the historical Frith from her fictionalized identity as Moll Cutpurse is difficult, largely because her fictional portrayals are more accessible, and perhaps more tantalizing, than the sparse records that exist concerning the real woman and her actual life. When we attempt to read Frith and Moll as a single entity, whether we imagine that entity as historical or fictional, we undermine the significance of both the historical Frith’s life as a petty criminal, performer, and businesswoman as well as the skill with which Moll’s mythographers adapted her character to address evolving concerns about life in London.This article disentwines the two figures to argue that, while Frith created Moll, the two should ultimately be treated as separate entities.
Drawing from celebrity theory and historical accounts of early modern female criminals, I reevaluate the known facts of Frith’s early life as a criminal and a cross-dressing performer; then, I examine how Frith’s shaping of her own celebrity persona — Moll Cutpurse — led to her story being appropriated in popular literature. I read The Roaring Girl1 as a moment of both fracture and unity between the historical Frith and the fictional Moll, after which the stories of the two figures largely evolve separately. After the events surrounding The Roaring Girl, Frith takes steps towards legitimizing herself as a socially mobile businesswoman, while Moll becomes a criminal ringleader synonymous with monstrous womanhood. After Frith’s death, fictional representations seek to consolidate these two figures again in the anonymous fictional biography The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, and Frith’s and Moll’s legacy from the eighteenth century into the present, in both fictional and academic portrayals, tends to conflate the two figures or pass over the historical Frith for the more tantalizing Moll, reimagining her transgression as monstrous or heroic, politically conservative or socially rebellious.