Who Was Puss In Boots?

St Mary-le-Bow Church as shown on the “woodcut” map of the early 1560s (shown as “Bowe church”)
Stephencdickson, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington, which was pretty to see” – Samuel Pepys

In the fourteenth century the toll required of a prostitute who wished to cross the bridge at the French town of Montlucon was four pence, or ‘unum bumbum’.

J.G. Bourke, amongst whose writings we find this picaresque example of an alternative method of payment, clearly wishes us to pronounce the final word as rhyming with ‘tumtum’ and hence invest it with a quite specific meaning: “one up the Gary Glitter” as I believe the modern colloquialism to be. Bourke and I agree pretty well on most things but here I reckon the old boy fell into error, and that error I believe to be threefold.

Firstly it should be borne in mind that the volume of Bourke’s in which this item appears is The Scatalogic Rites Of All Nations (Lowdermilk and Co. 1891), a dogged attempt to view anthropology through the narrow aperture of Freud’s early and unrevised theory of Anality. Therefore we should be aware that Bourke may, blithely and in all innocence, be hammering a square peg into a round hole in pursuance of his thesis, and we should handle his premise tentatively at best.

Secondly, I have grave reservations regarding his etymology. ‘Bum’, as we in England understand it, is served in modern French by the word ‘cul’. ‘Bumbum’ in this document is clearly an insertion of the demotic into the scribe’s clerkly Latin and, at this comparatively late stage in the transition of French from its Latinate roots to a modern Romance language, it is not too much to assume he would have had a prototype of cul (or a homonym) within arm’s reach, if that is what he meant to stipulate.

Furthermore, I query Bourke’s tacit assumption that the vowel in ‘bumbum’ has to be the short ‘u’ sound. Classical Latin would admit of the long vowel quite as easily as the short; the Romans having been unwilling to move beyond their original 21 letters (they grudgingly adopted Y and Z after the conquest of Greece in the first century BC) and hence had to be fairly relaxed about the variety of sounds these characters expressed.

Thirdly, as a codicil within a municipal regulatory statute, I feel this is a rather flawed rubric and one that is open to implementations not necessarily in the favour of either the town council or those tasked with enforcing it: “Ah weesh to cross zee bridge, but ah ‘ave no munee! Je vous demande one up le Tradesman’s Entrance!” “But, Madame, I‘m a happily married……..” “Assez! Zee regs are quite clear! Je veux une dans le Bomb Bay immediatement! Faisez votre duty!” “For the love of God, Madame, here’s fourpence and be on your way!” As you can see, quite unworkable. And probably prejudicial to the town’s income going forward.

I assert that the word could just as easily be pronounced ‘Boomboom’ and hence be cognate with ‘Jig-a-jig’, a much broader and less proscriptive term which would not exclude Bourke’s interpretation but would also not insist upon it. We have no reason to assume that per vas nefandum was any more universally popular in the Middle Ages than it is today; and the most likely translation of the phrase is probably “That’ll be four denarii, sweetheart, but seeing as it’s you how about a quick knee trembler round the back of the portcullis instead?”

I drew your attention to the foregoing in this particular context for a reason which now totally eludes me, but having achieved the intellectual equivalent of a canter it ill behooves us to fail at the first fence. Onwards and upwards, Comrades!

So:- Dick. We all know the story, or at least we should. Dick Whittington – an unsettlingly girlish young fellow with a penchant for slapping his thigh and ejaculating “Ho, ho!”- is a greenhorn up from the country who has come to London to seek his fortune. He finds that the streets are not paved with gold and in despair turns homeward again, but as he is about to quit the city he hears the bells of Bow church chime “Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!” Emboldened, and assisted by an anthropomorphic feline with a refined taste in footwear, Dick embarks upon a series of adventures which do, indeed, see him becoming Mayor of the Capital.

At this juncture I’d like to point out that the statesman and philosopher J.E. Powell converted to Catholicism in 1949 after hearing the bells of St Peter’s Wolverhampton call his name. This sort of thing is more common than you might think, and I suspect that the Jesuits are somewhere behind it. But I digress.

Richard Whittington is a historically verifiable figure. He was born around 1350, the son of Sir William Whittington of Pauntley in Gloucestershire. Young Dick moved to London in 1379 or 1380, and set up as a merchant in the cloth trade with Flanders. He was so successful that he was able to grant significant loans to Kings Henry IV and VI, but it was under Richard II that Dick began to seriously benefit from royal patronage. He was made Sheriff of London in 1393, and served as Mayor in 1397, and again in 1406 and 1419. He was also made a Member of Parliament in 1416. He married the daughter of an Alderman, Alyce Fitzwaryn, and he seems to have died early in the 1420’s. He was remembered as a humanitarian and benefactor, and the founder of several humanitarian trusts such as the Whittington School for the Poor.

So far, so good. But what about the cat? The tendency of historical figures, as they pass into legend, to accrete to themselves motifs properly belonging to other figures and indeed other eras is well known. The Sword in the Stone, from the King Arthur story, is now understood to be a distant echo of the Celtic veneration of the smith and his ability to extract iron from apparently mundane rock. This was then tacked onto the biography of the Dark Age warlord (and King Arthur did exist, let me assure you) along with various other mythological themes and dimly remembered deeds of other persons. The mechanism is well understood by Folklorists and Anthropologists, and there is generally some kind of internal logic to the process which is absent in the case of Dick and his moggy. So where does this leave us?

There have been some rather weak attempts at the explication of this conundrum. One which seems to have current acceptance among those who are concerned with this sort of thing relies on the Medieval French term ‘achat’, meaning purchase, contract or similar. Fair enough as far as it goes, but what about the boots that the story insists that the cat was shod with? Here the proponents of this theory lapse into sullen silence, and we find ourselves not one whit further down the road.

I have an idea which, to my knowledge at least, has never been suggested before and which rather neatly provides a solution to the whole dilemma. Whittington made his money in commerce with the Low Countries. At about this time the people of that region plied their seaborne trade in a particular type of merchant vessel which was capacious enough to carry a decent cargo, had sufficient freeboard to be seaworthy, but was yet shallow enough in draught to be able to navigate the inland waterways which were even then a feature of that part of the world. In Old Frisian this vessel was known as a ‘Poesen’ (roughly pronounced ‘poozen’) and the Middle English word for boat was ‘boot’.

So, how did Dick Whittington make his fortune? With Poesen Boots!

Author’s Note

This article was first published in Dec 2017, and has been rattling around in Limbo ever since all articles containing images with questionable copyrights had to be taken down to avoid this site being the subject of legal action. I’ve given it a hose down and blown the tubes through, and it’s as good as new.

I would also like to reiterate that my explanation of the peculiar way we remember the otherwise obscure figure of Richard Whittington is based on scrupulous historiographical methodology, to my knowledge has never been suggested by anybody else and is a perfectly viable answer to the matter. I’d like to see a better one, quite frankly. 

Going Postal: now with Extra Added Academic Credibility.

© bobo 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file