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Q: obscure term ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   4 Comments )
Subject: obscure term
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Music
Asked by: phlipster-ga
List Price: $3.00
Posted: 14 Jan 2006 12:39 PST
Expires: 13 Feb 2006 12:39 PST
Question ID: 433408
The song/poen John Barleycorn Must Die refers to "men with crabtree
sticks to tear him skin from bone" (or something similar).  Wjile it
appears that the crabtree stick in question is some kind of threshing
device (perhaps a kind of flail), I have not been able to find a
description or picture of this device.

So my question is, what is a crabtree stick, what does it look like,
and how is it used.  Alternatively, if "Crabtree stick" is a
Mondegreen, what is the correct word.
Subject: Re: obscure term
Answered By: leli-ga on 15 Jan 2006 05:28 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello phlipster

It was once quite common in England to use a stick of crab-apple wood
as a weapon. It was often described as a crabstick or a crab-tree
cudgel - but perhaps those names wouldn't fit the rhythm of the song!

The Oxford English Dictionary has several references from various
centuries to these stick-weapons under its entries for 'crab-stick'
and 'crab-tree'. The most recent is from the the Pall Mall Gazette in
"The cadets suffered themselves to be beaten with a crabtree stick."

I hope the excerpts and links below will round out the picture for you.

Best wishes - Leli

"a crab-tree cudgel being proverbial for its hardness."

"Apple is  . . one of the favourite woods to make clubs"

"A cudgel made of the wood of the crab tree; a crabstick."

The wood is often knotty, and the tree has a thorny bark.

18c murder trial:

"Q. What sort of a stick was it done with?
 A  It was a long crab stick, five foot high, with knots upon it."
(Don't read this transcript if you are squeamish.)

18c trial for theft with violence:

"I was constable the 23d of June.  . . we found a sort of a crab-stick . . ."

Pilgrim's Progress

So when he arose he getteth him a grievous Crabtree Cudgel, and goes
down into the Dungeon to them, and there first falls to rating of
them, as if they were dogs, although they gave him never a word of
distaste. Then he falls upon them, and beats them fearfully, in such
sort, that they were not able to help themselves, or to turn them upon
the floor.

Humphrey Clinker

" . . . with a crab-stick, which was all the weapon he had, brought
the fellow to the ground with the first blow . . .

Henry the Eighth

Noise and tumult within. Enter Porter and his Man.
  Porter  You?ll leave your noise anon, ye rascals. Do you take the
court for Paris-garden? ye rude slaves, leave your gaping.
  [Within.] Good Master porter, I belong to the larder.	
  Porter  Belong to the gallows, and be hanged, you rogue! Is this a
place to roar in? Fetch me a dozen crab-tree staves, and strong ones:
these are but switches to ?em.

One website suggests 1400 as an approximate date for this version of the song:
"They hired men with the crabtree sticks 
To cut him skin from bone."

By the way, grain used to be threshed with a single stick, and still
is in some parts of the world, I believe.

Threshing Stick

Clarification of Answer by leli-ga on 15 Jan 2006 10:48 PST
Thank you!

Here's little Sir John in a nut-brown bowl,
And brandy in a glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl
Proved the stronger man at last. 

It's possible to read this as a suggestion that drinks made of
home-grown British barley are better than foreign brandy.

There are some scraps of support online for this idea.

"Songs often present beer and hops as symbols of Englishness (or, when
required, Britishness) while deriding the Frenchman and his meagre

"another famous song 
John Barley Corn is dead which is a plea for beer drinking over the
foreign and evil Gin"

But there must be lots of other possible interpretations.
phlipster-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $1.00
Well researched.  The answer is everything I'd hoped for.  Now my only
concern is how Barleycorn can be "brandy in the bowl."  Thanks, Leli. 
That answer is worth a 33% tip.

Subject: Re: obscure term
From: tutuzdad-ga on 14 Jan 2006 13:32 PST
I found no reference to a "crabtree stick" as a type of threshing
device or, for that matter, a tool of any kind. What I suspect is the
the reference to a "crabtree stick" in the poem John Barleycorn Must
Die" is inconsequential in that it simply refers to a flogging or
caning as in the type of punishment meted out in Singapore and other
similar societies (by way of the symbolism of threshing barley).

If one must equate the crabtree stick weapon described in the poem to
an actual object it does indeed appear to be a flail of the type used
to thresh sheaves of barley. This devices consisted of "two pieces of
wood: the handstaff, or helve, and the beater, joined by a thong. The
handstaff is a light rod several feet long, the beater a shorter

Encyclopędia Britannica
It is important to note that Jack London, the author of the original
poem, was by all accounts a creative genius, but he was also a dark
and complex man who was plagued by chronic alcoholism (thus the poem
decrying the debilitating power of barley-derived beer and spirits).

"Jack London was never an original thinker. He was a great gobbler-up
of the world, physically and intellectually. He was the kind of writer
who went to a place and wrote his dreams into it, who found an Idea
and spun his psyche around it. He was a workaday literary genius/hack
who knew instinctively that Literature was a generous host, always
having room for one more at her table." (L.E. Doctorow in The New York
Times, December 11, 1988)"

So you see, In London's poem the seemingly invicible "Barleycorn" (the
alcohol that ruined his life) was plowed under, starved, neglected,
cut down, stabbed with pictchforks and beaten yet it survived to
continue to have it's dastardly effect on men. It is not the flail
itself that matters so much as the futile efforts in the poem to
render the "barleycprn" dead. As life portrays art (and visa versa) it
turns out that this was merely a melancholy moment of the life of Jack
London as he colorfully described, almost in symbolic parable fashion,
the effect (and hold) that alcohol had on his mind.

Does this answer your question sufficiently?

Subject: Re: obscure term
From: myoarin-ga on 14 Jan 2006 16:27 PST
I can only agree with Tutuzdad's comment.  A little search on
Crabappple wood reveals that it is a hard, close grained wood,
suggesting that MAYBE "crabtree" is short for crabapple tree as an
expression for the loose end of a flail, which should be made of a
wood that would stand up to the beating.
Pretty farfetched?

Just found this, too:
Subject: Re: obscure term
From: efn-ga on 14 Jan 2006 18:20 PST
I believe that the crabtree sticks mentioned in the song are just
sticks of wood from a crab tree, and not any special kind of device. 
As myoarin guessed, "crab tree" is another name for a crab apple tree.

"John Barleycorn" is an ancient British folksong, going back at least
to the sixteenth century.  "John Barleycorn Must Die" is not usually
used as the title of the song; this phrase is the title of a 1970
album by the rock group Traffic, which contains a version of the song
with the usual title, "John Barleycorn."

Jack London's autobiographical novel "John Barleycorn" contains no
mention of crabtree sticks, and he did not publish any poem with "John
Barleycorn" in the title.  Perhaps printed copies of the novel contain
a version of the song, but this does not appear in texts available
Subject: Re: obscure term
From: myoarin-ga on 17 Jan 2006 17:05 PST
Of course I knew those quotations from Shakespeare and Smollet and
Bunyan, but modestly refrained from preempting Leli's answer.  (Like
h...!)  Truly great answer!  And an interesting case of swiftly
executed justice.

If you read the early version that Leli linked, the quotation in the
question is followed by two lines about what the millers did to him,
so obviously a reference to threshing before the milling/grinding.

"John Barleycorn Must Die" sounds like a title to a temperance version of the song.

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