As a feminist fan of traditional ballads, I often find myself in the position of sort of liking a song on one hand, and being horrified by the amount of misogyny, the double-standards, and the things which are presented as accepted as acceptable for the hero to do on the other hand.
The “rape is love” trope is one that comes up a lot. That is, the idea that a man rapes a woman because he loves her, and they will live happily ever after if they just get married afterwards. I think that this trope is made for audiences that can’t forgive a woman for being willingly sexually active before marriage, but find sexual assault to be forgivable under certain conditions. Gil Brenton is the perhaps the logical conclusion of this sexual double standard.
In the beginning of this ballad, a woman goes to marry a man (who goes by several names including Gil Brenton, Cospatrick, Childe Branton, Lord Dinwall, Benwall or Bothwell, but I’m going to refer to him as Gil for simplicity’s sake) and is warned that he was married to seven other women, but cut off their breasts and sent them home because they weren’t virgins. On their wedding night he discovers she is several months pregnant. In some versions she just tells him, in some versions she asks her maid to substitute for her, only to have her plan foiled by magical talking bedsheets, a magical chair owned by her mother-in-law, or a friendly demon named Billie Blin who lives under the bed.
It is eventually revealed that she is pregnant because he raped her, which is apparently the best possible outcome, and they all live happily ever after. Ugh.
I think it is clear that one is supposed to sympathize with the heroine, but I also suspect that a lot of the sympathy shown has to do with the fact that she is not guilty of being willingly sexually active before marriage. Gil Brenton’s habit of mutilating women for not being virgins is a non-issue as soon as the heroine is out of danger of this being done to her. On the other hand, no one seems to judge the serving-woman for taking the heroine’s place in the marriage bed. Probably the biggest issue here is that the heirs of a nobleman must not have questionable parentage.
Gil Brenton’s mother features prominently into this ballad as well. She’s portrayed as the image of the intimidating mother-in-law, and calls the heroine some ugly names before the truth is found. She takes her son to task eventually, not for being a rapist or a hypocrite, of course, but for giving the heroine some items that she told him not to part with.
After being confronted by his mother, Gil starts proclaiming his love for the girl he raped, claiming that he would give anything to be married to her. I have to wonder, if Gil was really in love with this girl as he claimed, why would he not mention this to his mother at all before getting married and not recognize her when he meets her a second time? Some versions even begin with him deciding on her to marry through a game of chance when he encounters her with her sisters, completely removing the possible excuse that it is an arranged marriage needed for political reasons.
The interactions between Gil and his mother are amusing, I must admit, and that’s another thing that bothers me. Despite my distaste for the story and the cultural views it represents, I still find myself getting drawn onto it.
The ballad ends with the heroine giving birth to a son who has the words, “Gil Brenton is my father’s name” written on his chest. Given all the grief that Gil’s jealousy has caused in the past, I almost suspect the midwife is holding a sharpie (or quill?) behind her back.
To be completely fair, there are versions listed where the heroine’s first encounter with Gil could be interpreted as possibly consensual, and there are versions where Gil doesn’t mutilate anyone, but there are only a few versions where neither element is present.
In the notes for ballads like this one, the difference between my thinking and Child’s thinking becomes very clear. I have a BA in sociology, my studies in school were very often focused on the way that popular media both reflects and reinforces cultural attitudes and social structures, and this strongly affects the way I look at these ballads.
When I look at Gil Brenton, I see women who are judged harshly for not being virgins on their wedding nights, while the man is never judged for mutilating his brides for the crime of not being virgins, or for being a rapist. I see a ballad where the central conflict seems to be whether the heroine is “pure” enough to be treated like a human being, while her husband’s crimes are treated as non-issues.
I would like to know what the people who sang this ballad over the years before it was written down thought of the story. Did they think it was reasonable that women should be mutilated for having sex before marriage? Was this ballad meant to be a story about a woman restoring her reputation with what happened to her predecessors simply representing the high stakes involved, or was it meant to in some small way highlight the hypocrisy of sexual double standards? I can’t say I’m optimistic about the answers to those questions.
Child’s main interest was the history of the ballad and the variations of the story that were found across Europe. He gives a number of examples of ballads that follow the basic story of a bride who hides the fact that she is pregnant by rape and later finds out that it was the groom who raped her. This discovery is always presented as a happy ending.
The example that I find the most interesting is the one from Sweden:
Sir Olof betrothed Ingalilla, and carried her home for the spousal, wearing a red-gold crown and a wan cheek. Ingalilla gave birth to twin-boys. Olof had a maid who resembled Ingalilla completely, and consented to play the part of the bride on the morrow.
Interesting coincidence that Olof should have a maid who is identical to his bride, but at least that plot point is accounted for.
After five days of drinking, they took the bride to her chamber, not without force.
Uh, ok. Does that mean she was having second thoughts? Did she not agree to take Ingalilla’s place for this part marriage ceremony? Or maybe it was the tradition for the bride to put up a show of resistance? Please tell me it’s the last one.
Ingalilla bore the light before her, and helped put her to bed; then lay down herself. Olaf had over him a fur rug, which could talk as well as he…
This is the point where I stop thinking about how disturbing this ballad is and start wondering what this story would look like as a muppet movie.
‘Hear me, Sir Olof, hear what I say;
Thou hast taken a strumpet, and missed a may.’
Of all the magical items Sir Olof could have had, a talking fur rug that makes comments about his sex partners?
‘Hear, little Inga, sweetheart,’ he said;
‘What didst thou get for thy maidenhead?’
Child says that this refers to “the morning gift.” Ingalilla explains:
Her father was a strange sort of man, and built her a bower by the sea-strand where all of the king’s courtiers took ship. Nine had broken in, and one had robbed her of her honor.
I wish I knew how to interpret that first line. Her father was strange for building her a bower by the sea? Stranger than a man with who sleeps under talking rug that comments on his sex life?
This ballad concludes similarly to Gil Brenton. Olaf is identified as the rapist by the tokens he left her and then, “He embraces her and gives her a queen’s crown and name.”
Wait, he’s a king? I thought he was a courtier? Child does say that this version was “pieced together from several copies,” so maybe internal logic is too much to expect (and anyone expecting any other kind of logic at this point clearly isn’t paying attention.)
Child describes a Danish version that has a similar plot except that the bride changes places with her sister and the groom has magic nightingales that can tell him whether she’s a virgin.
He also describes a Norwegian story where an English prince is is testing a series of potential brides, all of whom have secretly had multiple children. They all ask a goose girl to take their place in the bed, but are found out by means of a magical stepping stone. The prince finally realizes what has been happening and marries the goose girl. For a change of pace the hero of this story doesn’t rape or mutilate anyone.
You can hear Raymond Crooke singing a complete version of the Gil Brenton in the video below, which is the only recording of this song that I was able to locate.
I decided to record just a fragment of the ballad this time. If it were shorter or if I liked the story better I might be more inclined to attempt all 32-84 verses. Instead I whittled it down to the bride’s story of how she became pregnant.
I have also added a few verses that Child removed from version C because he believed that they were actually written by Alan Cunningham, a poet who was known for slipping his own verses into traditional songs.
I borrowed the tune from Martha Reid’s recording of The Elf Knight in Songs And Ballads From Perthshire (Field Recordings Of The 1950s).
Below are the lyrics that I used:
O we were sisters, sisters seven,
We were the fairest under heaven.
We cast lots among us all,
Who would to the greenwood go.
I was the youngest of them all,
And to me did this fortune fall.
I had not stayed an hour but one,
When I met with a highland man.
He keeped me so late and long,
Till the evening set and the birds they sang.
He gave to me at our parting,
a chain of gold and a gay gold ring;
And three locks of his yellow hair,
Bade me keep them for evermair.
First blew the sweet, the summer wind,
Then autum with her breath so kind,
Before the e’er the good knight came,
The tokens of his love to claim.
‘Then fell the brown and yellow leaf,
Afore the knight o love shawed prief;