The new academic year is approaching fast and things are changing. While I wait to hear what work I’ve got and where, I’ve been getting on with my own research. Several of my projects are almost at an end, so I need to work out which of my projects to dive into next. There are two biggies (the Pilgrimage of Grace book and the martyrs project) and two smaller ones. Realistically, I need to go for one of the smaller ones, both of which should produce a journal article.

The first is a project on the printed epitaphs which seem to have become fashionable from the 1560s onwards: Singing Epitaphs in Sixteenth-Century England

Memorialising the dead in a post-reformation age required imaginative solutions because purgatory and traditional Catholic practises such as masses for the dead were officially no more.  For the first time, epitaphs produced in praise of prominent members of post-reformation English society were printed on a single side of paper and made to look as if they were songs.  I suspect 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.  The ballad trade was like a magpie, happy to steal melodies from anywhere and barely aware of differences between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.  Psalm tunes would have been particularly fitting melodies for epitaph ballads because they were in vogue, they were devotional and because they gave further meaning to the text.  My research will unite the histories of music, print culture, and doctrinal change, by examining the performance practice of epitaph ballads Identifying tunes for these epitaphs will help bring them to life once again, showing that this crossover genre created a new way for Protestants to process grief.

I want to explore how epitaph ballads were voiced as part of the civic life of sixteenth-century England.  The project will investigate potential similarities between epitaph ballads and the accession day songs in praise of Elizabeth I which have already been studied by Katherine Butler.[1]  ‘Singing Epitaphs’ likewise combines history and musicology, but it also builds on research into the development of psalm singing.[2]  Moreover, ‘Singing Epitaphs’ will couple psalms with recent research on ballads which suggests that melody created meaning.[3] Identifying potential tunes would increase our knowledge of how these epitaphs were heard and understood, based on parallels between old and new texts.

I have already identified a group of printed broadside epitaphs from the Tudor period. The next step will be to compile a list of relevant references in contextual materials such as George Puttenham’s  Art of Poesy, Henry Machyn’s Diary and Holinshed’s Chronicles, in order to suggest when and how the epitaph ballads were performed. Then I will need to identify possible tunes for the epitaph ballads by identifying common metre, rhythm and stress patterns, as well as shared themes and textual similarities.  Further work will investigate whether individual psalm tunes were appropriate because the melody had a suitable emotional effect or was particularly fashionable at the time the epitaph was written.  


[1] Katherine Butler, ‘Creating Harmonious Subjects? Ballads, Psalms and Godly Songs for Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 140:2 (2015), pp. 273-312.

[2] For example Beth Quitslund’s The Reformation in Rhyme (Aldershot: 2008) and Timothy Duguid’s Metrical Psalmody in Print and Practice (Farnham: 2014).

[3] Chris Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: 2010).  

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