March 30, 2020

F is for Fiddlers

        (My theme for this year’s April A to Z Blog Challenge is traditional English language nursery rhymes, and their block printed illustrations.)

Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.

        His Majesty was especially fond of square dancing and Vivaldi.
        I take the pipe and bowl to be tobacco and alcohol, neither of which I particularly want to encourage.  I didn’t know what else to do with the pipe in my illustration, though, so I left it.  Later I saw an illustration (I don’t know the artist) which I wish I’d thought of: the pipe was a bubble pipe, and the bowl was soapy water!
        Other than that, most of the variation in illustrations for this nursery rhyme is in the depiction of the fiddlers.  Some artists go for maximum uniformity, but others like to go for variety, often exaggerated for comic effect.  In the second piece, each of the “fiddlers” comes from a different musical era: ancient, classical, and Romantic (which would have been modern at the time.)  Meanwhile, King Cole himself looks renaissance, and the servant floating in the background with the bowl looks like an angel or genie!  The one thing all illustrations have in common (at least the older “classic” illustrations that I’m looking at) is that the fiddlers are always men, and I’m afraid I followed suit on that.
        The last illustration is a color wood block print by F.D. Bedford, and has the fiddlers looking quite young and the serving boys even younger.  There’s a jug of whiskey at Cole’s side, as well as a cask of something else, so there’s no glossing over the alcohol in this illustration!  Note that one of the boys is bringing “Kings Mixture,” which I assume to be the tobacco, but which I prefer to imagine might be mixed nuts.
        As the final post for the month, it’s also time for Words of the Month.  The fiddle was covered in a previous Words of the Month post here, so today let’s look a little more closely at that bowl that was called for.  This is one of our Old English words, and it’s had its current meaning forever.  However, the definition used to be a fair bit broader, encompassing pots and cups as well.  It also used to include in its scope a large drinking cup as used in revelry,
and that’s presumably what Old King Cole was calling for in this rhyme.  But there are other possibilities.  Bowl also encompassed what we now mostly call basins, so perhaps Old King Cole wanted to wash up after his feast.  We still use that meaning in finger-bowl.  Then there’s the meaning “ball,” as in bowling, the lawn sport bowls, or in some dialects billiard balls or marbles can be called bowls.  That definition derives from a related word, but came to English by way of Old French.  Or what about the bowl of the pipe, which he’s already calling for?  That’s a later usage, but still before this nursery rhyme is first attested in 1708.  However, the pipe in question may well not have been a smoking pipe anyway.  Although we don’t know of earlier origins to the rhyme, that first 1708 version doesn’t include the pipe at all, and smoking was not widespread in Europe until the late sixteenth century.  So the pipe could originally have been a musical instrument (I wish I’d thought of that at the time of my illustration, too!) or could simply have been a later addition.
        So, we don’t really know for sure what the bowl is, we don’t really know for sure what the pipe is, and we don’t know at all who Old King Cole himself was!  There are many theories, from Finn mac Cumhaill’s father Cumhall, to legendary Welsh king Coel Hen, to 12th century merchant Thomas Cole-brook, to Richard Cole of Bucks who died in 1614.  None of these theories has the slightest corroborating evidence.  So the question is, why do people want so badly for there to be a real Old King Cole hiding somewhere in history?  Do you think it’s more fun or less if the ditty is merely a silly, made-up story as opposed to a coded relic of history?
        A final note for impressionable children: Just Say No to tobacco, drugs, and alcohol - but by all means enjoy the music.  Old King Cole and I recommend Vivaldi.
[Pictures: Old King Cole, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001 (Image from my book);
Illustration from The Nursery Rhymes of England collected by James Orchard Halliwell, 1844 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Illustration from The Book of Nursery Rhymes, Tales, and Fables edited by Lawrence Lovechild, 1847 (Image from Hathi Trust);
Color wood block print by Francis D. Bedford, from A Book of Nursery Rhymes, c 1885-97 (Image from Internet Archive).]

7 comments:

Kathe W. said...

Oh my you are certainly ahead of the game! I'll now have to go back so I can catch up! Cheers!

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

I love this one :)
I vote soap bubbles and a musical pipe!

The Multicolored Diary

Kristin said...

I never thought of it being based on a real King Cole. That last picture, the boys are quite small and young.

Deborah Weber said...

Love your block. How fascinating that the pipe might have been an instrument, and then perhaps the bowl was something stringed like a bowl lyre. Still, I absolutely delight in the idea of a bubble pipe.

Srivalli Rekha said...

Oh, this is so interesting. I'd go for soap water and bubbles.
The pipe could be something like a flute too, so yeah a musical instrument as well. :D

Jade Li said...

I like your creation. It looks lively, not static.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Deborah, I never thought of the bowl being an instrument, too. We could have a whole orchestra!
I was thinking bagpipes for the pipe, and the bowl could also be a kettle drum. Now I'm sorry I already made the piece!

But for everyone who wanted soap bubbles, there will be a rhyme later that has lots of suds. Teaser!