December 2012


Most of this week I have spent analysing the extant sixteenth century ballads.  I have a big spreadsheet with the names of the ballads in one column and all sorts of topics and features listed across the top.   I have comments in some of the boxes, and others are just ticked off.  It’s a slow and painstaking process, but it’s fun.  Every now and again a little gem turns up, some of which I’ve posted here, and sometimes there are things that I spot that I think are really exciting.  It’s great.  Then today, I came down with the lurgy.  I have a headache, catarh and I’m either freezing cold or sweating.  So I retreated to the sofa with several blankets and a copy of the Oxford History of Print Culture.    I’m not at all sure about some of the arguments put forward in it.  For example, I’m not at all sure that I agree with Angela McShane’s belief that ballads didn’t spread the news.  I don’t think you can divorce news from commentary in the period, and I find it difficult to understand how her argument for the seventeenth century transposes back to the sixteenth when there were no newspapers.

Yesterday I went in to the university, where I had a long discussion about the Cromwell ballad flyting with my supervisor, over a very nice pot of tea. Definitely the way forward for supervision meetings.  After that I went to the library and picked up a few books, then had some lunch with some of my fellow postgrads.  Unfortunately, one of them is leaving.  He’s had enough.  As he said, what’s the point in carrying on when you look at your source material and think ‘Who cares?’ 

This is an interesting blog post, and confirms something I had long suspected. There is another angle that the author hasn’t considered – the need for academics in some fields to travel for long periods to conduct primary research is hardly conducive to a ‘normal’ family life.

I already have my children. In fact, if it weren’t for them I probably wouldn’t be doing a PhD at all – it was the (extended) career break I took to look after them that gave me the time to think about what I wanted to do. Not so much what I wanted to do with my life, but what I wanted to do for me after giving 9 years of my life completely to them.

As for a desire to spawn, I never had one either. It’s amazing how much being told that if you leave it any longer you may not be ABLE to have children suddenly concentrates the mind. And before you think that it was my biological clock ticking, I’m only 37 now and my eldest is 10. Prior to that I had a miscarriage, so I had to consider potential infertility at 25.

I have found that although my fellow students are deeply respectful of the fact that I have returned to university to pursue a self-funded research degree while simultaneously running a 5 person family and servicing a mortgage, some of the staff are not. There is an assumption by some people (and particularly, I’m afraid some female staff) that because I have been at home looking after my children, I am a housewife and that’s all I’m capable of. In many respects I would say that being a housewife is the single most important thing I have done, although I would re-define it as being a mother. Any impact that my research has on society will be dwarfed by the impact that my children have on society merely by existing.

Being a stay at home mum; a mature student; a childless academic; marriage, children and tenure: they are all equally valid life choices, as long as they are gone into for the right reasons.

On mornings when I wonder why I do this (and frankly, this was one of them), it’s things like this that remind me.  Simply beautiful.

The Four Seasons – Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts.

This morning’s nugget of advice from the sixteenth century:

“If I in thee

Suche faultes ones see,

            As no man ells doth knowe;

To thee alone,

And other none,

             These faults I ought to showe.”

Haywood – A Ballad against Slander and Detraction

This could be a very long post!  Things have been very stressful lately, not only because of the PhD work but a number of other domestic issues have been getting in the way of things.  I hope that now they’ve all been sorted out and that I’ve heard the last of them…

Anyway, recently I’ve been working on cataloguing the ballads of the period 1530-1570 and  making a note of the topics and themes that come up in them.  It takes a long, long time!  Ten days ago I had an Extraordinary Panel Meeting at which I had to explain the ideas for my new project.  I want to investigate the ballads as evidence for knowingness, a term that is usually associated with the Victorian music hall.  I’m also using them to look for evidence of a public sphere, a term that is equally anachronistic in the sixteenth century, but I do think that there is a possibility for investigating the origins of the public sphere in the social and political commentary of the ballads.  As I also want to situate the ballads firmly in their musical context, I intend to look for evidence of the Protestantisation of secular music during the period.  I accept that this could be a challenge, but as my twin skills are history and music I really believe it can be done:  even a negative result would be an interesting one.as the music is to be such a major component of  the new project, I have a fourth member of my supervisory panel – a music history specialist.  So it’s a thoroughly interdisciplinary project!

The ballads are really interesting.  When I was in London I made copies of the broadside ballads in the library of the Society of Antiquaries, and I’ve spent the last couple of days transcribing some of them.  Again, it’s time-consuming work (my fingers’ muscle-memory is definitely not programmed with the randomness and wide variety of sixteenth century spelling)  but it’s a really good way of getting to grips with a text.  I’ve been working on a particular set of ballads and I’ve coloured coded each side of the argument so that I can see at a glance which side it’s on.  I’ve also scanned some of the secondary texts that refer to these particular ballads and put them in the file with it, so that all of the material is together.  At the panel meeting I said that I would have read all the ballads by Christmas, and I would also by then provide my supervisors with a revised chapter plan.  I’ve really got my work cut out, especially with all the Christmas preparations that need doing too.  I’m hoping to sit down for an hour with my main supervisor this week to talk it over as I’m not sure how much more detail I can put into my chapter plan at this stage.  I’m due another (standard) panel meeting at the end of January, by which time I need to have the bones of an actual chapter together.

When I was in London at the beginning of November I paid my first visit to the reading rooms of the British Library, which was really exciting.    It was absolutely fascinating to leaf through five hundred year old manuscripts….  Some of them even had little doodles in them!  There are several items for which I need to order copies, but I haven’t done it yet, what with everything else that has been going on.

I made another trip to London in November to the branch officers’ meeting of the Historical Association, where it was good to meet up with some old faces and make some new acquaintances.    It’s been a busy couple of months all round…

My John Roberts article is finished, done, dusted and waiting to be sent off to a journal as soon as I’ve got permission to use the document!  No-one will be more surprised than I am if it’s accepted, but, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Which I suppose is why I am here doing this PhD in the first place!

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