Defoe’s Moll Flanders: the Flemish connection

This guest post is written by Dr Jaap Harskamp (formerly Curator of Dutch & Flemish collections at the British Library, who is now working on the University Library’s early Dutch books).

Defoe, via Wikimedia Commons

Defoe, via Wikimedia Commons

A title says a lot about a work of fiction. Daniel Defoe came up with a master stroke by naming his raciest novel Moll Flanders. With these two words he attracted the attention of his potential readers who instantaneously grasped its shades of meaning.

One of the best-known pilgrims in Chaucer’s collection of Canterbury tales is Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, a bawdy woman who is the very antithesis of virtuous womanhood. In her delightful tale she challenges contemporary wisdom about the female role in society. She claims to be an expert on married life having had five husbands (her first at the age of twelve). She ridicules virginity and poses the question: what are genitals for if not for procreation? When she boasts of her skill as a weaver, she lets her fellow pilgrims know that she is better than the women of Ypres and Ghent. Flemish women were famous for their cloth-making skills, both in weaving fine linen and for producing highly prized lace. But they were also famed for another attribute. In London, they had acquired a reputation as brothel-keepers (madams) and prostitutes.

Around 1390, the word frow was introduced into the English vocabulary, meaning a Dutch/Flemish woman. The word was derived from ‘vrouw’. By the 16th century many such ‘imported’ terms had acquired  negative connotations, reflecting an increasing mistrust of immigrants and foreigners. Flemish ‘frows’ referred to prostitutes. Henry VIII infamously referred to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves as a foul ‘Flemish mare’. In his play The Dutch Courtesan (c.1604/5) John Marston introduced a prostitute from the Low Countries as a ‘Flaunders mare’. In his Rival Ladies (1664) Dryden described a dame in terms of ‘Flanders shape’, that is a ‘lump of earth and phlegm together’. Why this association of Flanders with prostitution?

From the Middle-Ages until late in the 17th century many brothels on the south bank of the Thames were operated by Flemish women. Daniel Defoe points to these bawdy houses (which was a contemporary term for brothel: a bawd was a woman who procures prostitutes) in The Voyage of Don Manoel Gonzalez, commenting that ‘the mistresses of them were generally Dutch (that is Flemish) women’. This quote seems to imply some confusion about the use of the terms Flemish and Dutch of which Defoe was very much aware. In A Plan of the English Commerce (1728, p.116 and 119) he noted that in England the word ‘Flanders’ was commonly used interchangeably with ‘Holland’ and ‘Dutch’.

Title page of 1722 edition of Moll Flanders in the UL

Title page of 1722 edition of Moll Flanders in the UL

Chaucer’s reference in his prologue to Ypres and Ghent makes clear a theme that would form the basis for Defoe’s masterpiece Moll Flanders (1722). The Low Countries are present from the very outset of the novel. The fact that the beginning of this novel is set in Colchester is also significant. The flourishing of the textile industry in Colchester and Norwich can be directly traced to the presence of refugees from the Low Countries. Norwich had more than 4,000 foreign residents in 1582, and nearly 1,300 Flemish and Walloon workers had settled in Colchester in 1586. These were large groups of immigrants in relation to the towns’ native populations.

By about the middle of the 18th century the estimated number of around 50,000 whores in London included a considerable contingent of Flemings. Moll Flanders is the story of the notorious life and ultimate repentance of a woman who lived much of her adult life as a whore and a thief. Moll Flanders is her nickname. Contemporary readers would have suspected the nature of Moll’s life simply from her name. ‘Moll’ was a slang word for a woman of low repute. It was the nickname of a notorious female thief, Moll Cut-Purse, who was immortalized in two plays of the early seventeenth century (The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day and The Roaring Girl by Middleton and Dekker). Defoe’s choice of Flanders for his protagonist’s name is also deliberate. Before reading a single sentence of the novel, the author lets his readers know that Moll is a loose woman. Her name is a sign to curious readers who would be prepared – if not eager – to follow the author on an eventful journey through society’s back streets and shady corners.

STCN copy of the Dutch translation

STCN copy of the Dutch translation

Unfortunately the wealth of information that Defoe’s title contained for his English-speaking readers was completely obliterated in translation. In the first Dutch rendering of the novel (published in 1752 by Steven van Esveldt in Amsterdam) the translator struggled with the title and came up with De levensgevallen en bedrijven van Vlaamsche Mie.  The British Library holds a copy of this Dutch translation (012618.df.12).

Daniel Defoe, himself a supporter of William III and a staunch defender of Protestant immigration into Britain (especially from the Low Countries: it has been suggested that Defoe could read Dutch), was a highly appreciated author in the Netherlands. Most of his work was translated into Dutch; many French translations were also published in Holland. The Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN) contains fifty-seven entries for the author (between 1688 and 1791).

Guest author: Dr Jaap Harskamp







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