For the first time since I go tmy PhD, I know before the summer vacation that I’m going to be teaching next academic year. I’ve got 5 dissertations to supervise and the possibility of a module on a distance learning course, but the thing I’m really looking foward to is creating my own 3rd year special subject, ‘Fake News or Facts? Ballads and News Culture in Early Modern England’. It’s going to mean a lot of work, but I’m finally going to be able to teach a course on something I really love!

The course is designed to teach students about the different ways people found out about the news before newspapers were invented. Too often we assume that ordinary people in the early modern period knew little and cared less about the great debates of the day, yet contemporary records show that they could be surprisingly well-informed about local, national and international events. My new course will explore the exchange of news through oral and literate media, in a period when there was no regular and reliable access to information. 

My plan is that we will investigate the history of news culture from the explosion of print in the 16th century to the birth of the newspaper. Of course, because I’ve put it together, it will focus particularly on ballads! They are, after all one of the most contested forms of news, both historically and historiographically. But we will also address themes of literacy & orality, trust & reliability, and free speech & censorship. I’m going to include sources such as protest songs, news ballads, letters, sermons and pamphlets and the topics might well include things like witchcraft, crime, executions (Una McIlvenna, I’ll be looking at you!!!), gender and foreign affairs. I also want to include a bit about European news networks, and point students in the direction of some of the European ballad repositories. Examining the soundscapes of early modern England through performance, melody and memory, we will explore how, in Andrew Pettegree’s words, the early modern world ‘came to know about itself’.[1]


[1]  Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News. How the world came to know about itself (Yale University Press, 2014).