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In 1600 William Kemp engaged the Elizabethan public with an odd feat of showmanship – The Nine Daies Wonder. It drew slanders from the ballad mongers of London, and in response Kemp published a little book to record his efforts.

Kemp was a stage player, a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s at the same time as Shakespeare. He was adept at improvising comic routines and dances, and performed in some of the great playwright’s comedies.

It is not clear if he ever appeared as Falstaff. The speculation is that Shakespeare grew so weary of his stage antics that he wrote the comedian out of his later plays. By 1599 Kemp had left the company, and took no part in the development of the Globe Theatre.

But you can’t keep a luvvie down, good or otherwise:

Frontispiece from Kemp’s account of his dance, 1600

Kemp’s plan was to dance from the lord mayor’s residence in London to the mayor’s residence in Norwich, a distance of about 80 miles. In the book he describes himself as a morris dancer who has spent his life in mad jigs and jests, and hopes to report, “many things merry, nothing hurtfull“. The book was to be sold at the west door of St Paul’s Church (the cathedral in London, presumably), and was dedicated to Anne Fitton, maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth.

Kemp’s journey was attended by throngs of onlookers – hardly ever less than fifty, by his own account – and many donations were collected: sixpences, groats, angels and pounds. He brought with him a small company: one taberer (drummer), a servant, and an overseer (his road manager, I suppose). And he says that he played the pipe to draw attention along the way, in the still morning and at twilight.

The journey began on the first of Lent, a clear day: Kemp danced out of London to great cheers, past Whitechapel. The crowds were so thick that he had to avoid a bear-baiting that had been laid on especially for him: “I could only heare the beare roare, and the doges howle“.  On the road from London he describes the first of many petty incidents, when he passed, “two strong lades … beating and byting either of other“, near Romford.

On the second day Kemp danced through Burntwood, although in exceeding pain because he had strained his hip. He identified a cutpurse who had been seized from the crowd, “such a one as we tye to a poast on our stage, for all people to wonder at, when at a play they are taken pilfering“. The cutpurse and his half-brother were jailed. Their two companions, “after a dance of Trenchmore at the whipping crosse“, were sent back to London.

On the third day … actually, Kemp’s journey took four weeks, with prolonged “resting” between days. So on the third day he set out for Chelmsford, where he met the local nobleman and was mobbed for an hour by the good natured townspeople. At this point he was so weary he could dance no more, and locked himself in the chamber of his inn for the weekend, vowing to refrain from drink and to be temperate in his diet.

On the fourth day Kemp danced into the countryside, where the roads were increasingly difficult. He was joined by two local fellows who danced before and behind him, until they came to a broad plash of water: Kemp leaped over the water, but the dancing fellows ended up wallowing in the mud, “like two frogges“.

On the fifth day Kemp was joined by another dancer – a tall butcher, who gave up after half a mile. Someone in the crowd piped up:

A lusty country lasse being among the people, cal’d him [the tall butcher] faint hearted lout: saying, if I had begun to daunce, I would have held out one myle though it cost my life. At which wordes many laughed. Nay saith she, if the dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles, Ile venter to treade one mile with him my selfe. I looked upon her, saw mirth in her eyes, heard boldnes in her words, and beheld her ready to tucke up her russet petticoate, I fitted her with bels: which she merrily taking, garnisht her thicke, short legs, and with a smooth brow had the tabrer begin. The drum strucke, forward marcht I with my merry Maydemarian: who shooke her fat sides: and footed it merrily to Melfoord, being a long myle. There parting with her, I gave her (besides her skinfull of drinke) an English crowne to buy more drinke, for good wench she was in a pittious heate: my kindnes she requited with dropping some dozen of short courtsies, and bidding God blesse the dauncer, I bad her adieu: and to give her her due, she had a good eare, daunst truely, and wee parted friendly.

This passage is followed by a rather sweaty poem in praise of the country lass.

On the sixth day … well, it mostly snowed. Kemp rested from Saturday of the second week until the following Thursday. On Friday, the seventh day, he danced ten miles in three hours. On the eighth day people thronged to him in their hundreds, directing him this way and that as he danced through their villages.

The ninth day’s journey was on Wednesday of the fourth week. Or was it? Kemp approached his destination at Norwich with five men running alongside, for “my pace was not for footemen“. As he drew near to the city the crowds became so great that Kemp took advice to stay his dance and ride in on a gelding. He was greeted by the mayor, and a plan was hatched for Kemp to wait until the city was crammed with visitors wishing to see the end of his morris dance.

Kemp enjoyed the pleasures of Norwich until Saturday. Then he exited the heaving city by one gate and returned through another to finish the dance. The city’s acclaim was great. An acrostic poem was recited in his honour, spelling out the message WELCOMEWILKEMP. There was music from viols and violins, and ecstatic singing.

But the Dance always demands a sacrificial victim:

Passing by the market place, the presse still increasing by the number of boyes, girles, men and women, thronging more and more before me to see the end. It was the mischance of a homely maide, that belike, was but newly crept into the fashion of long wasted peticotes tyde with points, & had, as it seemed but one point tyed before, and comming unluckily in my way, as I was fetching a leape, it fell out that I set my foote on her skirts: the point eyther breaking or stretching, off fell her peticoate from her waste, but as chance was, thogh hir smock were course, it was cleanely: yet the poore wench was so ashamed, the rather for that she could hardly recover her coate againe from unruly boies, that looking before like one that had the greene sickness, now had she her cheekes all coloured with scarlet. I was sorry for her …

The green sickness is mentioned by Shakespeare a few times, and the term seems to refer to chlorosis, apparently a condition that affected virgins, giving their complexions a yellowy green hue. Rather vague, although I’m sure the suggested remedy was quite precise! Clearly Kemp is just striking up a contrast.

The Nine Daies Wonder was ended. Kemp had spread his fame, made some friends … and some money. But then came the slanders. Kemp doesn’t specify what these were, but to counter their untruths he had the book published with an epilogue.

The epilogue opens with a curious address to “my notable Shakerags”, which seems to refer to Shakespeare, but was a term Kemp used for all his enemies. He was informed that the slanders had been composed by the author Thomas Deloney, but dismissed this because Deloney had already died. He then seems to consider a role for Shakespeare – “a penny poet whose first making was the miserable stolne story of Macdoel, or Macdobeth, or Mac-somewhat” –  but then decides to confront a certain ballad monger, who reacts to the accusation with a snort that blows the tobacco embers out the bowl of his pipe. Kemp finally lights on the real culprit –  a mysterious kinsman of Jansonius, the author of a latin pamphlet entitled Mundus Furiosus (Mad World).

There you have it. A long review of a short book. Although the slanders may be of some interest, the real merit of Kemp’s Wonder is as a simple piece of travel writing, describing various encounters with strangers.

The book also shows that there is a distinct type of English humour, which continues to this day and is best described as an acquired taste. For confirmation here are a few video links:

– A recreation of the Nine Daies Wonder in February 2011;

– A resting actor and comedian swims the River Thames in 7 days, September 2011.

– Kemp’ Nine Daies Wonder on QI, with Stephen Fry.

p.s. I’m sure there’s a photo on the web of Kemp’s dancing shoes nailed to the wall of a church in Norwich, but I can’t find it. Suggestions welcomed.