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).

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.

I was warned on Wednesday that my luck will have to run out eventually.  That may not sound too much like good news, but the converse is, of course, that,  in order to provoke the comment, things must be going relatively well at the moment.  Work on the commonwealth chapter continues, with some quite major revisions to the opening of the chapter and smaller changes to individual sentences.  It’s getting closer.  I still need to check a couple of references and make some alterations to one of the musical examples, but it’s certainly getting closer. (And about time too, I might add, considering that it’s taken the best part of six months!)

I spent almost all of yesterday just working on the footnotes, trying to get Endnote to play ball.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like Endnote.  I used to enjoy writing my footnotes by hand, but the way that Endnote does it for me is, usually, enormously labour saving.   But for some reason, yesterday, it got its knickers in an almightly twist and started putting in references to whatever manuscript it felt like.  It wasn’t a problem with the books, or the journal articles, or the webpages: just the manuscripts.  Since the chapter is  based around manuscript collections, it caused a bit of a problem.  I have no idea  what caused the glitch, but I ended up typing in the manuscript references  manually.

I’ve also started secondary reading for my concluding chapter on the news.   If anyone has any suggestions of things I should read on early modern news, I’d be very glad to hear of them.  The reading that I’ve done this week surprised me by giving me several ideas for  my first couple of chapters on ballad music.  In fact, I had to leap out of bed at 11 one night this week to write down an idea!  It’s the first time that that’s happened for a very long time, so I think I can safely say that the thesis is out of the doldrums and on the move again.

This afternoon I briefly revisited my chapter plan, taking into account some of the comments that my supervisors made when they looked at it last and writing an abstract for the commonwealth chapter now that it’s completed.  The rest of the afternoon I spent  transcribing documents in the State Papers.  For once, the handwriting is relatively easy to read.  Unfortunately, the digital scan of one page is so dark that it is illegible in places – I suppose a girl can’t have everything.

On Wednesday evening I went to the committee meeting for the Historical Association in Bolton.  A very productive meeting and plenty of things to work on in the coming months, not least of which is putting together the programme of lectures for next season.

I spent this week working in the British Library, looking at lots of old manuscripts and some printed music.  I’ve been looking for ballads in commonplace books and found some really interesting stuff.  Yesterday I looked at the two oldest known pieces of English sheet music, which was amazing.  Highlight of the week, though, had to be studying the Shirburn ballads, an early 17th century collection of ballads, some with music, which had been taken off display in the Ritblat gallery so that I could work on it.  Absolutely fascinating.

I’ve written before about how much I love the British Library building.  I just wish it were further north and there was a bit more natural light – I’ve hardly seen daylight all week.  I made some very useful discoveries while I was there and the  amount of resources that I was able to look at because I was there all week instead of just a couple of days really helped me to gain an understanding of the bigger picture.  I’m now able to see the manuscript miscellanies that concentrate on ballads within their wider cultural framework.  Having the time to look at so many different manuscripts helped me to develop my ideas.

Every evening I wrote myself a long email describing what I’d been working on and how it fitted into or helped to develop my ideas about early modern ballads.  As well as the excitement, there was a lot of frustration too.  I started to suffer manuscript envy when I looked round to see lots of people typing away on their laptops, transcribing manuscripts in beautiful, legible, italic hands while I struggled with minute, rushed, secretary hands.  But I’ve always loved the early modern period; it’s always seemed to me to have the right balance between too few resources and too many, so envy didn’t last long.  What was really noticeable, though, was how tiring it was.   It’s a special sort of concentrated effort, sometimes a bit like code-breaking, trying to read through all those manuscripts.  There’s no one to talk to and not enough tea breaks, especially for someone whose PhD is fuelled by tea.

You may remember that last week I was dreading going.  Well, as I suspected, I thoroughly enjoyed myself when I got there.  Now all I need to do is to weave all my findings into my research.

[I’m told that for some people this dangled mid-sentence and never got to the point I wanted to make, so I’m trying it again]


It  has been a relatively quiet week.  I spent two days working on my chapter, determined to get something that vaguely resembled a draft ready before I went to London.  At the moment it contains several claims that I can’t really substantiate without a lot of extra work reading through all the ballads again and tagging them.  No bad thing, probably, but very time consuming when

a) you realise with hindsight that it was obvious you should have done that from the beginning,

b) according to all the plans, the chapter should have been finished well over a month ago,

c) according to the current plan, the chapter should be finished by the end of January and

d) I’m away all next week in London, working in the British Library.

On Wednesday, I spent the day in Manchester having a long chat with a friend, discussing life, the universe, my husband’s upcoming retirement, my job prospects and my thesis.   On the way home I felt an unaccustomed sense of peace – whatever happens is going to happen regardless of how I feel about it.  But it didn’t last – by yesterday afternoon I was pretty down in the dumps.  I’m trying to put it to one side, but the prospect of the trip to London doesn’t help.  More on that later.  I spent Thursday and Friday doing some of the fiddly little things that needed doing, such as looking through some of my findings from the State Papers and cataloguing some of the ballads.  All things that really needed doing, but somehow, as they don’t produce much in the way of writing, they don’t feel like they add up to much.  It’s good to know that I’ve made a bit of progress with them, so that gives me some satisfaction.  Yesterday morning I even submitted an abstract for a music conference in Manchester, which will be a bit of a change.

So back to the subject of the trip to London and the dread of the post title.  This causes me genuine confusion.  I know that I will enjoy being in the archives once I’m there and I know that I will enjoy seeing friends and family while I’m down there, so why do I feel not one spark of enthusiasm for this trip?  Instead, all I feel is an almost overwhelming sense of dread.  It makes no sense at all.   I can only assume that it’s something to do with the depression.  I can see why people might be worried about supervision meetings and perhaps why panel meetings might cause anxiety, but to have such an aversion to doing something that I enjoy is incomprehensible.

The British Library, London

The British Library, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week has been rather different to normal.  Foolishly, at 8am on Monday morning I was at Preston station in the hope of travelling to London, but the storm rather got  in the way.  Instead of arriving in London at 10, it was lunchtime when I got there, so I missed a few hours’ work in the British Library.  It was an interesting few days, anyway, looking at commonplace books and music manuscripts for my work.   I was back up north on Wednesday evening with a keen awareness of how much more time I need to spend in the BL.  Then on Friday I spoke at the History Lab North West workshop on interdisciplinarity, Beyond History.   I talked about the overlap of musicology and history in my work, especially about how sometimes the music of the ballads adds a whole extra layer of meaning to the texts.  It was nice to talk and sing  to a mixed audience rather than just historians.

My plan is to spend some time next week revitalising my journal article, then with a bit of look when I go back to the commonweal chapter after a couple of weeks’ break, it might be a bit easier to face.

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