April 2019


This is the fourth in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

Our British ballad lightning presentations took us up to lunch, which again we had in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre. I was fascinated to see two eras of printing juxtaposed in the room, with a modern computer printer visible behind the old printing press!

The afternoon was dominated by another set of lightning presentations from scholars working on European news ballads, chaired by Siv. The first paper was given by Alison Sinclair – ‘What is news if you are in Spain?’  She started by asking if Spain might be different because of the population distribution being affected by geographical features such as mountain ranges.  Her sources are the Spanish chapbooks collection, the Mapping Pliegos project, and Iberian Books.  ‘What is news?’ sets up a dichotomy between the passing versus the enduring. Alison argued that if it’s a good story it will carry on.  What counts as a good story is different in different places and at different times.  She wondered how far the ballad is a special form of red herring, questioning whether something in verse is already culturally constructed and the ballad is therefore another stage.

Regarding ballads’ claims to tell the truth, she pointed out that some cultures make a linguistic distinction between what we know because we saw it, and what we know about because we’ve heard about it.  In fact, the themes and functions of ballads might be a difficult area to study.  After all, she noted that we can’t assume that everyone had a particular reaction to didactic material. 

Next up was Jeroen Salman, who organised the EDPOP conference that I attended in Utrecht last summer. Jeroen talked about ‘News Ballads and Street Sellers in the Low Countries (1500-1700)’. He described himself as more of an expert on the infrastructure around the dissemination of popular print than on the ballad itself.  His priority is to try to recover the people who were involved in the dissemination of cheap material, not least because oral culture influences political culture.  He argued that the ballads should be seen in the context of other material.

The Low Countries were rather different in the period because of the reformation context. The Dutch Republic saw better literacy and transport so the book trade spread out across country.  There were still lots of pedlars and street sellers even after the widening of the book trade.  In the Low Countries, these people can be divided into four sorts: the occasional pedlar, who only sold items seasonally or in times of need; pedlars of printed matter and other goods; pedlars of printed matter exclusively; and the specialist pedlar who sold only songs. It seems that there were no singers that didn’t sell?

There is a turning point in Low Countries in 1550 at beginning of the Dutch revolt.    Now ballad sellers considered seditious and considered to be selling seditious material. Instead, books of beggar songs incorporated former single sheet songs. Nevertheless, some ballad singers became famous as well-known local entertainers. 

Una McIlvenna then gave a short presentation on Italian ballads.  Her biggest headache is that nothing is digitised. Italian ballads have no tune indication but there are only 3 metrical forms:

  • Terza rima: 1st person accounts in the voice of noble person who is repentant for their crime
  • Ottava rima: provide a linear chronology of events that happened – eg songs about battles
  • Barzoletta: fun, satirical songs with a chorus (the world means jest or joke).

This means that there is a repertoire of tunes that you can sing to each metrical structure. 

David Hopkin spoke next, on ‘Broadside Ballads in Nineteenth-Century France: Accounting for an Absence’.  He argued that folksongs are important because they show what is taken into common memory, and there are few if any folksongs that would have been topical songs when they were written. When French folksong collectors they tried to collect them, there were few historical ballads in the canon and the historical memory in song had vanished.  There are, however, printed ballads.  In these, crime becomes the dominant theme because it’s less political.  They have a very prominent black and white picture.

But although these things are printed, they have no impact on the oral repertoire. David wanted to think about why this might be:

  1. More than half the murder ballads are to the same tune.
  2. Canards (ballads) in France are in competition with popular imagery, which is a much more popular form of cheap print because they are in colour, not black and white like the images on the ballads.  They also have a song, but the visual element is more important and the song isn’t part of how they are sold.  They are more complicated to make because they require stencils for the colouring, but they have huge print runs.  The people who make the prints come from a different background in playing card manufacture rather than moveable print.
  3. Lyricization – there are elements of the historical ballads in the tradition, but people have cut out the historical reference in the songs to leave just the timeless story – eg the boy talking to the girl. This process happens very quickly, and the folklorist doesn’t always pick this up as being the same song as the historical ballad.

The next panellist was the first doctoral student to work on the Norwegian skilling ballads, Anne Sigrid Refsum. She reminded us that Norway was a province of Denmark for 400 years until its push for independence resulted in 6 months of independence before a further union with Sweden.  The subject of her presentation was ‘Ole Høiland – a Sung Hero of the Norwegian Lower Classes’. Born to poor parents in 1797, he was notorious criminal with a Robin Hood-like reputation (although that analogy was invoked to help we Brits understand, rather than being a contemporary Norwegian one!).  As he escaped from prison several times, he became a symbol of the Norwegian push for liberty. 

Høiland was the subject of a long list of songs.  These ballads were not moralising, but instead used his exploits as a way to debate liberty and independence between Norway and Sweden. Høiland’s only critic is a colleague (and competitor), the second-most famous criminal of the time.

Anne Sigrid asked whether we can consider the songs to be the voice of the people?  They seem to have been written for them.  The printer, Hansen, sold the songs from his home in the poor area of town, suggesting that he was writing for and selling to his neighbours.  Even if they were not the authentic voice of the people, ballads about these criminals were part of a political discourse which reached the lowest levels of society.

The final paper in this set was presented by Karin Strand: ‘On Swedish Execution Ballads’. Karin is working on infanticide, comparing the execution ballads to the verifiable details of the crimes in order to shed light on women’s history.  She described how the newsworthiness (or perhaps balladworthiness) of these songs was not the crime itself but the punishment –the beheading of the condemned woman.  Interestingly, the Norwegian ballads are in the future tense, implying that the execution hadn’t yet happened.  The songs are headlined with the name of the criminal, as well as the date and place of execution.  But in the ballad text itself we have the first person lyrical confession of the woman and the story of their journey to salvation (it was, after all, never too late for forgiveness).  By the early 19th century, after the establishment of news media and mass production, we see the genre develop into a combination of prose texts and songs.  The ballads provide an emotional, subjective exposition of the event.

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This is the third in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

After coffee (or in my case, tea) and pastries (yum!) in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre at the Weston Library, we were treated to a viewing of some of the Bodleian’s collection of ballads in the Horton Room. It is always lovely to get a close up look at the ballads, especially the ones in different formats, because most of the time, I work on the digital facsimiles on EEBO or EBBA.

One of the ballads included this fascinating image of a printer shop! Siv had pulled out a 16th-century ballad especially for me, and I was thrilled to discover that it was a piece by William Elderton that I had been writing about only a few days before attending the workshop, as it is one of the broadsides that I included in my EDPOP paper (I am currently putting the finishing touches to the publication version).

Next, it was time for a series of lightning presentations of 8-10 minutes on British ballads, charied by Giles Bergel. First to speak was Angela McShane. She talked about ‘A Ballad: News and No News’. The title of the paper comes from the poem in Pills to Purge Melancholy, which satirises the idea of news.  Angela reiterated her belief that ballads don’t tell the news – you need to already know the news to understand them.   She pointed out that the historiography sets the ballad against newspapers in competition.  She argued that we need to get rid of the competition, because it’s not about one being replaced by the other.  Acknowledging the seventeenth-century distinction between type faces, she claimed that campaigning ballads are in white letter, whereas the rest appear in black letter. Although there is drop in numbers once the periodical press appears, this is of white letter ballads, and they reappear, so the drop is not sustained.   She pointed out the peaks in printing the whole range of publications and the ballad publications specifically are in the same place.

Anglea asked why we talk about ballads and their newsworthiness rather than news which is ballad-worthy?  She suggested that we need to think about the interaction between ballads and pamphlets, as some printers produces both.   They do something different.  Interestingly, this is something else which has cropped up in the article version of my EDPOP paper, and it’s something I was already planning to develop over the summer by using corpus linguistics.  There will be more on that in another post, I think!

Anyway, Angela argued that the function of a ballad is crucial to understanding it.  The two areas most commonly identified as ballad topics are the military song and the execution ballad. These are the topics that have led to the perceived ‘competition’ between ballads and newspapers.  She suggested that ballads were reissued for their emotive use; for example, ‘The Honour of Bristol’ was reissued every time there was a recruiting campaign.  Again, the point was made that protest songs demonstrate the fraught relationship between producer and market; Angela argued that one of the key things about political songs is that they lead to something, either inspiring action or creating public debate.

Oskar Cox Jensen’s short paper ‘The Blooming Beauty of Surrey’ aimed to set nineteenth-century broadside ballads in the context of the previous 300 years.  Many of these are about neighbourhood and the community, often making them local songs.  He suggested that these ballads are either anachronistic or what we understand about 1865 London is wrong. 

The ballad singer he studied was arrested for his part in the nine-hour-wonder of the marriage of Alice Cross. At the age of 20, this sole heir to her family’s fortunes eloped with George Smith.  As they were not able to get married, Smith charged with abduction.  Then the girl’s father allowed the marriage, and the couple were surrounded by sympathetic crowds when they got married.  The authorities had trouble preventing a riot.  The ballad singer was drunk, singing a ballad and surrounded by a crowd. His singing caused a complete obstruction of the street. Oskar argued that the authorities’ reaction not only illustrated contemporary fears that the ballad singer was capable of creating a disturbance, but also fears about the vagrant singer as masterless and mobile.  

The third paper in the series was mine, and I chose to bring to the table a summary of my recent and current work, since in doing so I would address many of the questions that Siv had circulated before the workshop as starting points for our papers and discussions. It also meant that people would know my general areas of interest in case there was any potential for fruitful comparison or cooperation. First, I talked about my book, Singing the News, and its aim to treat the news ballad as part of the ballad genre in mid-Tudor England:

  • It focusses on ballads as song as far as it is possible to do so
  • Looked at the music and process of contrafactum (re-use of tunes)
  • Many of the songs style themselves as news and make claims about truth
  • Some have more information than others, but then so do modern newspapers!
  • There were fewer topical songs in the manuscript collections than print
  • They rely on oral transmission, especially of the tunes, therefore their social context is one of the keys to understanding them. 
  • We know that people talked about the issues raised by the songs they sang and heard

Then I mentioned the comparative work with Massimo Rospocher for EDPOP, looking at the similarities and differences between Italian and English news ballads:

  • Italian ballads were not printed on broadsides but in pamphlets, and their heyday is the earlier sixteenth century
  • There are more surviving tunes from English repertoire
  • Italian ballads contain much more foreign news, which I suspect (although I haven’t really tested this theory yet) is due to the different nature of English foreign policy – it was much less active than Italian foreign policy in the relative periods for which we have more topical ballads (so the beginning of the sixteenth century in Italy compared with the end of the sixteenth century in England)
  • There was quite a bit of overlap between pamphlet and ballad news and some degree of textual overlap. I even found one early Stuart ballad which points out that you can get more information from a pamphlet. In the immediate future, I am going to look in more detail at what is covered by topical ballads in the late sixteenth-century and investigate their relationship with pamphlets in some depth.
  • We also looked at the idea of sensationalism, as understood by Joy Wiltenburg, who wrote that ‘sensationalist text uses emotional resonance to draw its audience, assuming a given emotional response’ in order to shape ‘shared values and individual identity’.[1] 

I described how my next major project will be on Ballads, Thomas Cromwell and the Pilgrimage of Grace, so not directly on ‘news’ ballads but on the role of songs in bringing people together, the problem of noise and disorder, the process of ballad transmission, and their potential for sedition.

Joad Raymond’s lightning presentation argued that ballads are not primarily a news form.  They tell a story. This is not to say that ballads aren’t published in response to significant events, but that they are about packaging the story in an interesting way.  News isn’t about forms or truth, but instead works by bundling different things together.  People get their news for more than one source and they expect to do so.  He suggested that ballads need to be supplemented by social performance as I had pointed out, and that they provide the occasion for people to get the context. 

Joad pointed out that historians have gravitated towards text, but we need to think about the ways music changes things.  The nature of creativity means that performance changes the messages and makes them more didactic, adding layers of meaning and an emotional perspective.  By positioning them as news we miss the point that the text serves as an occasion for music. He suggested that we would be better served by thinking of them as a set of materials for making a performance.

Matthew O. Grenby’s presentation was on the 18th century election ballads from Newcastle Upon Tyne between 1774-80.  Elections like these throw up a welter of cultural articles, including ceramics, as well as an upsurge in print. There were lots of election ballads. Some were printed, but others were manuscript ballads which were collected at the time. A printed compendium was made because people didn’t want them to disappear.  Election ballads were often unillustrated. Their tunes were named, and these melodies included traditional, high cultural and original ones. Particular tunes were associated with one side or another

These songs don’t claim to have been written on behalf of the candidates but instead employ a dispassionate tone (despite being on one side or another.)  Matthew argued that they required quite a high degree of political literacy, which points to many more people being politically literate than actually have a vote.  They are markedly literary, having footnotes to explain dialect etc.  Matthew claimed that they were too complicated to be understood if you heard it once or twice therefore they were written to be read at leisure.  Furthermore, they were not on the market but were targeted at clearly defined groups.

It was fascinating to hear him say that these songs could be an immediate intervention in what was going on because they have no life beyond the day they were written.  Their aim to drive the vote out, as every day the newspapers and poll books recorded how many people had voted for each of the candidates. He therefore plans to look at whether any of the ballads can be shown to have affected the course of voting

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[1] Joy Wiltenburg, ‘True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism’, American Historical Review, 109:5 (2004), pp. 1379-80.

This is the second in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

After Una McIlvenna’s fascinating keynote on the similarities and differences between news ballads across Europe, there were some interesting discussions. It was suggested that there was, in fact, some evidence that nineteenth-century Norwegian ballads were not sung, as they contain no indication of their tunes, and another contributor suggested that we cannot assume that every ballad was sung. Una, however, countered this with the point that no tune indication does not necessarily mean an absence of tune, just that there was no particular need to label it. Siv pointed out that there are some skilling ballads with choruses, and it is hard to see why they woud have a chorus if it were not to encourage audience participation. We considered whether it might be safer to talk about a continuum of performance, which would allow for people to learn tunes from each other, to make up tunes where they wanted or needed to, to chant rather than sing melodically, or even to read the verses aloud rather than sing them.

David Atkinson and Steve Roud

David Atkinson and Steve Roud then talked about their forthcoming book on cheap European Street literature.  This material was very wide spread.  The British model does not work right across Europe, so they are hoping to produce a second volume to explore this further. There are themes that emerge: for example, they deliberately called the material cheap print, because the term ‘street literature’ is not applicable everywhere if there isn’t a street!  The book is not about ballads as such, but most contributors chose to include them at least in passing. Likewise, it is not all about news.

In Britain we are lucky to have EBBA and Bodleian Ballads Online, as our material is cataloged and indexed much faster.  This probably accounts for the explosion of interest in ballads in Anglophone scholarship.  However, we can’t look at news ballads across Europe until we have established what we are working with in more general terms. The advent of cheap printing was at different times in different places, while the formats are different across Europe.  Even chapbooks are not the same everywhere.  Steve and David pointed out that we can tell things simply from the layout, such as whether the words or picture are more important: depending on their relative size, printers can choose to accent illustration or text. They questioned whether this might tell us what people want, or whether it says more about what they are being told.  Each country has its own chronology, not least over at what point they developed cheap print in their own language (vernacular).  We  should look at whether vernacular cheap print appeared early on, or later when printing techniques had developed, as the social movements and technology changed over time. If you were part of an empire, your cheap print might not have been printed in your own language, and this has important implications for the control of the medium.

They raised the important point that there are always worries about who was talking to the people, and what was not mediated by the elite.  Across Europe, there were attempts to assert control by licensing the printers or the distributors (publishers) or the pedlars. Although the elites tried to do it everywhere, they had mixed success. In England, their attempts were not terribly successful but some places they really did stop people producing anything other than officially-sanctioned material.

If it was not in the local language because the locality was part of an empire, cheap print was more closely controlled. Some countries seem not to have had their own cheap print, which might help to explain why pictures are more important in some areas than others.

Not all the news in cheap print, however, was true.  Steve commented that as a folklorist, he was annoyed that ‘fake news’ has been stolen by Trump.  It was the stock in trade of folklorists to recognise it in the way that people approached the news.  A lot of what we knew and thought we knew was influenced by myths and legends, and historians hadn’t cottoned on.  Folklorists recognise stories (often known as ‘tall tales’) that are common throughout history, but historians don’t always recognise them for what they are.  We know that tall tales sometimes have an effect just like news. People act on them so presumably they believed them. Some of the 19th century street ballads that David and Steve had studied were spot on and give you the facts of the matter; others don ‘t. But the problem is that you can’t always tell the difference just by looking at them. Their example was taken from the evidence given by a contributor to the EFDSS Broadside Day on ballads about the opening of new railway lines.  Often these songs are absolutely right, but others are a complete fiction, and in some cases the same song is reprinted multiple times, just changing the station name!  Unfortunately, we can’t normally tell what the people believed and what they didn’t. We tend not to know whether the individuals who bought these songs were treating them as news or entertainment.

David gave an account of a ballad in chapbook which is printed with prose account of the same story, but as far as we know this Whittam ballad is entirely fictitious.  He noted that the similarity of some stories is also striking. The balladeers seem to have been using the news ballad as a format for  folk stories and urban myths.  ‘The Berkshire Tragedy’, for example, was reprinted many times but was probably not true.    

Finally, they reiterated the comment that by the 19th century there are plenty of newspapers but ballads seem to be doing something different.

This is the first in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

Alexandra Franklin opened the proceedings with a few words of welcome and a quick overview of the cataloguing of the illustrations of the Bodleian broadside ballads.  Next, our host and organiser Siv Gøril Brandtzæg explained that she had attempted to bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars for the workshop, with specialists from history, digital humanities, folklore and many more subjects.  Between us, we would be able to share knowledge of 7 different countries’ ballads.  The workshop was funded by Siv’s project: the Norwegian Skilling Ballads 1550-1950. These songs are under-researched, and the project intends to digitise 2000 of them and create an open access database inspired by EBBA and Bodleian Ballads Online.  She described how the terminology had been created, with ‘skilling print’ referring to the print item – an octavo sheet folded twice to make a leaflet of usually 8 pages printed on both sides – while the ‘skilling ballad’ is the song. 

There are many possible elements to study, not least because these songs circulate in the oral and print traditions.  She chose news ballads because they are very prominent in Scandinavia, where the most common subject is shipwrecks.  She noted that the songs seem to be very accurate.  The definition she has used to identify a news ballad is ‘a ballad which reports and comments upon a current event by providing the time and place as well as details of the event in the title page and/or in the text itself’.  The songs have a capacity to stir emotion and entertain, but they might have had a role in offering the first report of things, if only because the first newspaper in Norway wasn’t printed until 1763.  Nevertheless, even after the coming of newspapers, the skilling ballads convey news that is not present in newspapers circulating in the same period or provide a different take on those stories.

Siv then suggested that it may make sense to look at ballads across national boundaries which deal with the same event or the same kinds of event.  Comparing ballads on the same event is most complicated, in part because some countries have not digitised their catalogues or their ballads, and also because of the language barriers.  The ephemerality of these cheap prints is also a significant problem.  She pointed out that recent research has shown that lies spread faster than truth, but it might well be true in the past too.  She raised the issue of the miraculous fish story, which seems to have originated in Italy but can be found across Europe.  Rather than singling out a particular story to track across national boundaries, it might be easier to compare themes which crop up in many countries, such as great fires, monstrous births or the so-called ‘goodnight ballads’ which were supposedly written by condemned criminals the night before their execution. By breaking down the ballads into subject matter, we might see similarities that way.  She suggested that we are more likely to see what unites our songs if we look beyond national borders and embark on a European Grand Tour.

at the workshop dinner

The keynote paper was given by Una McIlvenna on ‘Ballads as news media in Europe’.  Taking as her starting point a list of questions which Siv had circulated a few weeks before the workshop, she offered an exploration of English, French, German, Italian and Dutch ballads, noting that she had found her comparative work really helpful.  She highlighted her execution ballad database, which is both multi-lingual and long durée (and still under construction so still contains some mistakes). The defining characteristics of a ‘ballad’ which allow it to be included are that it is in  verse form and that it purports to be about something that actually happened. She commented that she was not too fussy about what was included, and that she included songs that comment on what’s happening.

More broadly, she mused on what a ‘news ballad’ might be. Often, they are defined in comparison to what they aren’t – for example they are not love songs!  But ‘topicality’ also raises problems, as ballads on newsworthy events are sometimes published long afterwards.  She gave as an example two ballads on Great Fire of London – the first was written soon after, but although the second was very similar to the first, it was written at least 8 years later.  Does the later one count as news or is it nostalgia?

She identified two significant problems with our current study of ballads: the study of single countries, and problems of periodisation.  News ballads begin long before newspapers, and continue after, and although there is variation the continuities are more striking.

Anglophone scholarship dominates the study of balladry because there are more scholars working on English popular song. Una commented, however, on the false dichotomy between traditional ballads and broadsides, especially in English scholarship.  Meanwhile, Italian scholars of song continue to concentrate on elite musical culture (mainly madrigals), while popular culture is studied by people you can count on one hand.  In other countries, there is often only one person in in each country working on the songs.  This results in a lack of overview.   We also lack a common terminology to describe popular songs.  She described how when searching catalogues and databases she looks for the phrase ‘to the tune of’ in each language to get round the differences.

Una’s experience of ballads from different countries suggests to her that there is no separation of news, sensationalism, moralising and entertainment. A contemporary noted that ‘For a penny you may have all the news in England of murders, fires, witches, floods, tempests and what not in one of Martin Parker’s ballads’.   Objective news only existed in the mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth, and for the rest of the time sensationalism is the big seller. Miracles might drop off the agenda, but there’s still Christian moralising.

Una also commented that although the absence of musical notation is often seen as a characteristic of the popular ballad, this was not true of everywhere – there is music on some of the French material. There are songs set to the tune of psalms, and setting execution ballad to psalm tunes in France is making a point because of the radicalism involved in singing psalms in the vernacular in Catholic countries. In France there was much more control over what was sung. Cardinal Mazarin collected all the songs attacking him, and the songs in this style became known as Mazarinades.  Publishing these works was an incredibly brave move on the part of the writers and printers. Meanwhile in England, the seventeenth-century songs are much less conservative. 

Ballads use news lexicon in order to make claims for novelty and truth. This is true at least until the 19th century. Perhaps by then ballads are doing something different because now there are many newspapers [and, I thought, surely there was a more widespread ability to read too].   Una raised the very interesting point that scholars often ask about the truthfulness and accuracy of ballads, and wondered why do we only ask this of songs?  Her evidence suggests that the closer to the locus of the event, the more likely the song is to retain accurate details of what happened.  

She also pointed out that there is endless evidence of news ballads being sung, especially that there is lots of evidence of audience participation.  Italian barzolette have choruses for the audience to join in.  Many other ballads do too.  There was also a commonly-expressed belief that if you aren’t in a song you’ll be forgotten. 

It is not, however, a tale only of similarities.  As my comparative work with Massimo Rospocher for the EDPOP conference in Utrecht showed, the formats of the ballads are different in different countries.  Una described how the English and Germans print broadside ballads, there are later English slip songs, the Germans print ballad chapbooks in quarto size, the Italians quarto pamphlets, the Dutch produce beggar pamphlets, while the French do everything. This raises questions about how ballad singers perform the different media.

Una’s paper was, therefore, wideranging and thought-provoking. We had had an excellent start to a very interesting day.

My contribution to the Historical Association’s Teaching the Tudors Continuing Professional Development day in York last month was to provide A History of the Reformation in 5 Ballads. This talk was newly developed, from my Singing the News work and my Tudor Voices talk, to concentrate on what ballads can tell us about the process of Reformation in England. As it was aimed at teachers and their students, I modernised the spelling and, in a few cases, the language, in order to make the songs accessible. I also edited most of the ballads heavily – as the whole songs sometimes take in excess of 20 minutes to sing, that is impractical in most modern situations! The verses that I chose were ones which highlighted interesting issues that might be useful at A level, GCSE or even Key Stage 3.

Once I had explained what a ballad was, and how to use them as evidence, I started with John Pickering’s Exhortation to the People of the North, to talk about the Pilgrimage of Grace. This ballad has four main themes:

  • the north-south divide
  • heresy (Protestantism)
  • evil counsellors around the king
  • unfair taxation
Thomas Cromwell

This song leads quite naturally into A New Ballad of Thomas Cromwell. This was the song that I taught to the teachers so that they could join in with the chorus (with thanks to Maheema Chanrai at head office for taking a bit of film!). The Cromwell ballads are great for discussing what is heresy and treason.

Next, I looked at Protestantism during the period of Mary I, with the devotional Some Men for Sudden Joy Do Weep and a vitriolic anti-Spanish piece which talks (briefly) about the burning of 13 Protestant martys at Stratford Le Bow in July 1556. The short reference in the song helps us to date the song more precisely, as John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records only one burning which included 13 people at the same time.

Finally, I talked about the way that the Reformation really took root under Elizabeth I, and we looked at some anti-Catholic ballads from the period of the Northern Rebellion (1569-70). This meant that I could finish the session with the rousing A Letter to Rome to Declare to the Pope John, Felton his Friend is Hanged in a Rope.

As a session, it seemed to go down very well indeed – there was an excellent response over lunch and on Twitter. I’m looking forward to giving the paper again for a non-teaching audience at the Historical Association Conference in Chester in May, and even more so, to reworking the paper so that, with the help of the Historical Association‘s Seondary Committee, we can put together a proper set of teaching materials including recordings. The karaoke Reformation in classrooms across the country… Wouldn’t that be something?!