Tom O’ Bedlams by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

The history of a race of singular mendicants, known by the name of Tom o’ Bedlams, connects itself with that of our poetry. Not only will they live with our language, since Shakspeare has perpetuated their existence, but they themselves appear to have been the occasion of creating a species of wild fantastic poetry, peculiar to our nation.

Bethlehem Hospital formed, in its original institution, a contracted and penurious charity;[1] its governors soon discovered that the metropolis furnished them with more lunatics than they had calculated on; they also required from the friends of the patients a weekly stipend, besides clothing. It is a melancholy fact to record in the history of human nature, that when one of their original regulations prescribed that persons who put in patients should provide their clothes, it was soon observed that the poor lunatics were frequently perishing by the omission of this slight duty from those former friends; so soon forgotten were they whom none found an interest to recollect. They were obliged to open contributions to provide a wardrobe.[2]

In consequence of the limited resources of the Hospital, they relieved the establishment by frequently discharging patients whose cure might be very equivocal. Harmless lunatics thrown thus into the world, often without a single friend, wandered about the country, chanting wild ditties, and wearing a fantastical dress to attract the notice of the charitable, on whose alms they lived. They had a kind of costume, which I find described by Randle Holme in a curious and extraordinary work.[3]

“The Bedlam has a long staff, and a cow or ox-horn by his side; his clothing fantastic and ridiculous; for being a madman, he is madly decked and dressed all over with rubins (ribands), feathers, cuttings of cloth, and what not, to make him seem a madman, or one distracted, when he is no other than a wandering and dissembling knave.” This writer here points out one of the grievances resulting from licensing even harmless lunatics to roam about the country; for a set of pretended madmen, called “Abram men,” a cant term for certain sturdy rogues, concealed themselves in their costume, covered the country, and pleaded the privileged denomination when detected in their depredations.[4]

Sir Walter Scott first obligingly suggested to me that these roving lunatics were out-door pensioners of Bedlam, sent about to live as well as they could with the pittance granted by the hospital.

The fullest account that I have obtained of these singular persons is drawn from a manuscript note transcribed from some of Aubrey’s papers, which I have not seen printed.

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“Till the breaking out of the civil wars, Tom o’ Bedlams did travel about the country; they had been poor distracted men, that had been put into Bedlam, where recovering some soberness, they were licentiated to go a begging; i.e., they had on their left arm an armilla, an iron ring for the arm, about four inches long, as printed in some works.[5] They could not get it off; they wore about their necks a great horn of an ox in a string or bawdry, which, when they came to a house, they did wind, and they put the drink given to them into this horn, whereto they put a stopple. Since the wars I do not remember to have seen any one of them.” The civil wars, probably, cleared the country of all sorts of vagabonds; but among the royalists or the parliamentarians, we did not know that in their rank and file they had so many Tom o’ Bedlams.

I have now to explain something in the character of Edgar in Lear, on which the commentators seem to have ingeniously blundered, from an imperfect knowledge of the character which Edgar personates.

Edgar, in wandering about the country, for a safe disguise assumes the character of these Tom o’ Bedlams; he thus closes one of his distracted speeches–“Poor Tom, Thy horn is dry!” On this Johnson is content to inform us, that “men that begged under pretence of lunacy used formerly to carry a horn and blow it through the streets.” This is no explanation of Edgar’s allusion to the dryness of his horn. Steevens adds a fanciful note, that Edgar alludes to a proverbial expression, Thy horn is dry, designed to express that a man had said all he could say; and, further, Steevens supposes that Edgar speaks these words aside; as if he had been quite weary of Tom o’ Bedlam’s part, and could not keep it up any longer. The reasons of all this conjectural criticism are a curious illustration of perverse ingenuity. Aubrey’s manuscript note has shown us that the Bedlam’s horn was also a drinking-horn, and Edgar closes his speech in the perfection of the assumed character, and not as one who had grown weary of it, by making the mendicant lunatic desirous of departing from a heath, to march, as he cries, “to wakes, and fairs, and market-towns–Poor Tom! thy horn is dry!” as more likely places to solicit alms; and he is thinking of his drink-money, when he cries that “his horn is dry.”

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An itinerant lunatic, chanting wild ditties, fancifully attired, gay with the simplicity of childhood, yet often moaning with the sorrows of a troubled man, a mixture of character at once grotesque and plaintive, became an interesting object to poetical minds. It is probable that the character of Edgar, in the Lear of Shakspeare, first introduced the hazardous conception into the poetical world. Poems composed in the character of a Tom o’ Bedlam appear to have formed a fashionable class of poetry among the wits; they seem to have held together their poetical contests, and some of these writers became celebrated for their successful efforts, for old Izaak Walton mentions a “Mr. William Basse, as one who has made the choice songs of ‘The Hunter in his career,’ and of ‘Tom o’ Bedlam,’ and many others of note.” Bishop Percy, in his “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” has preserved six of what he calls “Mad Songs,” expressing his surprise that the English should have “more songs and ballads on the subject of madness than any of their neighbours,” for such are not found in the collection of songs of the French, Italian, etc., and nearly insinuates, for their cause, that we are perhaps more liable to the calamity of madness than other nations. This superfluous criticism had been spared had that elegant collector been aware of the circumstance which had produced this class of poems, and recollected the more ancient original in the Edgar of Shakspeare. Some of the “Mad Songs” which the bishop has preserved are of too modern a date to suit the title of his work; being written by Tom D’Urfey, for his comedies of Don Quixote. I shall preserve one of more ancient date, fraught with all the wild spirit of this peculiar character.[6]

This poem must not be read without a continued reference to the personated character. Delirious and fantastic, strokes of sublime imagination are mixed with familiar comic humour, and even degraded by the cant language; for the gipsy habits of life of these “Tom o’ Bedlams” had confounded them with “the progging Abram men.”[7] These luckless beings are described by Decker as sometimes exceeding merry, and could do nothing but sing songs fashioned out of their own brains; now they danced, now they would do nothing but laugh and weep, or were dogged and sullen both in look and speech. All they did, all they sung, was alike unconnected; indicative of the desultory and rambling wits of the chanter.

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From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
All the spirits that stand
By the naked man,
In the book of moons defend ye!
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken;
Nor travel from
Yourselves with Tom
Abroad, to beg your bacon.


Nor never sing any food and feeding,
Money, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid,
Be not afraid,
For 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.
In the lovely lofts of Bedlam,
In stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong,
Sweet whips ding, dong,
And a wholesome hunger plenty.

With a thought I took for Maudlin,
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
And a thing thus–tall,
Sky bless you all,
I fell into this dotage.
I slept not till the Conquest;
Till then I never waked;
Till the roguish boy
Of love where I lay,
Me found, and stript me naked.

When short I have shorn my sow’s face,
And swigg’d my horned barrel;
In an oaken inn
Do I pawn my skin,
As a suit of gilt apparel.
The morn’s my constant mistress,
And the lovely owl my morrow;
The flaming drake,
And the night-crow, make
Me music, to my sorrow.

The palsie plague these pounces,
When I prig your pigs or pullen;
Your culvers take
Or mateless make
Your chanticleer and sullen;
When I want provant with Humphrey I sup,
And when benighted,
To repose in Paul’s,
With waking souls
I never am affrighted.

I know more than Apollo;
For, oft when he lies sleeping,
I behold the stars
At mortal wars,
And the rounded welkin weeping.
The moon embraces her shepherd,
And the Queen of Love her warrior;
While the first does horn
The stars of the morn,
And the next the heavenly farrier.

With a heart of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander:
With a burning spear,
And a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander;
With a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to Tourney:
Ten leagues beyond
The wide world’s end;
Methinks it is no journey!

The last stanza of this Bedlam song contains the seeds of exquisite romance; a stanza worth many an admired poem.

[Footnote 1:
The establishment could originally accommodate no more than six lunatics. In 1644, the number had only increased to forty-four; and the building had nearly perished for want of funds, when the city raised a subscription and repaired it. After the great fire, it was re-established on a much larger scale in Moorfields. ]

[Footnote 2:
Stowe’s “Survey of London,” Book i. ]

[Footnote 3:
“The Academy of Armory,” Book ii. c. 3, p. 161. This is a singular work, where the writer has contrived to turn the barren subjects of heraldry into an entertaining Encyclopaedia, containing much curious knowledge on almost every subject; but this folio more particularly exhibits the most copious vocabulary of old English terms. It has been said that there are not more than twelve copies extant of this very rare work, which is probably not true. [It is certainly not correct; the work is, however, rare and valuable. ]

[Footnote 4:
In that curious source of our domestic history, the “English Villanies” of Decker, we find a lively description of the “Abram cove,” or Abram man, the impostor who personated a Tom o’ Bedlam. He was terribly disguised with his grotesque rags, his staff, his knotted hair, and with the more disgusting contrivances to excite pity, still practised among a class of our mendicants, who, in their cant language, are still said “to sham Abraham.” This impostor was, therefore, as suited his purpose and the place, capable of working on the sympathy, by uttering a silly maunding, or demanding of charity, or terrifying the easy fears of women, children, and domestics, as he wandered up and down the country: they refused nothing to a being who was as terrific to them as “Robin Good-fellow,” or “Raw-head and Bloody-bones.” Thus, as Edgar expresses it, “sometimes with lunatic bans, sometimes with prayers,” the gestures of this impostor were “a counterfeit puppet-play: they came with a hollow noise, whooping, leaping, gambolling, wildly dancing, with a fierce or distracted look.” These sturdy mendicants were called “Tom of Bedlam’s band of mad-caps,” or “Poor Tom’s flock of wild geese.” Decker has preserved their “Maund,” or begging–“Good worship master, bestow your reward on a poor man that hath been in Bedlam without Bishopsgate, three years, four months, and nine days, and bestow one piece of small silver towards his fees, which he is indebted there, of 3l. 13s. 71/2d.” (or to such effect).

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Or, “Now dame, well and wisely, what will you give poor Tom? One pound of your sheep’s-feathers to make poor Tom a blanket? or one cutting of your sow’s side, no bigger than my arm; or one piece of your salt meat to make poor Tom a sharing-horn; or one cross of your small silver, towards a pair of shoes; well and wisely, give poor Tom an old sheet to keep him from the cold; or an old doublet and jerkin of my master’s; well and wisely, God save the king and his council.” Such is a history drawn from the very archives of mendicity and imposture; and written perhaps as far back as the reign of James the First: but which prevailed in that of Elizabeth, as Shakspeare has so finely shown in his Edgar. This Maund, and these assumed manners and costume, I should not have preserved from their utter penury, but such was the rude material which Shakspeare has worked up into that most fanciful and richest vein of native poetry, which pervades the character of the wandering Edgar, tormented by “the foul fiend” when he
—- bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast.

And the poet proceeds with a minute picture of “Bedlam beggars.” See Lear, Act ii. Sc. 3.

[Footnote 5:
Aubrey’s information is perfectly correct; for those impostors who assumed the character of Tom o’ Bedlams for their own nefarious purposes used to have a mark burnt in their arms, which they showed as the mark of Bedlam. “The English Villanies” of Decker, c 17. 1648. ]

[Footnote 6:
I discovered the present in a very scarce collection, entitled “Wit and Drollery,” 1661; an edition, however, which is not the earliest of this once fashionable miscellany. ]

[Footnote 7:
Harman, in his curious “Caveat, a warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called Vagabones,” 1566, describes the “Abraham Man” as a pretended lunatic, who wandered the country over, soliciting food or charity at farm-houses, or frightening and bullying the peasantry for the same. They described themselves as cruelly treated in Bedlam, and nearly in the words of Shakspeare’s Edgar. ]

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