English is rich in words to describe the underbelly of society. One despicable noun that recently caught my eye is ‘raggamuffin’. Where does this shadowing character originate from? I went a-hunting for the answers and found myself lost in a diabolical (and at times fruity) rabbit hole of origins.
Raggamuffin is, at heart, a collocation. This type character description is a common motif in the English Language. From the couragous ‘Daredevil’ to the macarbre ‘Cutthroat’, the English Language is littered with treasures. The Hangdog , for example, is “a despicable, degraded fellow, so called … from being fit only to hang a dog” (so says etymonline); nowdays, more commonly used as an adjective to describe a browbeaten, defeated, shamefaced or guilty look. [See my post It’s a Dog’s Life.] Skullduggery, on the other hand, is not a collocation and has nothing to do with the digging up of skulls. Its origins, though not confirmed, are said to be in the Scots dialect: ‘sculdudrie’ [adultery/fornication].
So if raggamuffin is a collocation, what do the two words ‘ragga’ and ‘muffin’ really mean? [spolier alert: they have nothing to do with cakes]. Before we get to that, some history.
The Ragged Man
The Raggamuffin is quite literally a ‘ragged man’. Shaggy in appearance and consequentially disrespectful, a ‘raggamuffin’ is often associated with rude street children (or urchins). The Raggamuffin may be a bit of a ‘toe-rag’ [someone that used old rags for socks or shoes] or perhaps just the ‘bedraggled, beat up and burnt-out’, as Brennan Manning calls them in his ‘Ragamuffin Gospel’. The Raggamuffin does not, however, crop up much in writing. The Rag(g)amuffin first enters in print around 1600 in works by authors such as Ben Johnson, but did not appear to be in common usage until around the 19th Century. Around this time we start to see attempts at defining its meaning in glossaries and commentaries. One such illustration of this can be found in a Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (Volume 16, 1886) in which Raggamuffin is classed as an adjective meaning “idle, loose, scampish”. The example sentence supplied contextualizes it wonderfully:
“He’s sitch raggamuffin ways wi’ him.”
A particularly colourful passage in an 1820 edition of the Comedies of Aristophanes by Thomas Mitchell finds him sandwiched between obloquies:
A prating, prettyfogging lim o’ th’ law;
A sly old fox, a perjurer, a hang-dog,
A raggamuffin made of shreds and Patches,
The leaving of a dunghill-Let ‘em rail,
Yea, marry, let ‘em turn my guts to fiddle-strings,
May my bread be my poison! if I care.
And even Lord Byron got in on the act in his second letter on Bowles Strictures:
It is of little use to call him”a rascal, a scoundrel, a thief, an imposter, a blackguard, a villain, a raggamuffin, a – what you please;” all that he is used to.
So we know that from as early as 1800 ‘raggamuffin’ [two ‘g’s] was being used as a noun and a an insult; But where did this insult arise from? Well, the Raggamuffin may have a more demonic origin.
A number of authoratitive sources cite the origins of the Raggamuffin as being from the poem ‘Piers Plowman’ by Willjam Langland. This text, said to be written sometime between 1360-1390, is an allegorical poem that follows a narrator named Will on his quest for salvation. It contains a description of Christ’s descent into hell during which he meets Lucifer and, what appears to be one of his demon helpers, the Raggamoffyn.
Original: Ac rys up Ragamoffyn and reche me all the barres
Ar we throw bryghtnesse be blent. barre we the gates
Cheke we and cheyne we. and eche chyne stoppe
And thow Astrot hot out. and have out knaves
Coltyng and al hus knne. our catel to save
Brynston boilaunt brenning. out casteth hit
Al hot in here hevedes. that entren in ny the walles
Setteth bowes of brake. a brasene gonnes
And sheteth out shot e ynowh.
Translation: Arise Ragamuffin and bring all the bars, before we are blinded with the brightness. Bar we now the gates, bolt we and chain we, and stop up every chink. And though Astaroth go forth and muster the servants, Colting and all his kindred to save the chattels. Cast boiling and burning brimstone, all hot upon their heads who shall enter with these walls. Set the steel bows, and brazen guns, and shoot out shot in plenty.
This extract can be found in ‘Parallel Extracts from Twenty-nine Manuscripts of Piers Plowman’, by William Langland, Walter William Skeat – 1866.
It is hard to believe that from this single mention in a poem of the 14th Century, our Raggamuffin sprung into being. Whether the Ragamoffyn of the original text (translated in later editions as Ragamuffin, only one ‘g’) is the progenitor is much debated over, and many suggest that it is merely an invention of Langland himself. Other more recent books on the occult and devil worship have gone so far as to create a whole mythology around the demon Ragamoffyn, as if he were already a well documented character in history prior to Langland’s work, but despite their dubious conjecture, all seem to agree that Willjam Langland’s work is the first written source of the Ragamoffyn. Having said this, we cannot exclude the possibility that the name came from another source, perhaps a spoken tradition. I have, for example, seen it said that the ‘moffyn’ in ragamoffyn derives from an Anglo-Norman word ‘malfelon’, meaning ‘devil’. That said, I have also seen mention of a possible …[saucy] French Connection.
Ragemon Le Bon
In thirteenth Century Norman-Britain, household games were quite the thing among the gentry. I’m not talking Cluedo and Scrabble (though we know from sources such as mosaics and painting that chess and dice were popular pastimes), what I’m talking about is the less well-known ‘game-texts’.
For the medieval ‘gamer’, recreational literature was just as relevant as a game of chess. One such text from the 13th Century is called ‘Ragemon le Bon’.In Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature, Serina Patterson writes, “Ragemon le Bon is an amorous game of chance that consists of fifty stanzas, each revealing a player’s fortune, and often about matters of love. Found in manuscripts over a 300-year period, Regemon le Bon surfaces in various guises in manuscripts for gentry audiences in England, including into Anglo-Norman sermons and Middle English Chaucerian games, attesting to its chameleon-like nature, the game-text moves from provincial households of the emerging gentry to networks of urban players in London.”
An example of a stanza from Ragemon le Bon goes:
Vous fausez trop sovent vos dis,
Touz jours irrez de mal en pis:
Ore vous repentez come sage
Ou vous averez la male rage.
You often unreasonably falsify your words.
Every day goes from bad to worse:
Now you should repent as one who is wise,
Or you will have violent pain.
It is clear that these mock moralistic poems were meant to amuse and titillate in equal measures, much the same way a bawdy limerick does. An example of the raunchy nature of Ragemon le Bon can be seen in this stanza:
Lovely Lady, embodying whoreishness, indeed you do not heed virtue;
You will have plenty of children, but never produce a soul.
It stanza speaks of the evils of unbaptised bastard children (hence, soulless) while also titillating the reader with the insinuation of whorish behaviour.
But, what does all this have to do with our Ragamuffin, I hear you cry. Well….
The Ragmane Roll
While on my hunt for clues, I stummbled into a similar looking (and apparently unrelated) word, rigmarole. A curious entry in the Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky, Wednesday, March 25, 1987, discussing its origins thus:
In the Middle Ages, there was a parlor game in which players would draw from a little bin a verse describing one of the many characters in the game. One of those characters was known in Old French as Ragemon le bon, or Ragemon the Good. As the game moved into England, the cast of characters became known because of Ragemon as the Ragmane rolle. The game apparently was quite complex, and that’s why Ragmane rolle would eventually became our rigmarole
Rageman le bon, peaked my curiosity. Who was this ‘Ragemon the Good’ and was he related in any way to our Raggamuffin?
The usually reliable Etymonline add a little more detail to the origin story of Rigmarole:
“a long, rambling discourse,” apparently from an altered, Kentish colloquial survival of ragman roll “long list or catalogue”. In Middle English a long roll of verses descriptive of personal characters, used in a medieval game of chance called Rageman, perhaps from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon “Ragemon the good,” which was the heading on one set of the verses, referring to a character by that name.”
So, according to etymonline ‘Ragemon le bon’ became ‘ragman roll’, and the ‘Ragemon’ of the games title was a character from a set of verses. What both of the above extracts fail to pick up on, however, is that the Ragman Roll is, in fact, a legal document, and the ‘Ragman’ of the title appears to have been a real person.
The Ragman Roll
According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrases and Fables, the ‘ragman roll‘ was a series of documents containing the ‘acts of fealty and homage done by the Scotch nobility to Edward I. In 1296; these four rolls consisted of thirty-five pieces sewn together. The originals perished, but a record of them is preserved in the Rolls House Chancery Lane.’. Brewer’s postulates that the origin of the Ragman Roll was ‘The Statute of Rageman (De Ragemannis), a legate of Scotland, who compelled all the clergy to give an account of their beneficies, that they might be taxed at Rome accordingly.’ Despite, there being conflicting accounts of this origin story, the existence of the document itself carrying the name Rageman cannot be overlooked. How far reaching this document was, and how well know the name Rageman (Ragemannis) came to be, may have an impact on how we interpret the Rageman of texts of this period.
So, to summarize, we have seen a parlour game that goes by the name of Ragemon the Good, a series of legal documents from Scotland called the Rag(e)man roll. Could all these names be connected, and what has this got to do with our Raggamuffin? Well…..
The Raggeman / Rageman
From around the 1300s, the ‘Raggeman’ or ‘Rageman’ crops up in various guises. This Raggeman appears in print in none other than Willjam Langland’s the Vision Concerning Piers Plowman, the same text in which the Raggamuffin first makes an appearance .
He buncheth hem with his brevet and blereth here eye, And raughte with his raggeman, ringes and broches. Thus they given here gold glotones to helpe And leneth it loseles that lecherie hauten.
In the above extract the raggeman is refering to parchment scrolls. I know this because in later versions of the text, ‘raggeman’ translates into ‘parchment-rolls’… Oh, did I not mention that there are ‘multiple’ versions of Piers Plowman?
The various versions of Piers Plowman are usually divided into three distinct flavours, all produced during the lifetime of the author: the shortest and earliest A Text, the much longer B Text, and the final, probably incomplete, revision called the C Text. Multiple manuscripts of each of these versions survive and each manuscript is unique. A rather excellent site called the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive allows you to compare the various versions of the B-text side by side. If you click on the link above you can see that the ‘parchment roll’ carried by the priest is alternatively called Rageman, rageman raggeman, ragman, ragaman in the many versions of the B-text. This demonstrates the difficulty in researching a word origin from so far back, and it also demonstrates why Piers Plowman is such an important text in the English Language as it affords us the opportunity to compare similar sources for spelling and context.
The various incarnations of the Rageman appear inconsistent. Sometimes a man, sometimes a scroll; in fact, in reprints of and commentaries on Langland’s work around the 19th Century, a number of texts can be found trying to decifer the various meaning of the Langland’s rag(g)eman. One claims that he ‘is a dealer in rags’, while others mention ‘ vagrant or drifter of ragged and dirty appearance‘. Disappointingly, no-one seems to make any connection between the Rageman and our Raggamuffin.
Mystery of the Ragomoffyn
Thus, the question remaining is, from where did Langland draw inspiration for his demonic Ragomoffyn? Was it truly a collocation of ‘Rag’ combined with the French borrowing ‘Malfelon’, or an anamorphosis of ‘Ragemon’? As Langland was writing in the time of the medieval, with its irregular spelling and lack of historical sources, we will probably never know. What I can tell you is that Rogomoffyn appears only in the later C-text, which is generally considered the later version.
Thomas Durnham Whitaker was the compiler of the C-text. He was born in the parsonage-house of Rainham, Norfolk, June 8, 1759 and rose from the position of deacon to magistrate and finally Vicar of Whalley & Blackburn which he held till his death in 1821. He was a prolific writer and compiler, Piers Plowman (C-text) being one such publication. The often quoted passage containing our ‘Ragomoffyn’ is Whitaker’s work and cannot be found in the B-text, and it seems fair to question from where Whitaker took his version exactly.
The omission of the Raggamuffin from the B-text seems to point to the addition of extra passages at a later date. Indeed, Thomas Wright suggested that Whitaker’s version might be a political revision by someone other than the original poet. If the C-text is a type of political revisionism then the ‘Ragomoffyn’ could be a veiled comment on the Rageman Roll which “compelled all the clergy to give an account of their beneficies, that they might be taxed at Rome accordingly”. What better person to serve as satan’s henchman than ‘the taxman’ himself.
All this, unfortunately, is speculation…..and speculation is the enemy of certainty (thus etymologists hate it). What I hope I have demonstrated though is that the story of the Raggamuffin holds still some mysteries yet to be resolved.