By Maitre des Heures de Françoise de Dinan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Maitre des Heures de Françoise de Dinan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“And what are your conclusions so far?”
I was asked that a couple of weeks ago, and I was slightly taken off guard. It was because I couldn’t immediately come up with an answer that I decided I needed to take stock! I am convinced that the ballad music has more links with the church and art music than has been brought out in the past, so that’s one of them.  Another is that, generally, we underestimate their value as evidence and as documents that were intended for performance within an oral culture.

However, if I’m honest, my main conclusion so far has to be that people in the early modern period were absolutely obsessed with death.  I suppose it’s not all that surprising.  Peter Marshall and Bruce Gordon reminded us that ‘relative to our own society, throughout their lives people [in early modern Europe] typically experienced the deaths of far greater numbers of children, kin or acquaintance’ and that ‘the dead were a significant social ‘presence’’.¹  One particularly morbid theme will be familiar to fans of Schubert string quartets and folk musicians alike:  the danse macabre.  There are several ballads which provide variations on the story, one of which can be found in manuscript in the British Library:

O death, behold ; I am but younge
and of a pleasaunt age :
Take thou some old and croked wight,
and spare me in thy rage.²

There are an awful lot more songs that refer to death as a social leveller.  When you broaden out the search to look for the references to God and death, there are hundreds.  Then, of course, there are ballads about the metaphorical death of doomed love affairs:

Show loue therfore for loue againe.
Or els for loue I dye.³

All in all, it can make sixteenth century ballads a gloomy set of sources to work with!  Not so bad when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, but not so great when the skies are grey and the rain pours down.  And yet I still enjoy them.

 

 

 

¹Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, The Place of the Dead in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.2.

² British Library Sloane MS 1896, ff. 6v-8.

³M. Osborne, A newe ballade of a louer/ extolling his ladye. To the tune of Damon and Pithias, (London: 1568).

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