Percy's Reliques - An Essay on the Meaning of the Word FIT.

An Essay on the Meaning of the Word FIT.

                The word Fit, for Part, often occurs in our ancient ballads and metrical romances; which being divided into several parts for the convenience of singing them at public entertainments, were in the intervals of the feast sung by Fits, or intermissions. So Puttenham in his Art of English Poesie, 1589, says, "the Epithalamie was divided by breaches into three partes to serve for three several Fits, or times to be sung."-- p. 41.

            From the same writer we learn some curious particulars relative to the state of ballad-singing in that age, that will throw light on the present subject: speaking of the quick returns of one manner of tune in the short measures used by common rhymers; these, he says, "glut the eare, unless it be in small and popular musickes, sung by these Cantabanqui, upon benches and barrels heads, where they have none other audience then boys or countrey fellowes, that passe by them in the streete; or else by blind harpers, or such like taverne minstrels, that give a Fit of mirth for a groat . . . their matter being for the most part stories of old time, as the tale of Sir Topas, the reportes of Bevis of Southampton, Guy of Warwicke, Adam Bell and Clymme of the Clough, and such other old romances or historical rimes, made purposely for recreation of the common people at Christmasse dinners and brideales, and in tavernes and alehouses, and such other places of base resorte." p. 69.

            This species of entertainment which seems to have been handed down from the ancient bards, was in the time of Puttenham falling into neglect; but that it was not, even then, wholly excluded more genteel assemblies, he gives us room to infer from another passage, "We ourselves," says this courtly[ 1] writer, "have written for pleasure a little brief romance, or historical ditty in the English tong of the Isle of Great Britaine in short and long meetres, and by breaches or divisions [i.e. Fits] to be more commodiously sung to the harpe in places of assembly, where the company shal be desirous to heare of old adventures, and valiaunces of noble knights in times past, as are those of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, Sir Bevys of Southampton, Guy of Warwicke, and others like."-- p. 33.

            In more ancient times no grand scene of festivity was complete without one of these reciters to entertain the company with feats of arms, and tales of knighthood, or, as one of these old minstrels says, in the beginning of an ancient romance on Guy and Colbronde, in the Editor's folio MS.--

"When meate and drinke is great plentyè,
And lords and ladyes still wil bee,
And sitt and solace lythe;[ 2]
Then itt is time for mee to speake
Of keene knightes, and kempès great,
Such carping for to kythe."

            If we consider that a groat in the age of Elizabeth was more than equivalent to a shilling now, we shall find that the old harpers were even then, when their art was on the decline, upon a far more reputable footing than the ballad-singers of our time. The reciting of one such ballad as that of the Beggar of Bednall-green, in two parts, was rewarded with half a crown of our money. And that they made a very respectable appearance, we may learn from the dress of the old beggar, in the preceding ballad, where he comes into company in the habit and character of one of these minstrels, being not known to be the bride's father, till after her speech, ver. 63. The exordium of his song, and his claiming a groat for his reward, ver. 80, are peculiarly characteristic of that profession. Most of the old ballads begin in a pompous manner, in order to captivate the attention of the audience, and induce them to purchase a recital of the song: and they seldom conclude the first part without large promises of still greater entertainment in the second. This was a necessary piece of art to incline the hearers to be at the expence of a second groat's-worth. Many of the old romances extend to eight or nine Fits, which would afford a considerable profit to the reciter.

            To return to the word FIT; it seems at one time to have peculiarly signified the pause, or breathing-time, between the several parts (answering to PASSUS in the Visions of Pierce Plowman): thus in the ancient Ballad of Chevy-Chase, (Vol i. no. i.) the first Part ends with this line,

"The first FIT here I fynde:"

i.e. here I come to the first pause or intermission. By degrees it came to signify the whole part or division preceding the pause. (See the concluding verses of the First and Second Parts of "Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and William of Cloudesly," in book ii. No. i.) This sense it had obtained so early as the time of Chaucer: who thus concludes the first part of his rhyme of Sir Thopas, (writ in ridicule of the old ballad romances):

Lo I lordis mine, here is a Fitt;
If ye woll any more of it,
To tell it woll I fonde.

            The word "Fit" indeed appears originally to have signified a poetic strain, verse, or poem: for in these senses it is used by the Anglo-Saxon writers. Thus King Alfred, in his Boetius, having given a version of lib. 3. metr. 5, adds, thare yisdom thaf thar arungen haefde i.e. "When wisdom had sung these [FITTS] verses." And in the Proem to the same book fon on fitte, "Put into [Fitt] verse." So in Cedmon, p. 45. feond on fitte, seems to mean, "composed a song," or "poem." The reader will trace this old Saxon phrase, in the application of the word fond in the foregoing passage of Chaucer. -- See Gloss.

            Spenser has used the word fit to denote "a strain of music:" see his poem intitled, "Collin Clout's come home again," where he says:

"The shepherd of the ocean [Sir Walt. Raleigh]
Provoked me to play some pleasant Fit,
And when be heard the music which I made
He found himself full greatlye pleas'd at it," &c.

It is also used in the old ballad of "King Estmere," Book i. no vi..

            From being applied to music, this word was easily transferred to dancing: thus in the old play of Lusty Juventus (described in book ii.), Juventus says:

"By the masse I would fayne go daunce a Fitte."

            And from being used as a part or division in a ballad, poem, &c., it is applied by Bale to a section or a chapter in a book (though I believe in a sense of ridicule or sarcasm), for thus he entitles two chapters of his English Docaryes, Part ii. viz.-- fol. 49, "The fyrst FYTT of Anselme with Kynge Wyllyam Rufus."-- fol. 50, "An other FYTT of Anselme with Kynge Wyllyam Rufus."


1.He was one of Queen Elizabeth's gent. pensioners, at a time when the whole band consisted of men of distinguished birth and fortune. Vid. Ath. Ox.

2. Perhaps "blythe."


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