Back in June, I was invited to lead the final session of Lancaster University’s Premodern Reading Group (Twitter @lancasterpremod) in a celebration of my first book, Singing the News.  We had a fantastic poster: PremodernRG_22ndJune18. We had grapes.  We even had cake (although the mind boggles over what the university English Department kitchen is doing with a cleaver like that…!  Still, we put it to good use.)

davI described how my book was conceived with two main, interconnecting aims. The first was to address the disconnect between ballads as texts and ballads as songs, since I
firmly believe that ballads are songs, intended to be sung and heard. Hence the 3 hours of recordings that accompany the bookThe second was to show that in the sixteenth century, ballads could play a significant role in the transmission of news.

A characteristic of news ballads, central to my research, was their fluid mobility between different media, including verbal, visual, and written means of communication. These songs were part of a complex media system which was dominated by a high level of intermediality. The circulation of news through ballads and printed songs, simultaneously oral and written media, often employing music and images, epitomize this dynamic process. These songs had an inherent sociability, as they were learned by ear and passed from one person to another.  This allowed the discussion of news, especially potentially seditious news, in a time when there were significant limitations on free speech.

Next, I talked about one of the case studies in the book.  I chose to look at the series of ballads which were written about the fall of Henry VIII’s chief minister and architect of the English Reformation, Thomas Cromwell. These ballads debated matters at the heart of Henry’s religious policy. What did it mean to be a Protestant or a papist? What were acceptable beliefs for an Englishman to hold? These were confused matters, because although the Pope no longer had authority over the English church, that church was not actually Protestant. It could be difficult to know what you were supposed to believe. This was precisely the sort of discussion that Henry’s regime sought to curb, especially as it fell against a background of increased religious anxiety. The Cromwell flyting was published at a time when the regime felt vulnerable. Henry’s marital and dynastic difficulties, coupled with his moves to change the country’s religion, caused embarrassing public displays of criticism.

After discussing some of the issues in the flyting, we sang the first of the Cromwell ballads, Troll on Away, with me taking the verses and the rest of the group joining in on the chorus.  So it was less of a reading group than a scratch choir!  But it was, as always, great fun and very thought provoking.

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