February 2017

At the end of January, I happened to be down in London for a Historical Association committee meeting, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to the London Renaissance Seminar in order to hear Patricia Fumerton talk about ‘Moving Media, Tactical Publics – The British Broadside Ballad in Early Modern England’.

I was surprised, I must admit, to hear her talk about the  16th and 17th century broadsides in Manchester Central Library, one of which is marked by a seventeenth century handprint.  Professor Fumerton described how she attempted to gain a full appreciation of each ballad, including emotional responses.  She pointed out that although we cannot fully inhabit the lived experiences of people from hundreds of years ago, we can try to do it at one remove. In order to do so, we need a capacious theory or complement of theoretical components, such as assemblage theory, tactical media and plural publics.

Whereas EEBO gives only one image for all editions, EBBA gives the image for every edition.  Unsurprisingly, as founder and director of  EBBA, she argued strongly that studying digital rather than material ballads is fine, because the notion of whole in broadside ballads is already a fiction,  In fact, she suggested that EBBA’s collection helps us to experience ballads more like they would have in the early modern period because they allow us to experience many ballads together, they include recordings and we can see the images as well as words…  This is perhaps how the early modern person experienced ballads – hearing a snatch of a tune, catching a glimpse of another sheet’s words or images – then making associations with what they already –  knew of ballads.   They might ask themselves where they  had heard it before, or where they had seen that before?  To encounter one ballad in early modern England was to encounter many parts, and many were only experienced partially.   Soon, the EBBA database will include the ability to click on an image and it will bring up other links to all the ballads with that image.  EBBA uses  Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, so it takes what it calls an Item eg the ballad sheet, and then thinks of the things that make up its component parts and how they are related.  As it is modular, those parts can be plugged into another sheet – they are related but autonomous, therefore like the notion of assemblages.  She argued that because of this, ballads appealed to multiple publics.   Furthermore, like me, she argued that neither ballad performers nor audiences were passive recipients.  For example, performers could use hand gestures or movement to make a point, while tactical publics allowed consumers to subvert the authors’ intentions. If a ballad producer tried to over-manipulate the consumer, he actually empowered them.

img_20170111_124259103 In early January, I was privileged to be invited to speak at the singing across the channel workshop at the University of Kent.  I travelled down the morning before the conference, passing through King’s Cross Station on the way.  Now, I must have done that before, but I can’t remember ever noticing the architecture in the past.  Maybe it was the winter sunlight flooding through the roof, or the length of time I had waiting for my connection, but I was very impressed!


I arrived in Canterbury in the early afternoon so that I could have a look round the town centre.  Canterbury is a very attractive place, I must say, and I enjoyed having an hour to explore. Obviously I made a point of going to see the cathedral (well, from the outside, anyway) and I treated myself to a pancake in the Chocolate Cafe.  But I’d decided to use the time away as a bit of a writing retreat, so I made my way to the Falstaff Hotel by mid-afternoon so that I could get down to some work on my Pilgrimage of Grace article.  I spent a very profitable afternoon on it, before meeting Éva Guillorel and Jennifer Reid for an evening meal.

img_20170112_111057611After a good night’s sleep and a tasty, filling breakfast with Éva, I was ready to walk up to the university campus with Jen. First to speak was Una McIlvenna, who had organised the conference with Éva. Una told us about her current work on ‘Mazarinades: songs about the Fronde’.  She commented that many are based on a verse form which was closely associated with satire.  They vary from the respectful to the downright crude, and Una argued that a musical approach allows us to understand fully the intertextual references.  I was next, talking about the Pilgrimage of Grace ballads and the way in which some sixteenth-century ballads hid their meaning in  order to protect their authors and singers.

img_20170112_122517285Before lunch, we looked at some of the University of Kent’s John Crow Collection of Ballads and Songs. One of the items on show containeimg_20170112_122326514d a selection of Irish songs including ‘The Lamentation of Hugh Reynolds‘, a song which I learned from the singing of the late Maggie Boyle.  By coincidence, her son Joe finished editing a video of Maggie’s final recording, ‘The Kings of Industry‘, the weekend following the conference.

After lunch, Angela McShane spoke about ‘Dealing with the French in 17th Century English Ballads’, describing how French Protestant exiles to England were subsumed into the category of loyal English. She paid attention to the familiar ways in which foreigners were stereotyped in the seventeenth century, drawing parallels with twenty-first century attitudes.  The next speaker was Éva Guillorel, who talked about her work on ‘Defamatory Songs in French Judicial Archives’.  The records reveal tensions between clergy, bourgeoisie and nobility.  Although there are a huge variety of authors, there are many records of one public figure writing about another.  Music is rarely mentioned and never notated.

img_20170112_153548497I chaired the final session, when Oskar Cox Jensen spoke about ‘Early Modern Intrusions in 19th Century Politics’ in the form of balladeers, who asserted an older view of neighbourhood control by the use of defamatory ballads at a local level.  He argued that songs were empowering for the patrician even if they were written by journalists because they put politics in their hands and employed knowingness.  Last came Jennifer Reid, who sang extracts from 19th century Mancunian ballads and performed Lancashire dialect verse.  We discussed the relevance of news to ballads and how far the newspaper should be taken as the standard to which we compare our news content.  The workshop closed with a wine reception, and we headed back to London through the worsening weather, continuing our discussions on the train.

I must extend my thanks to Éva and to Una, who organised the conference with such efficiency and good humour.  I’d also like to send my best wishes to Una, as she returns to Australia to take up her new position in the University of Melbourne history department.