Aniseed Water Robin

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ANNISEED WATER ROBIN. AKA and see "Irish Lady (1) (The)," "Teague's Rambles." The tune was originally published by John Playford in the first edition of his English Dancing Master (1651). Aniseed is a member of the hemlock family and its extract was particularly famed in olden times as a treatment for digestive disorders, although since it was aromatic it was also utilized as a perfuming agent (as well as a pest repellent!). Aniseed-Water Robin was a real person who obtained his name from his profession, a peddler of aniseed water, which was used as a carminative. He was a familiar figure in London (according to Dr. Sthephen Orgel in Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England, 1996, Cambridge University Press), about whom an "extraordinary mythology" grew up. "Frith's assumption," writes Orgel, "that he was a genuine hermaphrodite was widely shared; Horner in Wycherley's The Country Wife is warned that if he declares himself to be impotent he will be as noxious to women as Aniseed-water Robin was, and Charles Cotton's epitaph for him credits him with twice impregnating himself, and giving birth to a boy and a girl." Perhaps as part of the 'mythology' around him Robin surfaces in the tale of one John Cottington, a chimney sweeper, who, like many in the trade (at least in popular prejudice of the time) was also a thief, murderer and highwayman. Alexander Smith, in his book The History of the Highwaymen, writes:

He no sooner ran away from his master but he was as soon called by the name of Mull-Sack (though his real name was John Cottington) from his usually drinking mulled sack, morning, noon and night. And one night drinking at the Devil Tavern, in Fleet Street, a match was made up betwixt him and one he took to be a real woman. But when he was married at the Fleet Prison, the common place for joining all rogues and whores together, and came to be bedded at night, he found his partner to be a noted person, called Aniseed-Water Robin, who being a hermaphrodite, that is a person of both sexes, he soon found Nature's impotence by reason of her redundancy in making the supposed bride both man and woman had, in effect, made the party neither, as having not the strength nor reason of the male, nor the fineness and subtlety of the female.

Smith in part appears to quote from a London pamphlet issued in 1662 ("printed for W. Gilbertson at the Bible in Giltspur-street without Newgate"), titled "The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith. Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse," purported to be the 'diary' of an infamous Fleet street criminal (and as such, no less fascinating to the public then, as now). Mal Cutpurse was also a frequenter of the Devil Tavern, and was an infamous 'fence' or receiver of stolen property, among other crimes. She says:

There was also a fellow contemporary of mine, as remarkable as my self, called Aniseed-water Robin: who was clothed very near my Antic Mode, being an Hermaphrodite, a person of both sexes; him I could by no means endure, being the very derision of natures impotency, whose redundancy in making him Man and Woman, had in effect made him neither, having not the strength nor reason of the Male, nor the fineness nor subtlety of the Female: being but one step removed from a Natural Changeling, a kind of mockery (as I was upbraided) of me, who was then Counded for an Artificial one. And indeed I think nature owed me a spite in sending that thing into the world to Mate and Match me, that nothing might be without a peer; and the vacuum of Society be replenished, which is done by the likeness and similitude of manners: but contrariwise it begot in me a natural abhorrence of him with so strange an Antipathy, that what by threats and my private instigating of the Boys to fall upon, and throw Dirt at him, I made him quit my Walk and Habitation, that I might have no further scandal among my Neighbours, who used to say, here comes Malls Husband.


Additional notes



Printed sources : - Barlow (The Complete Country Dances from Playford's Dancing Master), 1986; No. 43, p. 26. Johnson (The Kitchen Musician No. 14: Songs, Airs and Dances of the 18th Century), 1997; p. 1.






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