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.

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