Historical research


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This afternoon I had my mock viva, which was an interesting experience. It was reassuring, in that I survived and there was only one question that I felt I completely flunked. That said, there were several others that brought home to me the need to be certain of my own position, which of course is only possible if you’re completely in command of your material and of what others have said about it.

So I’ve come home armed with two bag-loads of books and a lot on my mind – which is not to say that it’s all bad. The first job when I got in was to have a brew (this thesis was definitely fuelled by tea and chocolate, in a way that perhaps Huw and Tony Williams would have appreciated), the second to have a chat with my Fiend to take my mind off things and the third, to write my ‘to do’ list. You can see it above. I have another Fiend (yes, I manage to have more than one Fiend despite the fact that I spend a lot of time in the company of dead people and their preoccupation with death) who is the Queen of Lists. She would approve, I’m sure. That was once the wall on which my huge list of 16th century ballads used to hang. Now it holds all the things I need to do in the next ten days. I think I’ve got my work cut out. I have to admit that they aren’t all viva-related – there’s a section on research proposals, on articles and on the lecture I’m preparing for A level students on Henry VIII’s break with Rome, as well as for the Bolton Historical Association work that I need to get on with and for family matters. Happily, the conference proposal for Reading is nearly ready and the one for Voices and Books has gone (thanks, Una!).  But I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me occupied. Which is good.

New Year’s Day, and I am back at my desk for the first time in several months, mainly in a late attempt to put together a panel for the Reading Early Modern Studies conference in July, for which the call for papers closes very soon.  It’s galvanised me into thinking properly about ballads again for the first time in several months.  I’m also thinking about an abstract for the Voices and Books Research Network conference in the summer.

It feels good to be back here.   So I have decided to share my new year’s resolutions. I don’t usually make them, but as I have ‘time on my hands’ (do I really?) I’ve decided that this year I’m going to make a real effort to learn to play the piano and I’m going to crack the Spanish once and for all. I have two books for the piano that will help if I make myself do it. As for the Spanish, I don’t know quite how I’ll go about it, though I think Juanes, Penguin parallel texts and Spanish news media might play a heavy role…

More immediately and more ‘smart’ in terms of their outcomes, here are my 2015 spring goals:
1. Gain the title of doctor.  My viva is at the end of the month.  More than that you’re not going to find out until afterwards!
2. Revise the articles on John Roberts and the Lady Marques ballad.
3. Put together a post-doc application.

 

 

By Maitre des Heures de Françoise de Dinan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Maitre des Heures de Françoise de Dinan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“And what are your conclusions so far?”
I was asked that a couple of weeks ago, and I was slightly taken off guard. It was because I couldn’t immediately come up with an answer that I decided I needed to take stock! I am convinced that the ballad music has more links with the church and art music than has been brought out in the past, so that’s one of them.  Another is that, generally, we underestimate their value as evidence and as documents that were intended for performance within an oral culture.

However, if I’m honest, my main conclusion so far has to be that people in the early modern period were absolutely obsessed with death.  I suppose it’s not all that surprising.  Peter Marshall and Bruce Gordon reminded us that ‘relative to our own society, throughout their lives people [in early modern Europe] typically experienced the deaths of far greater numbers of children, kin or acquaintance’ and that ‘the dead were a significant social ‘presence’’.¹  One particularly morbid theme will be familiar to fans of Schubert string quartets and folk musicians alike:  the danse macabre.  There are several ballads which provide variations on the story, one of which can be found in manuscript in the British Library:

O death, behold ; I am but younge
and of a pleasaunt age :
Take thou some old and croked wight,
and spare me in thy rage.²

There are an awful lot more songs that refer to death as a social leveller.  When you broaden out the search to look for the references to God and death, there are hundreds.  Then, of course, there are ballads about the metaphorical death of doomed love affairs:

Show loue therfore for loue againe.
Or els for loue I dye.³

All in all, it can make sixteenth century ballads a gloomy set of sources to work with!  Not so bad when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, but not so great when the skies are grey and the rain pours down.  And yet I still enjoy them.

 

 

 

¹Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, The Place of the Dead in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.2.

² British Library Sloane MS 1896, ff. 6v-8.

³M. Osborne, A newe ballade of a louer/ extolling his ladye. To the tune of Damon and Pithias, (London: 1568).

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This week is the first week of my children’s Easter holiday, so I am juggling childcare with work. Cramming little bits of work into wherever it will fit isn’t easy and it certainly doesn’t allow for extended research or writing, for example. But there are little things that I can do. I went through a conference paper in the bath this afternoon, without the paper notes I will use on Friday. At least now I know exactly where I need to rely on my notes more heavily and where I can afford to abandon them altogether! On Sunday afternoon I recorded a few more ballads. I’m considering an introduction and conclusion to a short piece I’m writing on the historiography of ballads and the news. In the end it will be part of my chapter on ballads as a form of news media. There is a significant majority of historians who agree that ballads could provide news as well as entertainment before the development of newspapers, but little detail on what actually constituted ‘news’ in the sixteenth century. That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer myself in the last few weeks, but one interesting theory came from a rather unexpected source. Discussing the issue of what makes something ‘news’ with my two elder children during a car journey over the weekend (and they raised it, not me!), my elder son pointed out that news DID include opinion or editorial commentary, because if we were all clones, we wouldn’t need any news because we would all think the same way about everything. Only if we were all clones who thought the same way, could news be objective. Profound, I thought, especially coming from a primary school pupil.

Last week I tried to cram in as much writing as I could because I knew I would have less time for it in the next few weeks, but the pattern was broken by a trip into Manchester to record a short video interview about my PhD for the department website. When one of my colleagues had asked me a few questions about my work, I then got to ask the questions of another friend. I found that considerably more difficult. I can talk endlessly about my work, but semi-improvised questioning was really hard.

On Friday, I go to my first music conference: Music, Circulation and the Public Sphere. It’s perfect for my research and it will be interesting, if rather nerve-wracking to talk to an audience of musicians rather than historians. I’m very much looking forward to it, as I’m hoping that I’ll get some feedback to help me answer some of the questions I raised in a previous post on Musical Musings. I’m going to talk about ballads and news, how they provoked debate among their audience, before raising some questions about the development of popular and sacred music in the Renaissance period.

cranachI’ve spent a lot of time in the company of Luther in the last few days, courtesy of Professor Lyndal Roper and Manchester’s Dr Jenny Spinks.  Prof Roper’s seminar on Thursday evening described Luther’s polemical writing as an expression of his masculinity, but surprised many of the audience with his scatology and lewdness.  On Friday morning I was lucky enough to take part in a workshop with Jenny and Prof Roper about the Wagon engraving by Karlstadt and Cranach.   The format on Friday morning was rather different, with us all sharing our ideas round a table as well as listening to the experts speak.  I know a lot more about Luther now than I did 48 hours ago.

I started writing my final chapter on Wednesday.  It is quite heavily planned, which is unusual for me and not really the way I normally work.  Of course, there are a couple of sections that I’ve already written that I will incorporate in due course but I’m enjoying writing again.  It has reaassured me that the problems I had with my commonwealth chapter were exactly that:  problems with a chapter rather than problems with writing in general.    I have opened the chapter with an extract from a letter I found on one of my archive visits last summer and its very nice to be able to use a different sort of manuscript evidence from the ballads themselves.  There is some wonderful evidence from the state papers to include later.  I’m fascinated by the way the final chapter on news draws together so much of what has gone before – the music, words and context.

I have finally sent off my commonwealth chapter to my panel, ahead of my meeting with them next week.  I’m in a slightly different position to normal in that I was able to send it with a message telling them where I wanted help and where I hoped to expand it when I come to re-write it in the summer.  I identified two sections where the writing was flabby and repetitive, where some serious editing will be needed, but on the whole, I think it has something to say, at last.  That something is about radical ballads and the activities of ballad collectors, which isn’t how I expected the chapter to turn out when I started work on it last September.  It has been the hardest chapter I’ve had to write by far.  I’m glad that it turned out to be about the manuscript collections of ballads, because compared to the broadside ballads they’ve had much less attention.  I think that they are interesting in their own right, because someone chose to collect them and made the effort to write them down.

The rest of the week has been split between secondary reading for my final chapter on ballads and the news; cataloguing and analysing more ballads; and preparing my paper for the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library next week.  The paper should be fun because for once, I actually get to sing!  On Sunday last week I recorded a couple of the ballads I’ve been working on recently, one of which took three and a half minutes and the other was more than twelve!   I’m going to keep recording them as I work on them from now on, with the aim of having them all recorded by July.

Next week is half term, so I expect to have some days out if the weather permits, instead of working all week.

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