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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

John Earle on ‘The Common Singing-Men in Cathedral Churches’ (1628)

‘The common singing-men in cathedral churches are a bad society, and yet a company of good fellows, that roar deep in the quire, deeper in the tavern. They are the eight parts of speech which go to the syntaxis of service, and are distinguished by their noises much like bells, for they make not a concert but a peal. Their pastime or recreation is prayers, their exercise drinking, yet herein so religiously addicted that they serve God oftest when they are drunk. Their humanity is a leg to the residencer, their learning a chapter, for they learn it commonly before they read it; yet the old Hebrew names are little beholden to them, for they miscall them worse than one another. Though they never expound the scripture, they handle it much, and pollute the gospel with two things, their conversation and their thumbs. Upon worky-days, they behave themselves at prayers as at their pots, for they swallow them down in an instant. Their gowns are laced commonly with streamings of ale, superfluities of a cup or throat above measure. Their skill in melody makes them the better companions abroad, and their anthems abler to sing catches. Long lived for the most part they are not, especially the bass, they overflow their bank so oft to drown the organs. Briefly, if they escape arresting, they die constantly in God’s service; and to take their death with more patience, they have wine and cakes at their funeral, and now they keep the church a great deal better and help to fill it with their bones as before with their noise.’

John Earle, Microcosmography, ed. Philip Bliss (1628; repr., London: Printed For White And Cochrane And John Harding, 1811). XLVII.

The painting below is Bauerntrinkgesellschaft by Adriaan Brouwer, painted between 1620-1630.

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