The Cruel Mother (20)

For this post I tried to pick the most disturbing Child Ballad – or at least the one I had the strongest reaction to. It wasn’t an easy task. People can be hateful and vicious to each other. They can also kill, rape, or maim with chilling indifference. There’s a ballad about a blood libel – a common medieval anti-Semitic belief that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzah bread. “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tells a similar story. There’s a ballad where a man massacres a woman’s family, rapes her, and then imprisons her until she bears him a child.

Honestly, as I’m writing this, all I can think about is that I’m really looking forward to my next post where I’m done with my self-inflicted sojourn into the darkest Child Ballads. This might be shorter than usual.

The ballad I settled on is titled “The Cruel Mother” and concerns a woman who is pregnant with illegitimate twins. She gives birth to them alone in the woods and then kills them with a penknife. In one version, after burying them, she attempts to wipe the blade clean but the more she wipes the redder it grows.

She wiped the penknife in the sludge;

The more she wiped it, the more the blood showed.

This was a common storytelling trope indicating guilt, as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Later she finds two children playing with a ball and tells them that if they were her own she would dress them in finery and take care of them. They turn and inform her that they are the ghosts of her murdered children and know she would do no such thing. They tell her that hell awaits her.

This is a well known ballad in Scotland, England, and America. There are also related versions in other countries, most notably Germany. In the German song, the children appear to a bride at her wedding and she denies having had them, wishing the devil would take her if it was true. So the devil comes and snatches her up.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for “Some British Ballads” (1919)

I probably don’t need much of an explanation for why this is so disturbing to me. Acts of violence are harder to bear when done to infants and children. The way their ghosts appear to her also makes my skin crawl. The song has little sympathy for her. It was probably meant to impart a moral lesson to young girls. The Birmingham singer Cecilia Costello, born in the 1880s, recalled her father putting her on his knee and singing it to her with the admonition that she was not to act so. Modern singers have made note of the difficulties of the woman, however, living in a time where postpartum depression was not understood and where if her illegitimate birth was to be made public she could be disowned and exiled. Historians have noted that such infanticides were probably quite common in the past, but little reported for obvious reasons. As horrified as I am by her actions I do feel something for her.

My preferred version of the song (though I rarely listen to it) is by the New Zealand band Lothlórien. It is grim and matter of fact about the subject matter

I don’t have much more to say except that I’m not against making songs about such awful things. In fact, I believe in the capability of music to help us face the harrowing aspects of life. It’s just that sometimes I really don’t like it.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Lothlórien – YouTube|Spotify

Appalachian Celtic Consort – YouTube| Spotify

Shirley Collins – YouTube| Spotify

Lizzie Higgins – YouTube| Spotify