by Rika Ruebsaat
and Jon Bartlett
Lamkin, “The Terror of Countless Nurseries”


This paper is an attempt to come to terms with a ballad unique in its often-motiveless brutality. In an interpretation that speaks to the undoubted popularity of the ballad by addressing the question of its “meaning”, we look to the listeners and to the singers to provide significant clues.
Ballads, among other folk materials, circulate because they are “true”. There is in every ballad which has been passed on over a couple of centuries a nub of truth. This truth, though not historical or factual, is often psychological, having to do with interior states of mind. The “history” in a historical ballad is not to be relied on, and historical ballads are not passed on for their historical veracity, whatever informants might say or think. In this paper, we review other theories as to the etiology and the meaning of the ballad, and argue, predicated on its wide circulation over considerable time, and on its singers and listeners, that it speaks to the issue of abandonment, on the part of both the murdered child and the murdered mother, as well as guilt on the part of the mother. Further, we suggest a reason for the continued presence (in every variant collected) of the five essential persons: The absent father and the mother, their “dark twins” Lamkin and the false nurse, and the baby.
“Lamkin” appears in Child (320-342) in twenty-five variants, the earliest dating from a 1775 letter from a Kentish churchman to Bishop Percy, and the latest in Allingham’s The Ballad Book of 1892. Most of the variants in Child are from Scotland, with a very few from Ireland. “The story is told,” Child notes, “without material variation in all the numerous versions. A mason has built a castle for a nobleman, cannot get his pay, and therefore seeks his revenge.” Child disagrees with Motherwell’s notion that the mason’s name was Lambert Linkin, and suggests that the name Lamkin “was a sobriquet applied in derision of the meekness with which the builder had submitted to his injury.” He closes his relatively short and somewhat uninterested head note with the fruitful statement that Lamkin’s name was a “simply ironical designation for the bloody mason, the terror of countless nurseries” (Child 321). We shall return to this statement later. It is to be noted that fourteen of the sixteen identifiable texts from informants were taken from the singing of women.
Bertrand Bronson finds forty-five tunes, which he organizes into thirty-three variants. He records tunes from Newfoundland (four collected in the ’thirties) and six from England in the period 1896-1911. Given that most of Child’s sets derived from Scotland, it is interesting that Bronson only reports two Scottish tunes. Again, be it noted that of the thirty-five tunes, twenty-three are noted as sung by women and eight by men.
A close textual analysis of 62 versions of the ballad (12 English, 16 Scottish, 1 Irish, 4 Canadian and 29 from the US, with some additional 14 fragmentary texts) shows a ballad with a story line that is well entrenched. The eponymous anti-hero is an unpaid mason. The lord of a castle warns his lady of danger connected with him. The lady says that she has no need to fear since the doors are all bolted and the windows all pinned. Nevertheless, Lamkin (sometimes with the assistance either of a “false nurse” or of a “false window” he has himself built into the castle) gains access. He asks the whereabouts of the lord (and sometimes of the men, the maids, or the bairns of the house). On being told that none are present, he asks the same question about the lady: she is upstairs. He agrees with the false nurse that the best way to get her down is to prick or stab her baby (who is presumably on the ground floor and in the care of the nurse). The baby is pricked or stabbed, and often Lamkin rocks the cradle and the nurse sings while the baby bleeds and screams. Its cries initiate a conversation between the mother upstairs and the nurse downstairs, who claims that she is unable, after several and various attempts, to quiet the baby; the mother should come down. She does so, and finds herself face-to-face with Lamkin. She immediately begs for her life, promising Lamkin first gold and then her daughter Betsy, “the flower of the flock”. Lamkin refuses both, but suggests that Betsy can make herself useful holding the basin to catch her mother’s blood. Betsy is sometimes told not to come down, but to look out from an upstairs window for her father. She or a maid do so, and see him riding close by, whereupon he is urged not to lay the blame on Betsy (or the maid), that it was Lamkin and the false nurse who killed both lady and baby. Lamkin is hanged and the nurse is burnt in a fire.
The only major variation in the texts of the ballad, as Gilchrist pointed out in its first thorough examination, has to do with Lamkin’s trade as a mason. None of the 12 English, the Irish, and only one of the four Canadian texts mention it. These versions (which Gilchrist titled ‘The Border Ruffian’) almost always start with a warning to beware Lamkin “who lives in the moss”. Fully one third of the US versions of the ballad similarly do not mention Lamkin’s trade. In total, some 33 of the 62 texts feature a mason. Of these 33 ‘Wronged Mason’ texts, 28 feature the trade in the first verse of the ballad and nowhere else; the other five texts append one or two other explicatory verses immediately following the first verse. The first verse typically runs “Lamkin was as good a mason as ever built stone, he built Lord Weary’s castle but payment got none.” Were this verse, where it occurs, to be excised, the balance of the ballad would be indistinguishable from the non-mason version.
Gilchrist proposes that “The Wronged Mason” form is originally Scottish and “The Border Ruffian” Northumbrian. She argues that the Scottish form is “the undoubtedly older and completer form” and identifies Balwearie Castle as a possible site, but argues that whether or not there was any connection between it and the ballad, it seems to her “probable” that the ballad has a historical foundation. She admits that the Northumbrian version only differs in that the murder motive is missing, and discusses other possible motives as robbery, or the jealousy of Lamkin as a spurned lover of the lady.
Bertrand Bronson reports much of the above in his head note. He argues that it is “highly probable, on Miss Gilchrist’s showing, that… the secondary variety is a north-country offshoot arising from the loss of the first stanza”, and that, with this loss, “deterioration at once begins to eat into the ballad from this side and that.” This alleged deterioration is not readily seen, either in Mason or non-Mason versions. He finds (it seems to us) no great distinction, as between the two forms of the ballad, in the tunes associated with the texts.
Thus Child, Bronson and Gilchrist were united in thinking the ballad to be “about” a wronged mason, and it was not until 1977 that this notion was to be tested. John DeWitt Niles’ “Lamkin: The Motivation of Horror” begins with a comparison of the two types identified by Gilchrist, and a close reading of the Jamieson text, from the lips of the celebrated Mrs. (Anna) Brown. He notes how her version is distinguished from all others in three particulars: the three-stanza dialogue between Lord Wearie and Lambkin over the former’s inability to pay the latter what he owes him; the nurse’s urging on of Lamkin in the killing of the lady, with the inflammatory “What better is the heart’s blood/o the rich than o the poor?” and the two-stanza ending beginning “O sweetly sang the black-bird/that sat upon the tree”. He takes these as examples of Mrs. Brown’s skill and ability, and evidence that she “did not hesitate to improve upon the raw materials of oral tradition”.
The centre of his argument is that the murders, in Flanders’ words, “seem rather extreme as retaliation for failure to pay a debt” (Flanders 296) and he casts around for a better motive. He discusses Phillips Barry’s idea that “the Linnfinn”, as one informant named the central character, is a cast-out leper, and that the lady’s blood caught in a silver bowl is a sure cure for this disease.(Eckstorm 70-74). He discusses MacEdward Leach’s notion, mentioned in some texts of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”, that the lady has been abducted by her demon lover – Lord Wearie himself – and that Lambkin kills the lady, his former wife, for it (Leach 288). Niles mentions, too, the suggestion proposed by Ninon Leader that the blood is necessary for the proper securing of the foundations of the castle, and that the “fee” Lamkin was tricked out of was actually the blood of the mason’s wife or baby: the killing is thus a revenge killing of the equivalent (the lord’s child for the mason’s child) (Leader, 348-9).
Niles’ own view is briefly stated. There has been a bargain struck between the owner of the castle and the devil himself, whose help was sought and provided, in return for a sacrifice, which was not made. “One day when the lord was away, the stranger made his way into the castle and claimed the lives which he had been promised. When the lord returned home, he discovered how his attempt to cheat the stranger had ended in the deaths of his own wife and child.”
The most recent study of the ballad is that of Gammon and Stallybrass. Their “Structure and Ideology in the Ballad: An Analysis of ‘Long Lankin’”, a thought-provoking and richly perceptive but ultimately confusing paper, is based in part on a structural analysis which generates the binary oppositions of Lord/Lady and Lamkin/Nurse and Lord/Lamkin and Lady/Nurse (and ultimately, Culture/Nature), and in part on a linguistic appreciation of various salient and repeating turns (such as the “…in” ending in Lamkin, basin, kin, pin, etc.). They suggest that the ballad is “… among other things, an essay in the ideology of patriarchal society: women are weak (whether false or fair): men are strong (whether evil or good)” and connect the structure of the ballad with the structure of patriarchy itself: “The text is a working upon the self-contradictory demands of patriarchy. For the demand is to uphold the patriarchal household even though that very household is founded upon the dissolution of another patriarchal household.” (Gammon 15).
The structuralist approach they use suggests that the drama of the song is, as it were, embedded in the culture; that what freight the ballad carried in previous ages is still now carried, because of the continued patriarchal social base. They thus have no need to predicate factitious social behaviours, such as the utility of an innocent’s blood to either cure leprosy or to secure the foundations of a building, the likelihood of being kidnapped by the fairy folk, etc.
Though it is a commonplace that ballads were passed on by women rather than men, it is astounding to think that this particular ballad was thus transmitted. What might a woman possibly see or hear in such a song? Why would a song speaking so strongly to the vulnerability of women and children be so widely remembered? Devoid of humour, gallantry, and love, it seems to speak to the worst fears of women, and to offer them, not safety or rescue but inexorable death, of themselves and of their babies.
The inexorability of the murders provides the clue. We are here, as in many of the ballads, in a landscape of fairy story, a landscape similar to that of the Grimm’s tales: timeless, ahistorical, moral and archetypal. To a child, whose minimal life experiences offer few referents, this is an ideal landscape through which to make sense of the world.¹
What are some of the fears of children that the fairy tale (and, we would argue, this ballad) addresses? The first trauma of infancy is separation from the mother, and we propose that it is precisely the fear of abandonment that gives the “Lamkin” ballad such power.
To recapitulate the story from the point of view of a child listener: it is nighttime. You are in bed, yet a terrifying force you do not recognize or understand attacks you. It comes from the dark outside. Your father is away and cannot help or protect you. Your mother is upstairs and does not respond to your cries. The person whose job it is to look after you has betrayed you.
This is the stuff of the child’s worst fears: abandonment by the caregivers. And how does the ballad help deal with these fears? Firstly, in typical ballad style, it simply states the facts, and lets the listeners draw what conclusion they may. The conclusions drawn will change over time, but the ballad is thus still relevant. It encourages divergent, rather than convergent, reflection or thinking. Secondly, it happens to someone else: a child, yes, but a child in a cold castle, a long time ago (the same distancing as is caught up in “once upon a time”). Third, and most importantly, the ballad deals with the fears by projecting the anger at the absent ones onto two strangers, Lamkin (a good name for a stuffed toy, perhaps?) and a “false” nurse. In some versions, notably Mrs. Brown’s, these two stand-ins for the absent parents go through an obscene parody of child care – “Then Lamkin he rocked, and the false nourice sang, /till frae ilkae bore o the cradle the red blood out sprang.” This is Lamkin, “the terror of countless nurseries”.
But if the song speaks to the child’s deepest fears, of being abandoned, does it not also speak to the fears of the mother? The child wants to hear it, because in hearing it, it can rehearse and play through again the pain of abandonment, and can begin to strategize how it can live by itself, how it can be separated from its mother. But what of the mother’s fears? Why would a mother or a mother-substitute want to sing the song, which so cruelly denounces her as a weak and uncaring caregiver? We remember that for every listener there is a singer.
To recapitulate the story from the point of view of the mother: it is nighttime. You are in bed, and you are woken by the cries of your baby, downstairs. Your husband, before he left, warned you of danger. You are in his house, without friends close by. The nurse, who is not your friend, cannot or will not help you. You are gripped by your own inadequacies as a mother. You feel helpless: if the nurse does not know what to do for a crying baby, what can you do? You are friendless in a cold, dark house. You are frightened to come down the stairs in the dark.
The mother’s helplessness is what makes her both victim and perpetrator. She is helpless to protect herself against Lamkin and thus becomes his victim. She is also helpless to protect her baby from being killed, and thus becomes a perpetrator. The prelude to both murders – and the emotional centre of the ballad – is abandonment. The lady has been abandoned by her lord and the baby has been abandoned by its mother.
What arises from these fierce emotions are two responses – rage in the baby and guilt in the mother. Let us consider the mother’s case first.
The fear of abandonment does not magically disappear when one is a “grownup”; similarly, when one bears a child, one is not magically given skills to raise it. Feelings of inadequacy and guilt are part of childrearing. There is no way to be sure whether one is a ‘good enough’ mother. Perhaps women who are not good enough deserve to be punished. The inadequacy of the lady is exemplified in her behaviour: on the night of her husband’s absence, with danger (of which she has been warned) lurking outside, she sleeps upstairs, separated from her baby, and surrounded by her finery, the “silken mantles”. Even when the baby cries in extreme terror and pain, she is reluctant to come down. Not only that: in a full half of the versions examined, she offers her daughter Betsy as a substitute for her. Is Lamkin’s murder of the mother, then, not, in some sense, “justified”?
The song thus functions for the mother in much the same way as for the child: it brings the fears (in this case, abandonment, helplessness and guilt) into consciousness and allows them to be met and perhaps overcome.² Langlois, in an important article on horror stories told by mothers to mothers, addresses these fears, which she typifies as “the dreadful anxiety for the lives of their children that is one of the most difficult aspects of parenting.”(Langlois, 80).
The abandonment of the child by the parent — the first and likely most painful abandonment — can arouse feelings of rage in the child. However, the culture teaches us to “honour thy father and thy mother”. By presenting the “false parents”, Lamkin and the nurse, as the villains, the ballad provides a safe vessel for the pain and rage of abandonment. Singers and listeners can feel rage without guilt against Lamkin and the nurse and revel in their deaths at the end of the ballad. This is the reason for the unusual stability of the ballad’s central personnel (a child, a set of “good” parents and a set of “bad” parents).
We want to propose that this is what “Lamkin” is about, its “meaning” for those who sang it and heard it over the years: abandonment and guilt.
If we now reconsider Gilchrist’s arguments, we note that she argues in favour of one ballad, with one meaning, in two forms, the second being an inferior (because incomplete) recollection of the first. She takes the ballad to be historical and, as it were, “logical”. Its meaning, for it has only one, lies entirely on the surface. A mason is unpaid – he exacts vengeance on the family of his oppressor. What could be simpler?
But if we ask ourselves what were the effects of the loss of the motive (the opening verse or verses) we can only say that they have improved the ballad, giving it a darker flavour and taking away any simplistic moral. With a rational explanation, the crime in the ballad becomes explicable and preventable (pay your mason), and thus loses much of its potency. It is the presence of the unknown that increases trepidation and fear. If it is important that the song have a motive, is it conceivable that the motive could have been forgotten without the song itself falling into desuetude? If it is not important that the song have a motive, then why the search for a “forgotten” motive? We agree with Gammon and Stallybrass when they note that “lapses of memory are motivated” and that “we need to examine which passages are forgotten and why they are.” (Gammon, 1). It is our view that the verse or verses regarding the mason are as much likely to be “add-ons”, appended by an adult with a need for a motive, a “rationalizer”, in Long’s terminology.
What can be said of Gilchrist can a fortiori be said of Niles (a deal with the devil), Leach (abduction by the fairies), Barry (leprosy cure) and Leader (good foundations for a castle). The song is transformed; what was once open-ended, divergent, and capable of many meanings, now becomes convergent, rational, and causative (Why? Because…). With each of these theories, the child and its mother are, as it were, forgotten (except as “innocent bystanders”), and the “meaning” of the ballad is to be found in a relationship between two men before the incipit. The ballad now makes rational sense, but it is not the same ballad; and we have had to predicate all sorts of multiplicities, none of them necessary. But the stronger argument might be that whatever the truth of these theories, none of them is explanatory – none of them, that is, explains why the ballad maintained its popularity over the centuries. And if, as we suspect, the landscape of this ballad is a fairytale landscape, then the search for the name of the mason or for “Lord Wearie’s Castle” is as pointless as a search in parish records for Hansel and Gretel’s parents.
For generations of singers and listeners, “Lamkin” was about separation, abandonment and guilt. It has spoken to these generations because everyone has experienced these things. Abandonment is always painful, whether it is the withdrawal of care by neglectful parents or simply the necessary separation of parent from child and child from parent. Abandonment is part of growing up. “Lamkin”, at face value a titillating murder story, is actually a poetic and metaphoric vehicle through which to negotiate the pain of abandonment. Through the ballad, we can embrace the frightened child within all of us. As Alice Miller says:
Almost everywhere we find the effort…to rid ourselves…of the child within us – i.e., the weak helpless, dependent creature – in order to become an independent, competent adult deserving of respect. When we reencounter this creature in our children, we persecute it with the same measures once used on ourselves (Miller, 58)
“Lamkin” presents us with the “weak, helpless, dependent creature” we all once were and gives us the opportunity to accept and perhaps transcend it.
As Gammon and Stallybrass so perceptively acknowledge (Gammon, 12), the last verse or verses, of Lamkin and the false nurse being killed, represent a shift to a mythic level. Lamkin and the nurse will be killed again and again, and cannot ever be finally done away with. The dark out of which they eternally come is an interior darkness in each of us, the unknown contents of our own subconscious.
¹ Many psychologists have made this point, notably Bruno Bettelheim in his The Uses of Enchantment. Be it noted, however, that the Grimms edited many of their texts, suppressing some themes (e.g. pregnancy) and adding others.
² The suppression or the silence in some versions of what happens to the lady after Lamkin catches her in his arms makes sense if the singer imagines herself to be the lady: the actual attack is too close to home. Gammon notes that this verse (frequently, “… here’s blood in the kitchen, here’s blood in the hall…”) is added (without editorial note or comment) to Sister Emma’s text by A.L. Lloyd in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.
Works Cited
  • Allingham, William. The Ballad Book: A Selection of the Choicest British Ballads. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892
  • Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976
  • Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. 4 vols., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962
  • Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. New York: Dover, 1965
  • Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy. “Two Maine Texts of ‘Lamkin’”. Journal of American Folk-Lore, Vol. 52 (1939), pp. 70-74
  • Flanders, Helen Hartness. Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England. 2 vols., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961
  • Gammon, Vic & Peter Stallybrass. “Structure and Ideology in the Ballad: An Analysis of ‘Long Lankin’”. Criticism, Vol XXVI, Number 1 (Winter, 1984), pp. 1-20
  • Gilchrist, Annie G. “‘Lambkin’: A Study in Evolution”. Journal of the English Folk and Dance Society, Vol. 1 (1932), pp. 1-17
  • Langlois, Janet L. ‘Mothers’ Double Talk’ in Joan Newlon Radner (ed.). Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp.80-97
  • Leach, MacEdward. The Ballad Book. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955
  • Leader, Ninon. Classical Hungarian Ballads and Their Folklore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967
  • Lloyd, A.L. and Ralph Vaughan Williams (eds.). The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books Ltd., 1959
  • Long, Eleanor R. ‘Ballad Singers, Ballad Makers, and Ballad Etiology’. Western Folklore, Vol XXXII, 1973, pp. 225-236.
  • Miller, Alice. For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of Violence. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990
  • Motherwell, William. Minstrelsy: Ancient and Modern. Glasgow: John Wylie, 1827
  • Niles, John DeWitt. ‘Lamkin: The Motivation of Horror’. Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 90 (1977), pp. 49-67

Home Who We Are What We Sing PTMS NxW CDs Order Info Articles The Ballads Publications NxNW Links