Week 25 – Limbo

The Rake's complaint in Limbo - ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection

The Rake’s complaint in Limbo – ballad sheet from the Bodleian collection

I first heard this song performed by the Oyster Ceilidh Band in the late seventies. They subsequently recorded it on the LP Jack’s Alive. I learned the words from Frank Purslow’s book Marrowbones; where I also found that, although the Oysters played it in 6/8, it had originally been notated in 3/4.

The song has been found only rarely in oral tradition. The version in Marrowbones was collected in 1908 by George Gardiner, from James Brooman, of Upper Faringdon in Hampshire, and can now be seen via the EFDSS Take Six archive.

It is always stated that the title of the song comes from the nickname for a debtor’s prison, such as the Marshalsea Prison where Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned. I thought I’d try to find some evidence for this usage, so I looked at the Online Slang Dictionary – which tells us only that “limbo” has been used to refer to marijuana. The OED, meanwhile, has various definitions for “limbo”:

A region supposed to exist on the border of Hell as the abode of the just who died before Christ’s coming, and of unbaptized infants

A South African name for a kind of coarse calico

A dance in which the dancer bends backwards and passes under a horizontal bar raised only a few inches off the ground.

Initially I thought all of these seemed irrelevant to the song; but actually, thinking about Dickens’ descriptions of debtors’ prison, it occurred to me that the first definition was probably the origin of our modern expression “in limbo”, and could easily have been used to refer to the interminable wait [for something to turn up] of those imprisoned for debt.

And then I came across this passage from Biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays by Naseeb Shaheen, via Google Books

“Limbo” is the religious term used to denote the underworld abode of just souls not entitled to go to heaven because of having died before Christ (limbus oatrum), or because they lacked baptism (limbus infantum). The teaching is based on Church tradition rather than on Scripture. The word is used in that sense in Titus Andronicus 3.1.149, and All’s Well That Ends Well 5.3.261. But in Shakespeare’s day, “limbo” was also the cant term for London’s debtors’ prisons. Used in the latter sense, to be in limbo would mean to be in prison. Limbo Patrum is used in that sense in Henry VIII 5.3.64.

Clearly this usage of the word continued for at least another two centuries after Shakespeare’s time – the ballad sheet shown here dates from the early nineteenth century, while our song was noted down in the early twentieth century. From Wikipedia I learn that “The Debtors’ Act of 1869 abolished imprisonment for debt, although debtors who had the means to pay their debt, but did not do so, could still be incarcerated for up to six weeks.”


Andy Turner: vocal, C/G anglo-concertina

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