Back in June, I was invited to lead the final session of Lancaster University’s Premodern Reading Group (Twitter @lancasterpremod) in a celebration of my first book, Singing the News.  We had a fantastic poster: PremodernRG_22ndJune18. We had grapes.  We even had cake (although the mind boggles over what the university English Department kitchen is doing with a cleaver like that…!  Still, we put it to good use.)

davI described how my book was conceived with two main, interconnecting aims. The first was to address the disconnect between ballads as texts and ballads as songs, since I
firmly believe that ballads are songs, intended to be sung and heard. Hence the 3 hours of recordings that accompany the bookThe second was to show that in the sixteenth century, ballads could play a significant role in the transmission of news.

A characteristic of news ballads, central to my research, was their fluid mobility between different media, including verbal, visual, and written means of communication. These songs were part of a complex media system which was dominated by a high level of intermediality. The circulation of news through ballads and printed songs, simultaneously oral and written media, often employing music and images, epitomize this dynamic process. These songs had an inherent sociability, as they were learned by ear and passed from one person to another.  This allowed the discussion of news, especially potentially seditious news, in a time when there were significant limitations on free speech.

Next, I talked about one of the case studies in the book.  I chose to look at the series of ballads which were written about the fall of Henry VIII’s chief minister and architect of the English Reformation, Thomas Cromwell. These ballads debated matters at the heart of Henry’s religious policy. What did it mean to be a Protestant or a papist? What were acceptable beliefs for an Englishman to hold? These were confused matters, because although the Pope no longer had authority over the English church, that church was not actually Protestant. It could be difficult to know what you were supposed to believe. This was precisely the sort of discussion that Henry’s regime sought to curb, especially as it fell against a background of increased religious anxiety. The Cromwell flyting was published at a time when the regime felt vulnerable. Henry’s marital and dynastic difficulties, coupled with his moves to change the country’s religion, caused embarrassing public displays of criticism.

After discussing some of the issues in the flyting, we sang the first of the Cromwell ballads, Troll on Away, with me taking the verses and the rest of the group joining in on the chorus.  So it was less of a reading group than a scratch choir!  But it was, as always, great fun and very thought provoking.

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Charles a la ChasseI’ve been asked to run the history department’s residential summer school for Edge Hill University this year.  The topic that I’ve chosen is the Civil War, but with a long view that encompasses 100 years of history.  I’ve spent quite a while trying to come up with a blend of activities which will give students a flavour of university education in the limited time available.  Obviously, there have to be lectures, so I’ve got 4 of those – one for each session on Reformation, ‘British’ monarchy, Rich and Poor and Charles I.  But the other activities are more difficult to work out, especially given the emphasis on independent reading and research that characterises the university system.  There is an independent research project that they have to complete, but there simply isn’t enough time in two days to expect students to complete the sort of background reading that we normally would.  Instead, I’m going to give them a book chapter on the first day, by way of introduction to the major themes, and give them a list of relevant articles and books that they can find in the library.  Then I’m going to concentrate on primary source analysis and tasks to get them thinking about the issues raised in the lectures.

So, for example, I have included a set of role plays on what Protestants and Catholics believe, what makes them similar and different and how the nature of those religious debates changes over time. Another thinking activity is to design a castle, which should get them thinking about the ways that warfare changed in the early modern period.  I’ve even pushed the boat out by asking them to write a ballad on a given theme, in order to get them thinking about how and why these particular issues mattered to people at ground level, not just in terms of the monarchy.

In terms of using sources, one of the activities is pretty standard university fare – I’m going to ask them to do an in-depth analysis of An Agreement of the People, identifying the issues that it raises and whose attitudes and beliefs it reflects.  But I’m particularly pleased with an activity which takes a section of a journal article and compares it to the evidence that was used to write it, so that the students can see how the author developed their idea.  If that works as well as I hope, there might be more on that in a later post.

Their independent research project will be based around Charles I’s trial, planning speeches to make the case either for the prosecution or defence.  I’m looking forward to it, especially as it’s the first time in many years that I’ve developed a course from scratch.  Even though it only lasts two days, it’s 12 hours of teaching time, so it will be a novelty teaching full days!



The final post in a short series based on my recent trip to the EDPOP conference in Utrecht.  Although this one isn’t about EDPOP itself, it’s about Amsterdam.


It seemed a long way to go, not to see anything.  As I wasn’t going to be able to fly back to the UK at a reasonable hour until the following day, I decided to give myself a full day in Amsterdam.  I walked from the station to the museum quarter, enjoying the surroundings, and then I treated myself to breakfast, in the shape of a delicious waffle.  Next, I  headed in to the Rijksmuseum, which was the top recommendation of the conference delegates when I asked around for ‘things to do in Amsterdam’.

I spent several hours looking at the collections, scouring the paintings for the street singers in the background.  In the Seven Works of Mercy by the Master of Alkmaar, Christ stands among the residents of the Dutch city and watches how they treat those who are in need of help. The notice points out that it gives a good indication of urban Dutch life around 1500, and there, in the background of the very first panel, are some street musicians.  Even more impressive was Peter Baltens’ A Flemish Kermis with a Performance of the Farce ‘Een cluyte van Plaeyerwater.


It was also interesting to see how many musicians were painted as warnings against vice!


And the earthenware violin was utterly fascinating.  Sometimes considered to be the masterpiece of Delft, it is purely decorative.

Given that I’m planning to look further into the links between ballads and memorialisation of the dead, I was interested in all the memorial paintings and sculptures too.  For example, this painting by Aertgen van Leyden of The Raising of Lazarus was painted to commemorate the couple kneeling in the wings, while the Memorial Tablet by the Master of Spes Nostra commemorate the four canons.




I’ve commented before that I don’t know a lot about art, but Van Gogh has always interested me (you can probably blame Don McLean), so as well as looking at the three Van Goghs in the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum itself was a must-see.  One of my favourite paintings is on show there – his Kingfisher by the Waterside.

The presence of planters full of dwarf sunflowers outside the ticket booths wasn’t lost on me either.



Last week, I was very pleased to receive the news that I have been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.  It’s a real honour, and another milestone along the way.  My grateful thanks go to Professor Anne Curry for supporting my application – in fact her ongoing support for and interest in my work is a great encouragement to me.


This is the final post in a short series about my trip to Utrecht, to the EDPOP conference European Dimensions of Popular Print Culture: A Comparative Approach.


I wanted to see something more of Utrecht, so while I was there I took the opportunity to visit the Museum Catharijneconvent, which holds a fascinating collection relating to the history of Christianity in the Netherlands, housed in stunning surroundings.
The conference continued after lunch with ‘Top ten popular narratives in European languages. Corpus, genre, materiality, production and readers’, coordinated and chaired by Rita Schlusemann, who also opened the panels with Krystyna Wierzbicka on ‘The idea of top ten popular narratives in Europe and the question of their genre’.  They identified lots of problems surrounding the terminology, not least the fact that the word ‘romance’ means different things in different times and in different places, including verse and prose, so as a term it is not always helpful.  Instead, they suggested that ‘narratives’ is a more uniform term. These texts were also profoundly mobile.  The story of Griselda was the first popular pan-European narrative.


Anna Katharina Richter and Jordi Sanchez gave a paper entitled ‘Materiality matters. Production and printing of romances in Europe 15th-17th century’, followed by
Helwi Blom and Marie-Dominique Leclerc who discussed ‘The European dissemination of Pierre de Provence and Fortunatus; a comparative case-study in popular print culture’.  Finally, Ursula Rautenberg presented the ‘Top ten highbrow and lowbrow: on the different audiences of individual and complete editions: a case study of Sigmund Feyerabend’s publishing strategy’


The final session was on Education and children’s literature, coordinated and chaired by Elisa Marazzi. Matthew Grenby started off with ‘What is popular children’s literature?’ His answer was that it was not just the material which they used, but that which was printed especially for them.  He pointed out that we assume that children’s needs are the same across the continent, but we should question whether they were.  Introducing the following two panels, he made us aware that the distinction between educational and recreational literature was arbitrary and false, but the research had required divisions and so that distinction had been made.


Laura Carnelos talked us through ‘Educational popular printed products (1450-1900)’.  She comented that it was common practice to use secular literature, such as primers and moralistic tales, in schools.  Most of these genres were widespread across Europe, as items like ABCs were found in the majority of national areas, but the battledore was a uniquely British item.  Elisa Marazzi presented the final, formal paper of the conference, ‘Recreation in popular children’s literature (1450-1900)’. Although the division between recreational and educational literature was porous, there was a wide range of material which could be classed as recreational, even if it had a moralisitic slant.  The invention of children’s literature took place in Britain in the mid-18th century, although the first examples were bourgeois rather than cheap print.  Matthew rounded off the panel, discussing the importance of the children’s literature genre to cheap print as a whole and commenting that “Popular print cannot exist without the market for children’s literature”.  Nevertheless, although there are transnational continuities, there are also discontinuities of which we should be equally aware. Furthermore, he posited a set of trajectories across time in which recreational and educational print moved from being expensive, refined material aimed at adults to being cheaper, vulgar and aimed at children. He suggested that, as time passed, national traditions moved further apart as markets expanded and became more secure.  It was sobering, though, to realise that his final comments on children’s cheap print in fact apply to all of us working in history – the data may not be complete, either because it doesn’t still exist or even because we don’t know where to look.

Jeroen Salman then closed the conference by looking at the next steps for EDPOP, which included the Virtual Research Environment, the working group who would draw up a taxonomy of European cheap print and a publication of the conference transactions.

After the conference, a large number of us went for a drink in a bar by the canal and then headed off for what became known as ‘Not the conference dinner’, where we enjoyed an excellent Indonesian meal and chatted about life, the universe and everything.

Lovely to see this post about the reopening of Helmshore Textile Museums, where I worked for a year after completing my undergraduate degree many moons ago. Such a shame that it, like many of LCC’s museums, is now reliant on volunteers to get it going and is looking for a new operator.

Museum Development North West

Earlier this year Lancashire County Council announced that Helmshore and Queen Street Mill Textile Museums, which had been closed to the general public since 2016, were going to be partially reopened; since then staff and volunteers have done sterling work to get both sites ready. In the latest of our guest blogs Philip Butler and Jenny Ingham from Lancashire Museums Service recount the reopenings which were well attended by visitors, despite Queen St Mill’s being the same day as a certain World Cup semi-final match!

“From our roving curator Philip Butler enjoying the sights and sounds of cotton production in Lancashire once again…

Helmshore Mills 26 May 2018
At 11am the audience gathered at the front of the museum to hear Cllr Anne Cheetham perform her first duty as Chairman of the County Council and introduce Cllr Peter Buckley cabinet member with responsibility for community and cultural services, to perform…

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This is the third post in a short series about my trip to Utrecht, to the EDPOP conference European Dimensions of Popular Print Culture: A Comparative Approach.

digThe second day of the conference (which was, thankfully, slightly cooler than the first) began with our news panel: News – Intermediality and mobility, coordinated and chaired by Joad Raymond. Joad Raymond and Alexandra Schäfer were first up with ‘News moves’.  Joad cautioned that news ‘forms’ and the way they were communicated have communicated too much attention, and that we should consider thinking about the ‘unit’ of news, which is very mobile.  That unit could be a textual part such as a paragraph as well as an entire publication.  He pointed out that news forms are designed with codependency in mind, so that what is presented in one can be put with other materials.  Alexandra compared reports of the French Wars of Religion in France and the Holy Roman Empire. She showed that in France, the vast majority of publications supported the Catholic league, only a tiny minority the Protestants, and the Royal party only published proclamations.  In the Holy Roman Empire, only a few publications supported the League, whereas most were pro-royal.  She concluded that news changed when it moved in order to fit legal and publishing contexts, as well as to suit diverging personal and political backgrounds.
Massimo Rospocher and I were up next with ‘News sings’, comparing and contrasting Italian and English sixteenth-century news ballads.  We talked about war songs, political news, murder and disaster ballads.  Although they take different forms, Italian and English ballads have much in common.  They stressed their newsworthiness, truthfulness and novelty, while straying into sensationalist territory in the way that they appealed to their listeners.  Above all, it was the fact that they combined many media that was key to their success.  As well as singing short excerpts from two English ballads (A Dolefull Ditty, or sorowfull Sonet of the Lord Darly, sometime King of Scots. Neuew to the Noble and worthy King, King Henry the eyght and William Elderton’s A New Well a Day), I also had a go at singing some Italian ones too (La morte de Papa Iulio con altre Barzellette: cosa nova and Historia come papa Iulio secondo ha prese la cità de Bologna).
The final paper on our panel was given by Hannu Salmi and Yann Ryan: ‘News counts’.  Their paper concentrated on methodologies. They described newspapers not as monolithic texts but as collections of paragraphs.  Hannu and Yann set out to discuss whether it was possible to record data using network science which takes the mobility of these paragraphs into account in order to say something in a general sense about the mobility of paragraphs across Europe.
digSession 4 was entitled ‘Stories and songs travelling through Europe’. It was coordinated by Juan Gomis and chaired by Jeroen Salman, who also gave the first paper on ‘Popularising classics in Spain and the Netherlands: Penny prints and Aleluyas’. Juan described Dutch penny prints being distributed by schoolmasters as rewards for children.  He looked at the similarities between auques, which were used as board games, and aleluyas, with 48 woodcut illustrations of saints which were cut out and thrown during processions.  High numbers of aleluyas were printed, indicating that they were extremely popular.  Jeroen noted that huge numbers of the auques and aleluyas were educational and aimed at children, though others were about history, politics or moralistic stories.  Over time, they began to tell stories from popular literature such as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver or Don Quixote, although he pointed out that they don’t keep entirely to the storyline – although it’s obvious that the plot would need to be reduced to fit on the sheet, the cuts at times made the single sheet versions absurd.
digSiv Gøril Brandtzæg and Juan Gomis  then talked about ‘Crime and Punishment: mapping the European execution ballad’ in a paper which had been written in collaboration with Una McIlvenna. This was a paper which took a broad sweep, looking at Spain, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Britain, Germany, Italy and France over several hundred years.  Not all of them were broadside ballads, and sometimes more than one ballad was printed on a sheet.  The central function of the the execution ballad was to provide a moral lesson for the audience.  Ballads were seen as a vehicle of learning, with divine retribution creating a warning for the audience to amend their ways.  Execution ballads were usually written in the first person by a criminal who was not only guilty but also repentant.  The Spanish ballads were different because they sometimes showed admiration for bandits.
Antonio Serrano, who had worked in collaboration with David Stoker described ‘Cluer Dicey and Agustín Laborda. Chapbooks in eighteenth-century England and Spain’.  He suggested that one of the keys to success of Spanish pliegos printers was their high production volumes, whereas in England it was the variety of business that they produced.