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date: 06 March 2021

Romyng, Eleanor [Elynour Rummyng]free

(fl. 1525)
  • Gervase Rosser

Romyng, Eleanor [Elynour Rummyng] (fl. 1525), ale seller, worked in Leatherhead, Surrey, and in August 1525 was fined the standard sum of 2d. for retailing 'at excessive prices by small measures' (Harvey). But it is as the eponymous anti-hero of John Skelton's poem 'The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng' (c.1520) that she has enjoyed lasting infamy:

She dwelt in Sothray,In a certayne stedeBysyde Lederhede.

John Skelton: the Complete English Poems, 214–30, ll. 96–8

Taken together, the court record and the literary image epitomize the public perception and the consequent experience of a woman of Eleanor's kind in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. This was the period in which the professionalization of alehouse keeping and the introduction of beer brewing put under a double threat the traditional figure of the part-time, female brewster of ale. The development from the late fifteenth century of English beer brewing, which required heavier utensils more readily accessible to men who typically enjoyed easier access to capital, and the contemporary tendency (for law-and-order motives) to restrict retail to designated alehouses, favoured increasing male domination of the trade. Both the contemporary references to Eleanor Romyng are typical of widespread social prejudice against such women, who none the less continued throughout the period to attract regular custom. It has been shown that although men brewed ale as much as women, the latter were far more often fined in local courts for breaches, real or alleged, of the regulations. (John Romyng, possibly Eleanor Romyng's husband, was also recorded as a Leatherhead brewer in the 1520s; but as a regular juror in the court, his status in the community was a good deal more secure than Eleanor's.)

Nor has any literary evocation of a male brewer come down to us that is so pungently hostile as Skelton's 'Elynour Rummyng'. The poet's disgusting catalogue of the brewster's filth and of her squalid female companions is expressive primarily of male professional jealousy; but more broadly, it conveys a much wider medieval culture of misogyny. For the poetical Eleanor is said not only to allow her hens to dung in the ale-vat, but also to subvert wider social norms by gathering about her 'a sorte of foul drabbes, all scurvy with scabbes': a frightening sorority of hags, whores, and wasters of their husbands' goods (Skelton, Elynour Rummyng, ll. 139–40). Leatherhead's location on the rural edge of the metropolis suits well both Skelton's satirical intent and the social fact of life at the margins experienced by many women of Eleanor Romyng's kind. On the other hand it is equally certain that Eleanor Romyng continued to trade in spite of such hostility, and that the trade gave to her, as to many other women of the late medieval period, a significant degree of economic independence and social contacts of which she, at least, might have taken a more positive view. Skelton's character was brought to a new audience when Ralph Vaughan Williams set the poem to music as the first song in his Five Tudor Portraits, which met with great success at its début at the Norwich Festival in 1936.

Sources

  • J. H. Harvey, letter, TLS (26 Oct 1946), 521
  • John Skelton: the complete English poems, ed. J. Scattergood (1983)
  • J. M. Bennett, Ale, beer, and brewsters in England: women's work in a changing world, 1300–1600 (1996)
  • P. Clark, The English alehouse: a social history, 1200–1830 (1983)
Times Literary Supplement