This is the first in a short series of posts about my trip to the Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference in Maynooth during July 2018.

The Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference, known as MedRen, was a slightly scary undertaking for me. I’ve only been to one music conference before, where I presented a paper on ballads and the public sphere in Tudor England during the final year of my PhD. I only lasted half a day before I was poached by the Voices and Books Network! So 3 and a half days of wall to wall musicology was a bit intimidating, not least because there was so much on the schedule that I knew almost nothing about.

I left Liverpool early in the morning, and arrived in Maynooth about 11am. The first paper that I caught was given by Ascensión Mazuela-Anguita on ‘Women, oral tradition, and morality: the iconography of the sixteenth-century Spanish dance’. She described how women appear in foreground of pictures by Hoefnagel for an atlas by Georg Braun, even though they don’t appear in other sources.  The musical scenes are concentrated in  Andalucia, and focus on women dancing and playing instruments, especially percussion instruments.  The text, however, does not refer to the musical illustrations.   There has been speculation that they are perhaps playing music in the Muslim fashion, as this was the last Muslim community in Spain.  Morisco music was banned in 1556, and furthermore, music was seen as unladylike by Vives. The women in the images hold the rosary, as if they have to demonstrate their faith.  She noted that dance and music was part of an oral tradition so difficult to establish what it was like in the 16the century, but she suggested that the Spanish dance referred to by travelers might have been done in the Morisco fashion, not least because on some of the copies (which were all hand coloured) the skin of the musicians is darker.  

The next paper was given by Lynsey Callaghan: ‘How was music theory read in fifteenth century England? The evidence of ‘‘þe Proporcions“’.  Lynsey provided evidence from 3 different, mainly mathematical, manuscripts which included the same musical treatise. The treatise was not directly connected to sound, but had implications for it, because the mathematical ratios it included were used to to decide what was a consonant interval.  It includes a passing reference to sonorous music and the voice.  She noted the treatise’s pedagogical tone meant that it assumed a teaching role, especially through it use of Latin to name the ratios.  This was necessary because there was no vernacular equivalent for these Latin terms, but they were thoroughly explained.  Finally, she pointed out that the three manuscripts offer evidence of three different ways in which the text was consumed.

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The final paper in this first session was given by Katie Bank on ‘Voices in Dialogue in Martin Peerson’s Private Musicke (1620)’.  She described dialogue function as cultural predication, an inherent part of early modern thought processes.  Sometimes the dialogue itself is fiction – an ambiguity between fact and drama – but at the time this was seen as part of its effectiveness.   Katie described four different ways in which a song could be dialogic, but she acknowledged that dialogic songs were usually written for two accompanied human voices, in textual and musical conversation.  Peerson, however, was not clear on whether he meant ‘dialogue’  figuratively or the songs for more than one voice.  She also pointed out that even though the singers did not have costume for characterisation like drama, decisions made by performers at the point of performance affected the way the songs were heard.  This was something that I wholeheartedly agree with, as it chimes in with my work on the ballads in circulation during the Pilgrimage of Grace.  Songs are so much more than just the words and music!

After lunch, I attended two paired papers on music in Reformation Germany.  The first paper, ‘Canonisation in Lutheran Repertoire in public and private education: the case of Lüneburg‘, was given by Christine Roth.  She described Lutheran culture as based on a common canon of music. Musical education was designed to bolster this, choosing a canon of important or exemplary music that was considered suitable for teaching.  This canon aimed at acquainting children with the exemplary works whether they were Lutheran works or pre-Reformation.  It was linked to Lutheran notion of history and what should be remembered – the memory of portent events which were divine acts.

Hein Sauer then gave a paper on ’16th Century Music Manuscripts in Neustadt an der Orla’. The Reformation in Neustadt was influenced by Augustinian monks, but the town became Lutheran in 1528.  Neustadt needed a lot of music, as music for every Sunday was obligatory.  This led to the purchase of more than 200 prints and the creation of nine manuscripts.   Having examined two, it appeared that most of the repertoire in them could be found elsewhere.  In many case the prints were available first, but Hein argued that most of the manuscript versions are closer to performance practice in Neustadt.  They give evidence of social practice, for example, a psalm which was altered for the wedding of one of the scribes.  The manuscripts included a good mix of older canonised examples and newer music for festivals.

The next pair of papers, which had no direct relationship to each other, nevertheless both looked at otherness, one from the perspective of Lutheran hymnody, and the other from Catholic dance.  Antonio Chemotti’ s paper was entitled ‘Hymn culture and enemies of the church in sixteenth-century Silesia’.  He suggested that hymns were used to strengthen identity and that we can use the lyrics to identify who the hymns were ‘attacking’ through the beliefs they express.  One of the church’s enemies was the expanding Ottoman Empire, generally referred to in polemic as ‘the Turk’.  Collections of hymns against the Turks were printed in 1566, the year of Sulieman the Magnificent’s campaign against the Habsburg Empire in Hungary.  Antonio gave an example of a psalm paraphrase which asked God for help, being given new meaning as if that help were specifically needed against the Turk.  This occurred because, as I have argued in Singing the News, contrafacta carried the original meaning of the songs with them.  The way Triller choses his melodies carried many meanings, creating links between old secular texts and new sacred meanings.  Triller also wanted the new texts to be used at the same liturgical time as the old one was – thus creating an even stronger link than the Lutherans had.  Antonio also argued that Triller’s was a compromise hymn book, demonstrating that the Catholics and Lutherans got along well against the Salesians. the Silesian hymn book doesn’t attack the pope like Lutheran ones do – attempt not to offend the Catholics as they are trying to disassociate themselves from the religious dissidents.

Moritz Kelber’s paper on ‘(De-)constructing the enemy in early modern music and dance’ looked at music and the war against the Turks.  This war was one of the most important political issues in German speaking lands in the 15th and 16th centuries, even in areas where there was no direct military threat.  This was especially true of the siege of Vienna, an event which shocked public discourse.  German music was part of the construction of an omnipresent anti-Turkish literature, although most 16th century sources use the word Turk for a variety of ethnic groups.  Churches were made to ring their largest bells at noon to remind their people to pray against the Turks.  Similarly, in the 16th century, the black legend against the Spanish began to infect the German-speaking lands, and they used similar polemic to demonise the Catholic Spaniards. There were many pamphlets against the Turks, many containing songs.  Some of these have music so seem to be aimed a musically-literate audience.  Dance used exotic costumes and instruments to assimilate foreign cultures in a very special way.   For example, Maximilian’s court was fascinated with foreign dances and masquerades, where courtiers mixed with professional Morris dancers, both encountering and interacting with the ‘other’.


In the evening after dinner, we were treated to a concert of 5 voice polyphonic motets by the Boston group, Sourcework, who sing not from printed editions, but from original notation. It was very impressive, and I have to say that conferences with inbuilt concerts rather than keynotes might just be the way forward!


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.

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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.

After being rather unwell at the beginning of 2016, I decided that this summer I would spend as much time on holiday as I could.  This was only made possible by the fact that we have access to a caravan that is currently in Oban, and we have a trailer tent, and it meant that the holidays were going to be in the UK.  A friend asked me if my children were happy with being forced to holiday in caravans and tents.  This got me thinking about what I gained from the holidays that I went on as a child, most of which were caravan holidays in the UK.  I decided that they are partly responsible for my interest in history – along with the folk music that I love, which I have written about before.

Glen Coe

Glen Coe

Glen Coe

I spent a lot of time at National Trust and English Heritage properties.  I spent a lot of time, therefore, in places where the present collides with the past.  I spent a lot of time in places where good stories, maybe even the best stories because they are true, come to life.  Take, for example, Glen Coe.  It’s a landscape that seems to have barely changed in hundreds of years.  You can just imagine the MacDonalds running and scrambling for their lives in February 1692.  This, for me, was always helped by knowing John McDermott’s The Massacre of Glencoe by The Corries. Somehow, it’s always made it easy for me to imagine Macbeth, too.



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Part of the beauty of Easedale Island is the pools of water left in the abandoned slate quarries.












Then in Wales, we went to Harlech Castle.  It was easy to see why it was built where it was – the commanding views over the surrounding coast and countryside are hard to beat.  There were piles of cannon balls lying around, and turrets to climb.  You could see the grooves where the portcullises (is that the plural of portcullis???) were lowered and raised.

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My youngest was particularly taken with a trip to Sygun Copper Mine, a Victorian mine which closed in 1903.  We went on an underground tour, which took in some spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, accompanied by atmospheric rumblings in the audio guide.  He was IMG_20160808_142454019especially impressed when he looked across the valley to Dinas Emrys and heard the legend of the sleeping dragons in the lake below the hill.  Vortigern was trying to build a stronghold against the Saxons on the hill of Dinas Emrys, but each night the builders’ work  was mysteriously reduced to piles of rubble.  Vortigern’s magicians recommended that he sacrifice a fatherless boy, but the chosen  boy explained that two dragons lay asleep in a lake under the hill.  Vortigern’s men dug into the hill and revealed two dragons: one red, the other white.  When the two dragons  were released from their slumber, they fought each other.  The eventual winner was the red dragon, symbolic of the Welsh victory over the Saxons.  The boy who knew the dragons lay under the hill? Merlin.


My eldest, on the other hand, was fascinated by the industrial archaeology above the ground.  We decided to walk the Fisherman’s Path at Beddgelert, and found ourselves climbing Cwm Bychan, which is scattered with the remains of copper mining pylons.

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We passed Frongoch. Almost every day, in fact. It took me several days to place the name – I knew it was something to do with the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising but I couldn’t remember what, exactly, until we pulled up on our last day to have a look at the information board. Michael Collins had been interned there.  My daughter immediately made the link between Frongoch, Michael Collins and Michael by Johnny McEvoy.

(My summer holidays this year have gone by the subtitle a tour of the UK’s highest peaks which you can’t see because they are obscured by cloud, and the answer to my friend’s question was yes, the children seem to enjoy themselves, just like I did.)

Loch Linnhe, below Ben Nevis

Loch Linnhe, below Ben Nevis

Somewhere beneath that cloud is Snowdon

Somewhere beneath that cloud is Snowdon

With apologies for the length of the delay between posts (brought about by a computer faliure), here is the second piece about Elizabeth Parr and William Elderton:

William Elderton’s A proper new balad in praise of my Ladie Marques (London, 1569; STC (2nd ed.) / 7562) is unique among the surviving early ballad epitaphs in that it specifies the tune to which it was to be sung: ‘The Lusty Gallant’. With its implications of joyfulness and chivalry, ‘The Lusty Gallant’ may seem inappropriate for a verse epitaph, yet as you can see the words of A proper new balad fit the tune perfectly and the melody is in a minor mode – the Aeolian.

A proper new Balad in praise of my Ladie Marques whose Death is bewailed to the Tune of New lusty gallant-p1al7bfl541esn1sdtgt1it91qj8

Actually, it’s debateable whether the initial upbeat on the first verse is necessary. Originally, I put it in because it matched the bouncy crotchet-quaver rhythm of the rest of the line. The lyrics work equally well, however, with no upbeat, because it emphasises the first syllable of ‘Ladies’ by placing it on the stronger beat of the bar.  It also matches the three-quaver rhythm of the second line. I’ve played around with both and I’m undecided.

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