DESCRIPTION: Enraptured with martial spirit as England goes to war, a tailor makes a horse from his shear board, bridle bits from his scissors, and a spear from his needle (with which he spears a flea) and a bell from his thimble (to ring the flea's funeral knell).
EARLIEST DATE: 1871 (F.C.H in _Notes and Queries_)
KEYWORDS: war humorous nonsense bug
1437-1453 - The Hundred Years' War
FOUND IN: Britain(England)
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Vaughan Williams/Lloyd, pp. 20-21, "Benjamin Bowmaneer" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: F.C.H. in Notes and Queries (London, 1871 ("Digitized by Google")), Fourth Series Vol. VIII, No. 194, September 16 1871, p. 231, "The Prancing Tailor" ("I'll tell you how the world began") (1 text)
cf. "The Tailor and the Louse"
NOTES: We don't have "tailor" as a keyword, otherwise I'd have included it. Also, while everyone seems to think this song is either the usual humorous put-down of tailors or a hidden satire, the resemblance to the magical elements in such songs as "Scarborough Fair" makes me wonder whether we should also keyword it as "magic." I continue to get the feeling there's more to this song than meets the eye. -PJS
I have to agree, though I have no better explanation of what's going on than Paul does. The put-down of tailors is likely enough; the practitioners of the trade were considered singularly ineffective. We can see an instance of this, e.g., in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, scene 2, where Falstaff is interviewing potential soldiers. In lines 145-170, Falstaff interviews a tailor. His name? Francis Feeble. A double joke, obviously: "France is feeble," and the tailor is feeble too. And Falstaff justifies taking the fellow on the grounds that he might be useful during a retreat!
There is one interesting parallel here, though, to the Grimm fairy tale "The Brave Little Tailor" (note the occupation! It is their #20, "Das tapfere Schneiderlien," printed in 1812 and said to go back to Martinus Montanus, c. 1557)
In English, it is well-known through its inclusion in Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, although he does not list his source. The tailor kills seven flies that are eating his jam, decides that makes him a hero, and sets out on a variety of adventures, in which he intimidates giants and men with his wits rather than his might. See also the version "John Glaick, The Brave Little Tailor" in Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970 (I use the 1971 Routledge paperback that combines volumes A.1 and A.2), volume A.1, pp. 341-342.
This obviously is a variation on the same theme. And yet, from the references and general feeling, I think this song has something -- though I've no idea what -- to do with the convoluted politics of the Hundred Years' War, fought between England and France.
The war began when Edward III (1327-1377, and under English law the King of France) attacked the French -- if not to gain the throne, then at least to get clear title to the English lands in Aquitaine. The reign of Henry V (1413-1422) saw the English make a serious attempt to take over France, but everything fell apart in the reign of Henry VI (1422-1461), and all British possessions in France were lost. For more about the war (probably more than you want to know), see the notes to "King Henry Fifth's Conquest of France" [Child 164].
During the whole time, though, there was constant diplomacy and maneuvering, much of which looked very silly from the outside.
By the way, it was the longbow which allowed the English -- often outnumbered three to one or more -- to keep the war going as long as it did. - RBW
F.C.H: "I remember [this] almost twice forty years ago."
"It strikes me that this song is nearly seventy years old, and was intended as a satire on the volunteers of 1802" (source: G.A. Sala, Notes and Queries (London, 1871 ("Digitized by Google")), Fourth Series Vol. VIII, No. 193, September 9, 1871, p. 214. Sala has one verse: "A tailor sat at work, Benjamin Birmingham ... And he found a louse on his shirt..." [for the relation between tailor and louse see the notes to "Tailor and Louse." - BS
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