At the end of September I killed several birds with one stone by taking a short trip to London.  As well as attending a Historical Association committee meeting, I spent an afternoon in the British Library and an evening at the Royal Historical Society lecture given by Professor Christopher Marsh, ‘The woman to the plow and the man to the hen-roost’: Wives, husbands and best-selling ballads in seventeenth-century England.

2017-09-22 18.33.43

He  made a case for seeking the origins of pop music in the 1590s not 1950s.  This was the decade of Thomas Deloney, and of ‘Mother Watkins Ale’  – a song full of innuendo and sporting a jaunty melody.  Written in a man’s voice, it provoked moral outrage, and Marsh described it as a lascivious under-song.

He then described the broadside ballad format which was developing in this period of a title, one or two woodcuts, a border, and the lyrics in two columns of type.  They were commercially driven and mass produced.  He argued that we would know little about ballads if not for educated men like Selden and Pepys.

The main focus of the lecture was the ways in which relationships between men and women were portrayed by balladeers.  He described them as a good source for scholars who work on the field of marriage and bewailed the distorting tendency of historians who most often deploy them to show problems with marriage, especially problems with women.  Most often, scholars use them to show ‘relationships endangered from within’ – the cuckolded husband or the murderous wife.  He argued that many historians were guitly of cherry-picking and pull out the ones which provide the evidence for what they want to show.  Instead, we need more sophisticated approach than source mining. In fact, early modern ballads assumed that marriage was part of the context.  Many included married couples and this in itself gives us insights into popular tastes.

His case studies were based on his project to produce versions of the best-sellers of the 17th century based on a wide range of criteria including the number editions, evidence that publishers keen to assert copyright, spread of time, whether they generate new names for tunes, and whether they were long-lasting.  He acknowledged that the list would nto be definitive, but claimed that it means we can be confident that the songs were very popular. The project seeks to provide an integrated approach to texts, tunes, pictures and performances.

The lecture was based on the 25 of the top 120 ballads which relate to marriage.  He sought to investigate how husbands and wives were represented and how this affects our understanding of ballads or of gender relations.  What I found particularly interesting, having looked at this area myself, is that the 25 popular marriage-related ballads are not the ones that scholars have usually picked out. When I looked at gender relations in ballads while I was writing Chapter 4 of my book, I wasn’t particularly bowled over with them, if I’m honest.  I couldn’t find a great deal that was interesting to say; after all, there’s only so many times you can say ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love, someone objects, but they overcome the obstacles’ or ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl spurns boy’.  In the end, I left it out altogether.  What Chris Marsh managed to do, that I did not, was turn it into a fascinating angle in itself.   Because what it means is that historians haven’t picked out the most popular but rather the ones that are most useful to them.  The most popular marriage ballads don’t sit comfortably among the “marriage problems” trope.  The only unremittingly wicked wife is Eleanor – but her wickedness is related to the fact that she is Spanish, so she’s not indicative of English marriage.  In fact, she appears in her song as a contrast to the happily married mayor and his wife.


8 more ballads have wicked wives and harried husbands, but there are subtleties. For example, in one ballad by Thomas Deloney the wife murders the husband, but although she’s gone awry, she is presented sympathetically.  Other ballads featured female adulterers, but they wer not the blunt and brutal lascivious wives of scholarly stereotype.  The rest of the 25 presented happy marriages. Although they show an acute awareness of the dangers in marriage, these were threatened by external forces not dangers within the bounds of marriage itself.  Often, as I noted myself but couldn’t find an angle to hang it on) the problem is with the parents, and based on the different social status of the protagonists.

Marsh asked important questions about who formed the audience for this type of material and suggested that maybe the ballads contributed a different way to the gender debate.  We don’t know who bought the virtuous wife ballads and why, but perhaps it was about how to find fulfilment in patriarchy by making it their own.  We have little evidence for the audience of early modern ballads, but he thinks it was often female because the majority of the opening ‘come all ye’s were aimed at females.


The fascinating lecture was illustrated by musical examples sung live by Vivien Ellis, accompanied by Chris on fiddle.  It was followed by some really interesting questions about the performance practice of ballads, their continued popularity and the ways in which gender is portrayed in music.




Since my children returned to school the push has been on to complete the final stages of my book manuscript.  It’s due to go to the publisher at the end of September, so I’ve been doing all the tedious things that come with completion.  Things like making sure all the images that I am using were sorted out.  Unfortunately, I my application for a grant to pay for several broadside images was declined, so I’ve had to think very carefully about what I was going to use as illustrations.  I couldn’t afford to self-fund as many broadside images as I would have used if I’d been given a grant, because as well as the cost of paying for high quality digital images, there is the payment of permissions to consider.  So I’ve settled on two high quality images of broadsides from the British Library, one of which illustrates my first major case study about the production of broadside ballads and the other is the first English broadside ballad to appear with music. On the plus side, the fact that there won’t be so many bought-in images means that I can concentrate on scores. I’ve always wanted to include as many musical examples as possible, so I’ve been able to use those extra images to provide settings of several more ballads, including a couple of conjectural settings.  These show that some of the broadsides which look like ballads but don’t include a tune direction could easily have been sung.

There are other tedious things that I’ve been doing.  I’ve had to check that all the entries in the footnotes and bibliography are consistent; that spellings which aren’t uniform in the period are nevertheless uniform in the book text; that the spacing between paragraphs and quotations is correct; and even things as simple as renaminng image files with their figure numbers.

Then I reached a bit of a dead end.  I could continue to tinker with the text, because it’s there and it’s easy to do.  But I’m not convinced that it’s getting any better!  I can’t send it off to the publisher yet, because I’m waiting for a friend to read through the whole text and get back to me with any howlers, typos, repetition, ugly prose, confusing bits – all the sorts of things that when you’ve been working on the same text for several years, you can no longer see!  So I’ve put it to one side and I’m looking at a couple of other things, and there will be more on those later.

At the end of January, I happened to be down in London for a Historical Association committee meeting, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to the London Renaissance Seminar in order to hear Patricia Fumerton talk about ‘Moving Media, Tactical Publics – The British Broadside Ballad in Early Modern England’.

I was surprised, I must admit, to hear her talk about the  16th and 17th century broadsides in Manchester Central Library, one of which is marked by a seventeenth century handprint.  Professor Fumerton described how she attempted to gain a full appreciation of each ballad, including emotional responses.  She pointed out that although we cannot fully inhabit the lived experiences of people from hundreds of years ago, we can try to do it at one remove. In order to do so, we need a capacious theory or complement of theoretical components, such as assemblage theory, tactical media and plural publics.

Whereas EEBO gives only one image for all editions, EBBA gives the image for every edition.  Unsurprisingly, as founder and director of  EBBA, she argued strongly that studying digital rather than material ballads is fine, because the notion of whole in broadside ballads is already a fiction,  In fact, she suggested that EBBA’s collection helps us to experience ballads more like they would have in the early modern period because they allow us to experience many ballads together, they include recordings and we can see the images as well as words…  This is perhaps how the early modern person experienced ballads – hearing a snatch of a tune, catching a glimpse of another sheet’s words or images – then making associations with what they already –  knew of ballads.   They might ask themselves where they  had heard it before, or where they had seen that before?  To encounter one ballad in early modern England was to encounter many parts, and many were only experienced partially.   Soon, the EBBA database will include the ability to click on an image and it will bring up other links to all the ballads with that image.  EBBA uses  Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, so it takes what it calls an Item eg the ballad sheet, and then thinks of the things that make up its component parts and how they are related.  As it is modular, those parts can be plugged into another sheet – they are related but autonomous, therefore like the notion of assemblages.  She argued that because of this, ballads appealed to multiple publics.   Furthermore, like me, she argued that neither ballad performers nor audiences were passive recipients.  For example, performers could use hand gestures or movement to make a point, while tactical publics allowed consumers to subvert the authors’ intentions. If a ballad producer tried to over-manipulate the consumer, he actually empowered them.

Last Friday saw the publication of my first full length, peer-reviewed article, Verse Epitaphs and the Memorialisation of Women in Reformation England, commissioned by Liz Oakley-Brown when she was editor of the Renaissance section of Literature Compass.  I’m happy to say that it comes with its own teaching and learning guide, as well as supporting materials such as a ballad recording and a video abstract, although when I try to access the video abstract from the Literature Compass page, it takes me not to my abstract but to one by Jolyon Thomas.  Not that I’m not interested in the religious policy of modern Japan…  And frankly, I’d much rather watch someone other than me…

Anyway, it’s a nice way to start what promises to be an eventful week, because on Thursday I will be speaking at the Early Modern British History Seminar at Oxford University.  The title of my paper is ‘Text, Truth and Tonality in Mid-Tudor Ballads’. 

I’m also enjoying getting to know a bit more about twentieth century history, both for my tutoring of GCSE history pupils and my teaching at Holy Cross College for Liverpool Hope, although juggling all my different roles is proving interesting.

Next Page »