Reading some early modern material, in the (forlorn) hope that I might find something useful on tenancy by the curtesy (a recent obsession), I came across more than one reference to a strange procedure allegedly used in relation to free-bench (the equivalent to dower, for land held by ‘unfree tenure’, according to various manorial customs.
The procedure was allegedly used in cases in which a widow, who would, in the usual course of things, be entitled to free-bench, had had an illegitimate child after her husband’s death. ‘Incontinence’ (and, indeed, remarriage) would often mean that she lost the right. But there was, apparently, a way out: all she had to do was present herself in the manor court, riding (possibly backwards) on a (possibly black) ram, (possibly holding its tail) and reciting the following verse:
“Here I am
Riding upon the back of a black ram,
Like a whore as I am;
And for my Crincum Crancum
I have lost my Binkum Bankum;
And for my tail’s game
Have done this worldly shame;
Therefore pray, Mr Steward, let me have my land again.”
This would, so we are told, act as condign penance, and she would not be forfeited.
The sources in which I have seen this are 17th and 18th C, and the procedure is sometimes linked to particular manors in Berkshire, Devon and ‘parts of the West’. [See, e.g., Anon., A Treatise of femes coverts or the Lady’s Law (London, 1732), 128; G. Jacob, A New Law Dictionary 6th ed. (London, 1750) under ‘free bench’; G. Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature vol. I (London, 1994), 333].
Is this just ‘horrible legal history’ or was it really ‘a thing’? It does chime in with various rough music and carnivalesque/misrule practices, but it is hard to see that performing a humiliating verse in this manner would have been thought to cancel out the ‘shame’ of producing an illegitimate child, evidence of sexual misbehaviour by a widow which was frequently seen as serious and deserving of severe property consequences. (And is it actually possible to ride backwards on a ram?) Early modern England – bit of a mystery.