I’ve got a book coming out at the end of the month: The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4000-Year History of the Superhero. You can get glimpses of it through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, but I felt that I should make a sample of it available through my blog. So here’s an excerpt of Costumed Avenger: two sections, about two formidable women:
Long Meg of Westminster
“Long Meg of Westminster” may never have existed. The stories of her being from Lancashire, working in a tavern, and serving in the army of Henry VIII in the 1540s have no evidentiary basis, and Long Meg would certainly not be the first folk hero to have sprung purely from the people’s imagination. But regardless of whether there was a flesh-and-blood woman who went by the name “Long Meg,” the English of the sixteenth and seventh centuries believed in her reality, and made her into a folk heroine, in popular ballads, fiction, drama and poetry.
In 1582 a pamphlet of her life was published. In 1590 a ballad about her, now lost, was licensed, and that same year appeared the anonymously-written The Life of Long Meg of Westminster; no copies of the 1590 edition of The Life of Long Meg survive, but a 1620 biography by that title is extant and is likely the same text. In The Life of Long Meg the Amazonian protagonist, beginning as a sixteen-year-old, uses her size and strength and fighting skills to fight corruption and wickedness and–yes, crime–on behalf of the poor and oppressed, rescuing penniless maidens from a usurious carrier, rescuing a poor debtor from a bailiff, casting down an arrogant nobleman in a fistfight, and–most importantly for our purposes–saving some Lancashire girls from robbery at the hands of two men. She beats the men into submission and makes them vow to never hurt woman, nor poor man, nor children, nor rob packmen nor carriers or distressed persons. One exception she grants: rich farmers and country chuffs, who she directs the robber to focus their energies on. “Clearly, Meg is not only a figure of heroism but of righteousness triumphant.”82 Meg goes on to fight the French on the battlefield, marries, saves a young man from a cruel miller’s anger, and, as an older woman, robs a crooked friar while disguised as a man.
Later writers cast her in less complimentary terms, although Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West: Or, a Girl Worth Gold (1631) has its cross-dressing, piratical heroine hold up Long Meg as an example to be striven for, but the favorable legend of Long Meg persisted well into the nineteenth century, with The Life of Long Meg being reprinted in 1805 and 1880. Her relevance to this history is as a proto-superheroine, with her more-than-normal strength, codename, costume (her male’s attire), and her selfless activities, and if she lacks the specifically urban orientation of Moll Cutpurse, Long Meg nonetheless stands as the first modern proto-superheroine, the first inhabitant of the readers’ and listeners’ contemporary world. Long Meg isn’t a knight or Amazon from centuries ago; she is a product of the modern world, and provided her readers and listeners with the idea that fighting evil and crime could take place in the modern world. Too, unlike the many cross-dressing warrior women of popular ballads of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century,83 Long Meg is primarily an independent crime-fighter rather than a soldier or sailor, with a heroic mission all her own. Her adoption by writers as an abuser of abusive and boastful, arrogant men, and her use as a role model for other fictional women warriors, obscured this side of her.
Mary Frith (circa 1584-1659) was a remarkable woman. That so much of her life is obscured by stories about her (many circulating during her lifetime) and by later interpretations of her life, does not detract from how unusual she was. Purse-snatcher at sixteen, second-story woman at twenty-five, cross-dresser and “roaring girl” (the female version of the “roaring boy,” who was known for public drinking, fighting, and petty crimes), part of London’s female transvestite movement of the early seventeenth century, celebrity at twenty-six, public figure for the rest of her life, licensed fence and familiar of the members of the underworld, inmate at the infamous Bethlehem Hospital for the insane—just the facts of her life make up a colorful litany of adventure. And that’s not even taking into account the fictionalized versions of her life, beginning with T. Middleton and T. Dekker’s play The Roaring Girle; or, Moll Cut-Purse (1611) and continuing up through the present, as each new generation of readers and scholars rediscover Frith’s life and reinterpret and recast her for their own purposes.84
What is more relevant to this work is not the reality of Frith’s life and career as a member of the demi-monde, but her fictional self, the mythic “Moll Cutpurse.” The Roaring Girle presents Frith—known to all the world as Moll Cutpurse—as a habitué of the underworld but not a member of it, and (more importantly) one who protects—violently, if need be—the honest and innocent from the tricks of the criminals. She dresses in men’s clothes, carries a man’s weapons, and smokes tobacco. The Roaring Girle was quite popular in its day, and the legend of Moll Cutpurse was added to in the anonymously-written The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse (1662), which turned her into “a royalist cross-dressing Robin-hooder who eventually seeks redemption,”85 a “popular outcast defending the poor and oppressed against rapacious lawyers.”86 This character, the Moll Cutpurse whose crimes are on behalf of a greater good, would become propagated further in Alexander Smith’s History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), overshadowing for good the real Mary Frith’s exploits and permanently solidifying the concept of Moll Cutpurse, Robin Hood-ing highwaywoman, a concept and character which lasted throughout the century.
Moll Cutpurse is of course a proto-superhero. She has the requisite fighting skills of every hero, a codename, and a dual identity (one she reluctantly accepts), but more importantly has the heroic, selfless mission and a costume (her male clothing). Moreover, she is important in the history of the proto-superheroes because she marks the beginning of the transition of the proto-superhero from a hero of every environment to a specifically urban hero. Moll Cutpurse, like her real-life source Mary Frith, is a creature of the urban environment; though later authors like Smith would show her equally active in the countryside, Cutpurse is primarily known as an urban woman, active in the greatest city (by far) of the country and the largest city in Europe of the time. If the legend of Robin Hood popularized the concept of the costumed vigilante, Moll Cutpurse took the legend and brought it to the modern city, the location for the great majority of modern superheroes.
82. Patricia Gartenberg, “An Elizabethan Wonder Woman: The Life and Fortunes of Long Meg of Westminster,” The Journal of Popular Culture 17 no. 3 (1983), 51.
83. Simon Shepherd makes the point that “we have met before the woman who tames a braggart male’s sexual aspirations by physical punishment. We have met before the sudden, theatrical, release of long female hair. These are the archetypal attributes of the warrior woman.” Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (New York: St. Martin’s, 1981), 70. As Shepherd goes on to explain, the story of Long Meg predated Spenser’s Faerie Queene by eight years and may–only “may”–have been influenced by Italian epics; rather, Long Meg is part of the English tradition of fictional warrior women and real women posing as warriors in warriors’ garb, the foremost example of which was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Tilbury in August 1588 to encourage the English troops to resist the Spanish Armada. During the visit, Elizabeth was dressed as an Amazon queen, complete with truncheon, gauntlet, and gorget. Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama, 22. Shepherd emphasizes Long Meg’s experience in the campaign against the French, and casts her experience fighting crime and evil as “a form of lower-class resistance against the dominant order of society.” Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama, 73. This aspect does not in any way preclude Long Meg being a proto-superhero.
Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) is revelatory with regards to the sheer number of cross-dressing women warriors who appeared in the ballads of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century. Women dressed as men and going to war were popular subjects for the British of those centuries–for the Americans less so, but to a still significant degree–and what Dugaw calls the “Female Warrior” was a recognizable character type (even a cliche) in British and American popular culture during those centuries. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that superheroines appeared not long after superheroes–women warriors in costumes were a part of the zeitgeist. But, as mentioned, the cross-dressing women warriors of the popular ballads were soldiers and sailors rather than crime-fighters, and lacked the heroic mission that is necessary for proto-superheroes and proto-superheroines.
84. Some modern novelists, like Ellen Galford, in Moll Cutpurse, Her True History: A Novel (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1985), claim Frith as a lesbian—an assertion that can’t be proven or disproven, given the ambiguity around Frith’s sexual life, and a statement that, like a lot of other critical claims, says more about the author and the tenor of the times than it does about the subject addressed. A more considered judgment is made by Terry Castle, in The Literature of Lesbianism: “of Frith’s amorous inclinations we know nothing, though her masculine tastes and apparent antipathy to marriage suggest a possibly unorthodox sexual makeup.” Terry Castle, The Literature of Lesbianism (New York: Columbia UP, 2003), 155.
85. Bryan Reynolds and Janna Segal, “The Reckoning of Moll Cutpurse: A Transversal Enterprise.” In Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, edited by Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2004), 77.
86. Gustav Ungerer, “Mary Frith, Alias Moll Cutpurse, In Life and Literature,” Shakespeare Studies 28 (2000), 46.