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.