On the street

Kouter 1763

Kouter Square, Ghent, 1763. Public domain
STAM, Stadsmuseum, Gent.

I’ve just finished cataloguing a new edition of an eighteenth century chorus for 3 voices and continuo De roep van de strate (MRA.260.201.97). What particularly fascinated me about it is that it is a selection of street cries ostensibly following the tradesmen and women that worked in Ghent‘s Kouter Square during a Sunday morning market around 1752. The cries were published in a collection of “old and new songs” collected by Ferdinand Augustijn Snellaert in the nineteenth century, part of the growing interest across Europe in folk music.

Street cries have always fascinated me, ever since coming across an arrangement of Thomas Weelkes‘ “humorous fancy”, a setting of the Cryes of London in an old News Chronicle anthology (M205.b.90.2) as a child. So come with me for a musical shopping trip across Europe…

One of the earliest mentions of street cries is in the Montpellier Codex, which was compiled ca. 1300. A modern edition is at M200.b.62.1-2. Item no. 319 (fol. 368v, 369) includes Parisian street-cries for fresh strawberries and blackberries, as well as praise for the food of Paris – fresh bread, clear wine, good meat and fish, and all kinds of mushrooms.

Over 200 years later when Clement Janequin‘s Voulez ouyr les cris de Paris (see M280.b.95.97) was first published, food still featured heavily in street patter, some of it surprisingly modern – wine available in white, red or rose; all kinds of condiments from salt and vinegar to mustard; strawberry tarts and waffles; milk, vegetables and fruit.

The sellers also hawked household goods such as matches and candles, and even old shoes and fabrics.

Around 50 years later Thomas Weelkes’ Londoners had a choice of shellfish – oysters, cockles and mussels, and a surprisingly enormous variety of fish including plaice, ray, sprats and haddock. There was also a range of street food including apple or meat pies. As well as traditional British fruit such as strawberries, pears, and cherries, there were more exotic wares with pomegranates available as well as oranges from Seville.

Tradesmen were busy too offering to mend bellows, chop wood, shine shoes or (vitally important in a city that was still largely made of wood) sweep chimneys. Street traders inspired many Tudor composers with examples of compositions based on street cries from Weelkes, Dering, Cobbold, and, most notably, Orlando Gibbons. Later composers were also surprised and inspired by the use of street-cries. Handel used some elements of a flower-seller’s song in the second act of his opera, Serse.

By 1752 some things had changed, but much remained the same. In Ghent fish was still popular, though sellers were no longer afraid to criticise each others goods: “…Yours is bad fish…And you see my sea crabs definitely don’t smell”. Provenance helped too when selling goods – eels and mussels sounded much nicer when they were sold as fresh “from the river Scheldt”. And not only oranges but also chestnuts were sourced from Spain. There were recipe suggestions – Why not add lemon to your mulled wine? Eat like the nobility with Saint-Jacobs pears? Ghent had great street food too – pancakes, pies and waffles, aniseed cake, or (for the more adventurous) a pot of snails.

It wasn’t just about food either. The usual tradesmen could be found on the Kouter Square, along with basket and furniture repairers, or someone to mend your broken kettle or pot. If the pot wasn’t repairable why not sell it and get some cash for the metal on the spot? You could then buy a jug and decorate it yourself (street cry collections also include ideas for home improvements). Perhaps you need a rifle or a sword or a good quality rug, or how about an almanac?

By Victorian times many street cries, and sometimes even the sellers themselves had passed into everyday currency. Children grew up singing the song of the Hot cross buns seller, even though they probably only heard it from the tradesman himself once a year. The song of the lavender seller was well known, and Cherry Ripe, a song by Charles Edward Horn, using the words of a poem by Robert Herrick became very popular. Although this was not the call that would have been used in the street, it probably was based at least in part on the cries of the street vendors.

As much as anything the rise in interest in street cries during this period seems to be a nostalgia for the past, as the increasingly busy traffic on the streets and the growth of shops meant that street traders were becoming more uncommon. It’s probably no coincidence that the first publication of De roep van de strate, a new edition of Weelkes’ Cryes of London edited by Sir Frederick Bridge, and the publication of both Cherry Ripe and Cockles and Mussels (“Sweet Molly Malone”) all date from this period. There was a move both to preserve street cries for the future, and to use them to recapture the past.

This could be seen in the twentieth century where street cries played an important part in setting the period and the surroundings of musicals. The old cries of London were adapted by Lionel Bart for his musical, Oliver! in which Oliver Twist wakes up to a wonderful new life, and witnesses the start of the day through the cries of the street. Notice how closely Bart draws on the street cries heard in the British Pathe short.

Although there may not be many street sellers around now, the cries of the street haven’t gone away. I suspect that they have just been turned into advertising jingles. Music sells, just the same as it always did.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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