April 2018

While I haven’t been teaching lately, I’ve been writing, and this morning I submitted an application for a Society for Renaissance Studies postdoctoral fellowship to work on epitaphs, ballads and psalms in sixteenth-century England.  A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Literature Compass on verse epitaphs of sixteenth-century women, and noticed that they were almost exclusively in ballad metre.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, this rang bells.  Many of the newfangled metrical psalms, which were becoming popular with Protestants both for congregational and domestic singing, were also written in ballad metre, so their tunes would fit the epitaphs.  My proposal suggests that by combining the enduring popularity of broadside ballads with the new fashion for singing metrical psalms, these epitaph ballads created a new way for Protestants to come to terms with death.  Psalm tunes would have been particularly fitting melodies for epitaph ballads because they were in vogue, they were devotional and because they leant further meaning to the text.

Similar to my work on A Newe Ballade of a Lover for the MedRen conference in Maynooth, this project suggests that epitaph ballads were a crossover genre which stole from more than one genre in an attempt to cash in on their popularity and to widen the market for broadsides. But this particular genre is even more interesting, perhaps, because of the context of the Reformation.

Protestantism had done away with purgatory and abolished the need for Masses for the dead.  But grief is a natural human emotion, not subject to doctrinal change.  Protestant or Catholic, people were still upset when someone close to them died.   By 1570, after the official English faith had flip-flopped between Catholicism and Protestantism several times, the Catholic rites might have been dismantled, but there were no satisfying new forms of worship or ritual to take their place.  All that remained was confusion.[1]  Without the traditional framework for dealing with the emotions surrounding the death of a loved one, people needed to find new ways to deal with their emotions.  The epitaph ballads seem to have been part of this new culture of memorialisation, creating a new way for Protestants to process grief.


[1] Whiting, Robert. ‘“For the Health of My Soul”: Prayers for the Dead in the Tudor South-West’ in The Impact of the English Reformation, 1500-1640, ed. Peter Marshall (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 121-42, p. 139.

So now it’s the Easter vacation and I’m up to my eyeballs in music.  I’m thoroughly enjoying doing something that’s closely linked to what I’ve done up to now, but feels refreshingly different, mainly because about a month ago, I hadn’t really thought about why music was printed on the broadside of A New Ballade of a Lover at all.  I’m speculating about crossover genres and attempts to cash in, links to the psalms, Sternhold and Hopkins, and maybe even my epitaph ballad project.

I think that it’s significant that the man who printed A New Ballade of a Lover also printed A Godly Psalme of Mary Queene.  Although it’s not in any way a ballad, A Godly Psalme was significant because it is also a bit of a one off, at least in terms of the survivals from the period.  I’m wondering if what William Griffith, the printer, actually wanted to do was cash in on the popularity of the psalms, and that therefore these two items fit in a field that also contains the thanksgiving songs published to commemorate the accession day of Elizabeth I.

Along the way, I got interested in where A Godly Psalme of Mary Queene might have been performed as well as why it was published.  Whether, for example, it might have been more closely related to Mary I’s accession than we realise.  I started looking at the various accounts of the procession that took place on 30 September 1553, the day before her coronation, and in trying to identify some of the place names that are mentioned, I remembered the interactive map of Early Modern London. I plotted the place names and lo – in front of me I could see the approximate route that Mary took [Agas Map of Early Modern London, accessed 30 March]:

Mary's coronation route.

Moments like this are what make my work so enjoyable.  The past came to life before my eyes.

Back before Christmas, in the middle of copy-editing, I received an invitation to submit a proposal for a panel at the MedRen Music Conference in Maynooth in the summer; I accepted and hastily cobbled something together:

‘Mere Claptrap Jumble’: Music and the 16th Century Broadside Ballad

A New Ballade of a Lover is the earliest extant broadside ballad with music. At first glance though, this music appears catastrophically wrong.  For many years it epitomised the poor quality of printed ballad music, which is often seen as worthless, especially in the context of oral transmission.  Even the tunes named on broadsides can create anomalies. Viewing the ballad as part of a wider musical scene, this paper will suggest alternative explanations for the shortcomings of printed music in Tudor ballads, including the potential for a simple typographer’s error to account for the problems with A New Ballade.

Then I thought no more about it…

…until the panel proposal was accepted.

Which was all well and good, but I hadn’t actually done any of the work needed to write the paper!

So that’s what I’m up to.  I’m looking at the music printed on early broadside ballads and the musical context of the time. Two weeks ago, I was thinking about the paper and what I wanted to say, and trying to find a different way of looking at the catastrophically-wrong music on A New Ballade of a Lover, when I had a brainwave: it’s a crossover genre.  I scribbled the idea down on a piece of paper, before I had chance to forget it, and then, the following evening just before I started teaching, I did something that I almost never do: I wrote a plan.  I was quite pleased with myself.  It wasn’t very detailed, just a list of the statements that I wanted to make in the order I wanted to say them and it only took one side, but I thought that, just maybe, it would make the process of writing this paper easier than some of my other work has been.  I saved it and, I thought, uploaded it to my dropbox.

Only I didn’t.  And the next day, when I was looking for it to flesh it out a bit, I couldn’t find it, which was not only disappointing, but rather frustrating.  It’s not often I write something (even something that simple) and think “that works”.  Moreover, because I’d written it down and saved it, I’d stopped thinking about it and I wasn’t at all sure that anything else that I wrote would be as clear, or as good.

As I only teach there once a fortnight (it is a blended learning course, and the other week is an online session) and I live an hour away, I rang the university centre at Holy Cross, where one of the lovely staff undertook to get in touch with the IT technicians to see if they could find it on the server.  She phoned back later that morning to say that the IT people had said that if I supplied them with some information about the file, they might be able to find it but they couldn’t make any promises.  I sent them the information that they asked for and half an hour later, they sent me back my file.  So I want to send a huge thank you to the folks who saved my skin.  And point out to my students that none of us are infallible. Getting the file back meant I could start on my next project properly and within a few hours of starting over, I had decided that maybe there might be enough there to generate a journal article.

As I write, it’s about 6 weeks since my book came out and the Easter vacation, which is the first time I’ve had chance to sit down and think about doing some research since the beginning of the year.  Actually, it must be longer than that, given that I spent Christmas proofreading the book…  Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve had to do some research for a Long Time.

It’s a slightly scary experience.  Where should I start?  Most of my research time has been tied up in the big Singing the News project for so long it that feels like forever. Even the little project I had been working on alongside the book, on the Pilgrimage of Grace, has run its course.  It’s time to start something new.  I have lots of little ideas of things I’d like to do, and some of them involve writing grant proposals (and finding places to apply for those grants).  There’s a short project on epitaph ballads I’d like to do, leading to a journal article, and at some stage I’d like to revisit the Cromwell ballads and create an annotated, freely-available online  version.  I have a couple of big ideas that would need Proper Funding too – one of which is the project that I started out with on the Marian Martyrs, another is on mapping ballads and libels with a colleague at Lancaster.

I could easily have slipped into the mire of wondering where to start, had a conference proposal not come along and saved me from that fate, sending me off in another direction altogether – mid-sixteenth-century music printing!