For some inexplicable reason, many men have a weird fascination with brawling women. I don't know if this has to do with unbridled animal passions, or the hope that clothes will be torn off, or the fact that ordinary women are too sane to engage in fisticuffs, but whether it's mud wrestling or Mob Wives, guys will watch. This is, of course, nothing new; this painting of The Female Bruisers by John Collett dates from 1768, and became one of his most popular prints, doubtless pinned to the walls of hundreds of taverns and alehouses for the edification of the male patrons. (As always, click the image to enlarge it.)
Like all of Collett's pictures, there's a great deal going on here. The two combatants are likely prostitutes, perhaps old rivals with a long-standing feud. This isn't the best of neighborhoods, with a house selling Neat Wine on the right and a likely brothel on the left, with an amorous couple kissing in the upstairs window. A pair of fighting cocks in the lower left squawk at one another. A tattered playbill on the wall advertises a performance of The Rival Queens.
The battling woman on the left is the more prosperous, with a sheer embroidered apron, an elegant bracelet, and a watch on a chatelaine at her waist. In the heat of battle, she has dropped her ermine-trimmed cape to the street, while a pair of barefoot, soot-covered chimney-sweeps have made a prize of her ermine muff. Damage has been done: her sleeve ruffles are tattered, her hat's been torn off, and her hair's been pulled.
Beside her, a butcher has left his shop in the background to dab something - I'm guessing a half-lemon?- at her battered nose, and to offer a go-get-'em pat on her back. He's protecting his striped jacket (similar to this one) from his trade with tie-on blue sleeve cuffs (disturbingly like the ones worn by Georgian surgeons!) and an apron tied around his waist.
The other combatant isn't as well-dressed, even before her clothes were torn. She's not wearing stays, the way a respectable woman would, which allows the man who's helping her back to her feet help himself to a squeeze of her breast. Another, older woman (perhaps the madame to one or both of the fighters) is charging forward; she's ready to jump into the fray, but is being held back by a laughing man.
In fact, while there are a couple of fascinated girls watching, most of the onlookers are male of every rank, from bemused gentlemen to the gawking country-man who is having his pocket picked. Some are astonished, but most seem to be enjoying the spectacle. You can almost hear the frat-boy chants of "cat fight!", can't you?
Top: The Female Bruisers, by John Collett, 1768. Museum of London.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.