In old times in England, “Tom O’Bedlam” was a name given to mad beggars (or to beggars who pretended to be mad as an aid to begging); the name comes from Bethlem Royal Hospital, or “Bedlam”, a place in which the mad were confined. Bedlam spawned two different but related ballads; the first, “Tom O’Bedlam”, goes more or less like this:
From the hagg and hungry goblin
That into raggs would rend ye,
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moones – defend ye!
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken,
Nor wander from your selves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon.
(Chorus; sung after every verse)
While I doe sing “any foode, any feeding,
Feedinge, drinke or clothing,”
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.
Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enraged,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly caged.
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam,
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty.
With a thought I took for Maudlin
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
With a thing thus tall, skie blesse you all,
I befell into this dotage.
I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never waked,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stript me naked.
When I short have shorne my sowre face
And swigged my horny barrel,
In an oaken inn I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel.
The moon’s my constant Mistrisse,
And the lowly owl my morrowe,
The flaming Drake and the Nightcrow make
Me music to my sorrow.
The palsie plagues my pulses
When I prigg your pigs or pullen,
Your culvers take, or matchless make
Your Chanticleers, or sullen.
When I want provant, with Humfrie
I sup, and when benighted,
I repose in Powles with waking souls
Yet never am affrighted.
I know more than Apollo,
For oft, when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at bloody wars
In the wounded welkin weeping,
The moone embrace her shepherd
And the queen of Love her warrior,
While the first doth horne the star of morne,
And the next the heavenly Farrier.
The Gipsie Snap and Pedro
Are none of Tom’s companions.
The punk I skorne and the cut purse sworne
And the roaring boyes bravadoe.
The meek, the white, the gentle,
Me handle touch and spare not
But those that crosse Tom Rynosseros
Do what the panther dare not.
With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon’d am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world’s end.
Methinks it is no journey.
But there’s another ballad, more popular these days, “Mad Maudlin’s Search for Tom O’Bedlam”, more usually known as “Bedlam Boys” from the chorus. Maudlin—Magdalene—was the companion institution to Bedlam, for mad women. It goes like this, in part:
For to see Mad Tom of Bedlam,
Ten thousand miles I’ve traveled.
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes,
For to save her shoes from gravel
Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys,
Bedlam boys are bonny
For they all go bare and they live by the air
And they want no drink or money.
I went down to Satan’s kitchen
To break my fast one morning
And there I got souls piping hot
All on the spit a-turning.
There I took a cauldron
Where boiled ten thousand harlots
Though full of flame I drank the same
To the health of all such varlets.
My staff has murdered giants
My bag a long knife carries
To cut mince pies from children’s thighs
For which to feed the fairies.
No gypsy, slut or doxy
Shall win my mad Tom from me
I’ll weep all night, with stars I’ll fight
The fray shall well become me.
I’ve been listening to a lot Irish traditional music over the last few months, courtesy of Pandora, and one of the best tracks I’ve come across is Old Blind Dogs’ version of “Mad Maudlin’s Search”, which the Dogs confusingly chose to call “The Rights of Man”. Go figure.
Here are two recordings of Bedlam Boys: Old Blind Dogs, followed by Steeleye Span.