The procedure wasn't fair. It was a life or death situation and there was nothing that she could practically do to save herself. It was down to the Fates to choose the mode by which they killed her, that's all. What else was there to do?

Fear and tears changed nothing. Protesting her innocence amounted to less than that. It was the water or the noose and perhaps it was better for it to be the water. At least her ordeal would be over fast, and her reputation redeemed in her grave.

I'm sorry! You must be thinking that you wandered into the wrong nursery rhyme! After all, we've all learned Ding Dong Bell, being bounced on laps as infants, and the cat makes it out alive in the end! Look!

Ding, dong, bell, Pussy’s in the well. Who put her in? Little Johnny Flynn. Who pulled her out? Little Tommy Stout. What a naughty boy was that, To try to drown poor pussy cat, Who ne’er did him any harm, But killed all the mice in the farmer's barn.

That nasty Johnny Flynn was into animal cruelty - all children take heed, we don't like boys who act like that with defenceless creatures - and then lovely Tommy Stout became the hero of the hour. Kids everywhere are thus taught to be the Tommy Stouts of this world, not the Johnny Flynns. Happy days!

Except that's not the original version. In fact, it's not even the most current version. There's a big campaign at the moment to change 'pussy' into 'kitty', because, well, 'pussy'. (As if the average toddler could apply that to anything more than a cat.)

The earliest version of Ding Dong Bell ever written down was in 1580. John Lant, an organist at Winchester Cathedral, made no pretensions at having composed it. It seemed already well established at the time. Let's hear it:

Jacke boy, ho boy newes, The cat is in the well, Let us ring now for her Knell, Ding dong ding dong Bell.

This is Elizabethan England. We've already encountered the general view of the feline family then. It turned up in the origin of another nursery rhyme, Pussycat Pussycat: But to recap here - cats were not entirely welcome. They caught rodents and the such, so they were useful around the house, but they weren't considered to be pets.

In fact, such notions were dangerous. Cats were synonymous with witchcraft. Anyone foolish enough to be caught speaking to one, could well find themselves accused of being a witch. The penalty for that was death by hanging.

Forget Johnny Flynn, Tommy Stout and the gang. They got thrown in by the Victorians, who were looking from the other side of the Enlightenment and officially thought witchcraft something believed only by the gullible. Instead the cat was taken literally and the situation looked cruel. So they saved it. Then, being Victorians, turned the whole rhyme into a morality verse for the betterment of childhood behaviour.

Back in Elizabethan times, it wasn't the children being cruel. It was the mob with their hands on a suspected witch. The 'cat' of the nursery rhyme was this hapless female. (It didn't necessarily have to be a woman, but it usually was, and it is so in the nursery rhyme.)

High-born people accused of witchcraft might get a trial. But the vast majority of people were not the nobility. They had distinctly terrifying tests to endure, the most famous of which is high-lighted in Ding Dong Bell.

Trial by Water had been around since Saxon times, but never with the odds stacked so badly against the defendant. The suspected witch was dragged to the nearest water source - pond, river, well - and tied with her hands crossed before or behind her. The thumb of her right hand was tied to the big toe of her left foot, mirrored on the corresponding limbs. Then her arms were bound to her torso. Thus incapacitated, she was hurled into the water and everyone watched to see what would happen next.

If she drowned, she was innocent. This was a distinct probability, given that she was unable to swim and her aspect would have caused her to sink like a stone. If she somehow bobbed to the top and floated, or else managed to wash up on the shore, then she had evidently been assisted by the Devil. She was a proven witch. Therefore it was time to drag her to the gallows and hang her.

No way to win. It was death either way.

The lady referenced in Ding Dong Bell drowned. She was innocent of witchcraft, but she couldn't get out of the well. Now that the excitement of the spectacle was over, everyone could feel contrite and mourn her.

Jacke boy, ho boy newes, The cat is in the well, Let us ring now for her Knell, Ding dong ding dong Bell.

Jack (general name for the common people), hear the news. The suspected witch was placed in a well, hands and feet tied. She drowned, thus she was definitely not a witch. Upon any death in this period, the bells were rung for a funeral. Nine tolls for a man, three for a woman and one for a child. It's called the 'knell' and they're ringing it for her.

Ding dong ding dong... there should have been one more, another ding dong for a woman dead. But the line doesn't scan very well, does it? It doesn't fit.

My feeling is that this was originally a protest song. A verse composed by someone who'd lost a loved one to this ordeal, or witnessed what they patently thought was unfair. But such sentiments were dangerous, when voiced openly. It went against society and the Church. It risked you being next. So the protest was dressed up as a nursery rhyme to teach the next generation, at least, to think this through.

It was a vain hope. This was only the 16th century. The terror of the witch-hunts was going to explode in the next century. This was only the beginning.

#Witch-hunt #witchcraft #Ding-Dong-Bell #Trial-by-Water #Death-Penalty #Burning-Times #Elizabethan-Britain #Medieval #Witch-Trials