At the end of September I went down to London to hear a paper by Chris Marsh at the Royal Historical Society, so I took the opportunity to travel down a bit ahead of time and spend the afternoon in the British Library.  This is something I haven’t done for a couple of years, for one thing because it isn’t all that easy for me to get down there, but also because up to now I’ve been working mainly on the documents that I found while I was carrying out my doctoral research.  But with the submission of the manuscript to Routledge, the time has come to move on.  This post is less about what I found when I was there and more about the process of carrying out the research itself.  It’s about how I work.


I only knew that I would be going to London a couple of days in advance, so I had to drop everything and start finding something to look at when I was there.  The first job, in fact, was to check up on how to renew my reader’s pass, as it had expired since I last went.  Once I’d got that sorted out, I knew that I would only have a few hours in the library itself. This affects the way I work, I think: I need to make sure that I am well prepared with a list of exactly what I want to look at.

I ran a search on the British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue for ‘ballad’, up to the mid-seventeenth century, and read through the descriptions of each result (of which there were many).  If I thought it looked potentially interesting, I copied the entry into Word, making each manuscript number a heading and including the descriptions for each entry.  It makes for a long document (at the moment, it’s 45 pages long!), but at least every item was easily accessible and the descriptions mean that when I’m in the library I know what I’m looking for and where to find it in the manuscript itself.  Next, I sorted the descriptions into the order that I wanted to look at them – by which I mean I put the materials I wanted to see first at the top of my list, running right down to the ones I considered to be less urgent.  Finally, I logged into my British Library account and pre-ordered as many as I could for the day of my visit.

way I work image 1


IMG_20170922_211455954When I arrived at the library I renewed my reader pass, had a quick brew and then settled myself into the Western Manuscript Reading Room with my tablet (much easier to carry than my laptop), my camera, notepad and pencil.  My trips to the British Library are a bit like a smash and grab…  metaphorically-speaking, of course.   This visit was going to be a particularly short one.  My priority is to accumulate as much evidence as I can, so that I can then work on it at home.  I looked at the documents that I ordered ahead of my visit and made notes on their features which I added to my Archive Research Document.  Then I photographed the relevant parts of the manucript. Often, I took several photos of the same folios, showing the overall layout on one and the detail on others. For each document that I’d looked at, I added a tick before its title in my list.

IMG_20170922_125155155What I didn’t do much of when I was in the library itself was to make transcriptions.   As I mainly work on 16th century documents, they are often in secretary hand, which can take a bit of deciphering at times (and yes, I suffer palaeographic jealousy when I look at the people working on beautiful italic hands!). I usually do my transcribing at home.  So when I’d looked at all the ones I’d pre-ordered, I prioritised working on what I thought was the most useful manuscript.  I kept this out, sent the others back to storage and called up some more.  While I waited for them to arrive, I started to transcribe the document that I’d kept, making the transcription in the big document but in a different colour of text so that I knew that it was my own transcription.  I then repeated the process until I’d looked at as many items as I could that afternoon – it was the bell that stopped me!

Once I got home, I transferred my archive photographs to dropbox and a mobile hard drive, putting each document into a separate folder under the heading Archives/British Library. Then I spent a relentlessy boring day renaming each individual file by the name of its folio number – I have learned in the past how difficult it is to find the relevant image of a particular folio later if I don’t do this.

I’m now in the process of transcribing the document in which I was most interested – I open the image on one screen and use another, usually my tablet, to make the transcription, making sure that I mark any words about which I’m uncertain with a question mark and each new folio with it’s number.  I am doing this in a new document, which I save alongside the images in the relevant folder.




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.

Over the weekend of 25-26 February 2017, I attended a conference in Lancaster which looked at new materialist approaches to the pre-modern  period: ‘Embodiment and New Materialism in Premodern Literature and Culture 1350-1700’.  Having already blogged about the first day of the conference, I thought it was time to share my recollections of the second.

The first speaker on day 2 was Dr. Robert Stagg (St Anne’s College, Oxford), who talked about ‘Shakespeare’s “Stuff”’.  The word ‘nothing’ appears 32 time in King Lear, but its range of opposites also appear a lot, and more often towards the end of the play. The monosyllabic irreducibility of Shakespeare’s language is part of the atomic sound scape of King Lear.

Emily Rowe (University of York) continued the focus on language with ‘Words and things: Francis Bacon, Lingua, and New Materialism’.  She explained how Francis Bacon criticised the construction of knowledge based on rhetoric as based on words rather than things. He acknowledged that language was necessary to explain, but it was often overcome by what Erasmus described as a ‘wild and wanton flow of words’.  In Thomas Tomkis’s play Lingua, the only female character is Lingua, who  fights and tricks others in her attempt to become the 6th sense. Appetitus, Gustus’s servant, presents a long list of Lingua’s failings. One of these is her power of translation, because vulgar language and mixed tongues were a concern of the 17th century.  Her biggest problem, however, is that she is a woman. During the early modern period the unruly tongue is particularly associated with women, because it is associated with the destructive power of female speech.  Bacon challenges the need for affected, metaphoric speech to explain, so while he wouldn’t describe language as a vulgar whore as Lingua does, he would not support her claim to be a sense.

I opened the second panel on ephemerality with my paper on ‘The (im)material sixteenth-century ballad’.  I talked about ballads and the Pilgrimage of Grace, focussing on the way ballads were sung and experienced rather than their material, printed form.  As usual, I got the audience to sing.

Following me was Catherine Evans (University of Sheffield) who spoke on ‘Pleating time in early modern almanacs’. Almanacs were the most popular early modern cheap print, containing astrological and medical information and guidance for every aspect of life at a low price. Almanac annotations show a great variety of readership. The flexible function of almanacs shown by the fact that they often contain all three of Heidi Brayman Hackel’s categories of annotation.  Chronologies at the beginning of almanacs give potted national histories, often with transparent political agendas. Nevertheless, people personalised these timelines by annotating these calendars with personally important information. Also people made changes to the printed dates. Therefore almanacs had another role as diaries. People interleaved blank pages, so printers started introducing blank leaves.  These changes create books that are long lasting records of the self rather than a plan of the year.  Furthermore, users did not stick to the linear notion of time indicated by the almanac because they were creating their own topographical understanding of time by using almanacs in ways that they weren’t intended.

The final paper in our panel was given by Beth Cortese (Lancaster University) on ‘Exchanging places: witty transformations’, much of which concentrated on the play of the weekend, Albumazar.  Betha argued that thieves and tricksters in early modern plays are the place of subversive wit, revealing anxieties about identity. Their plots are to do with material wit – inequality made animate in performance. Wit is therefore a performative and transformative form of subversion. The trickster often overturns rank.

Next came ‘An Embryo of rare contemplation’: a special panel chaired by Dr. Rachel White (Newcastle University). Dr. Lucy Munro (King’s College London) raised the question ‘how does one fall in love on stage’ in her paper ‘The Insatiate Countess: Body, Text and Stage’.   Her paper concentrated on The Insatiate Countess, written by John Marston even though he seems to have objected to his name being added to the published script. There are several textual difficulties with the play. She pointed out that it can be hard to tell stage directions from speech and vice versa in early modern plays. Different editions of the play have different names for the same characters. Also there were problems with the printing of different editions, with a lovely mondegreen where ‘the boxe unto Pandora given’ appeared in the text as ‘the poxe is unto Panders given’.

The play exploits the rampant sexuality of women and might have had a particular resonance at the time. It opens with the scene of the countess in mourning, before any speech, so the first line ‘what should we do in this countess’s dark hole’ is deeply shocking, especially with the men being described as ‘unruly members’. At the end she is executed, ostensibly for ordering the murder of her lover, but as much for the fact that her rampant sexuality subverts the patriarchy. The social hierarchy in the play is desperate for her to make a good death by admitting that she was at fault.

The next paper was given by Dr. Rachel Reid (Queen’s University Belfast) on ‘(Re)reading John Dee: Exploring Polytemporal Identities in his Collection of “Rarities”’.  Rachel showed that the placement and context of the object was what informed its meaning and focussed on polytemporalities as reaching across time rather than periodisation. John Dee had many roles and assembled the largest library in Elizabethan England. Although the Glindoni painting of ‘John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I’ contains lots of things related to Dee, but it is not the image of a necromancer. However, in a fantastic animated slide that switched between the two images, she reminded us that the original painting had Dee surrounded by skulls.

I was particularly interested in the paper by Dr. Clare Egan (Lancaster University), ‘”By the singular operations of your excellent preparations”: Material Bodies and Medicinal Words in the Libel Case of Edwards v. Woolton (Exeter, 1604)’.  She pointed out that the difference between libel and slander was not so clear cut in the early modern period. One reason for the concern about libels might be that their epidemic nature made them more dangerous. This is illustrated by the move of libel trials from ecclesiastical to criminal courts, because disorder is the problem and can cause more scandal if it IS true than if not. The truth of the matter is not the issue – it’s not the content that matters, it is the manner in which they are spread.  Clare placed the emphasis on performance suggesting that  hearer is implicated in the performance by consenting to listen.

Matthew Blaiden (University of Leeds) talked about ‘Shakespeare’s Masks’, showing that masks in plays were structural devices which provided material splendour. Masking is mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays from very early on. First accepted appearance of masking within a play is in Love’s Labours Lost. Examples mentioning or including masks run the gamut of Shakespearean genres. The classic Elizabethan mask consisted of an entrance and a dance, but there are other types during the period. Much of the evidence Matthew uses for revels comes from revels accounts, but they were not exclusive to court, also taking place at the Inns of Court and also in towns where Queen Elizabeth went on progress.

The final event of the conference was a roundtable discussion, which developed the idea that the metaphor and the material occur simultaneously.

All in all, it was a very interesting weekend and much credit is due to the organisers of the conference for bringing everyone together.

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.

As we have seen, William Elderton’s emphasis on the exemplary feminine virtues of his heroine in A proper new balad of my ladie marques, Whose death is bewailed To the tune of new lusty gallant is line with the norms of the Renaissance epitaph.  But in Elizabeth Parr’s case it is especially interesting. It reflects the way in which epitaphs idealised their subjects. William and Elizabeth Parr’s union had had an uncertain start, despite the fact that the Parr family were known to be supporters of the reformed faith and had connexions at the highest level of government. As a pre-eminent evangelical at court, William’s sister, Queen Katherine Parr, had been responsible for appointing the Protestant John Cheke as tutor to the young prince Edward in 1544. Having published her own Prayers and Meditations in 1545, her possession of proscribed, heretical books left the queen open to accusations of treason as Henry VIII’s health declined. William Parr was one of the Protestants whose support enabled Edward Seymour to become duke of Somerset and lord protector on Henry’s death in 1547. But as the political and religious upheavals of the mid-sixteenth century unfolded, the Parrs’ marriage felt the dramatic vicissitudes of fortune.

Elizabeth was not William Parr’s first wife. Remarriage in Tudor England was common, but only when the partnership had been broken by death. Even in the newly-Protestant England of Edward VI, remarriage was difficult and extremely unusual while a first spouse still lived. William Parr was first married to Anne Bouchier, who eloped with a man by the name of Hunt or Huntley in 1541 and later gave birth to her lover’s child. Although Parr was granted a legal separation the following year, he was unable to secure the divorce which would allow him to remarry during Anne’s lifetime. Nevertheless, Parr began his relationship with Elizabeth Brooke in 1543 and undertook a clandestine and bigamous marriage in 1544. Parr petitioned the king, Edward VI, for a divorce in 1547 on the basis of Anne ‘conceiving and bearing of one bastard child begotten by a base vile unworthy adulterer’, but the commission appointed to investigate his case was slow in its deliberations.[1] Although he had been a close supporter of the duke of Somerset, Parr’s secret marriage offended the protector.  Even though the commission agreed to the divorce, Somerset ejected Parr from the Privy Council in 1548 and ordered that he separate from Elizabeth. William and Elizabeth’s union was finally legalised in 1551, during the duke of Northumberland’s lord presidency of the Privy Council, at the same time that William was at last granted a divorce from his first wife.

But the Parrs’ fortunes fell again with the accession of the Catholic Mary I. William Parr’s divorce was invalidated and his titles rescinded. Anne Bouchier was promoted to Mary’s lady-in-waiting and had to beg pardon for her husband’s part in the plot to bring Lady Jane Grey to the throne. Mary was succeeded by Elizabeth I in 1558. Another dramatic turn of events saw William and Anne’s divorce reinstated and, with it, Parr’s second marriage.

Perhaps Elderton alludes to this chequered history with his comment that ‘…she be dead and gone / Whose courting need not be to tolde’, but generally, A proper new balad seems to gloss over the unlikely amorous history of its subject. As Nigel Llewellyn commented, ‘The social body as represented in commemorative art was generally idealized’ and the epitaph ballad was, after all, another form of commemorative art.[2]  Nevertheless, William and Elizabeth’s troubled marital history perhaps provides one reason why it was easier to leave out the marchioness’s name: those that were in the know would understand anyway, and everyone else could identify with the more general themes of the song.

So instead of dwelling on Parr’s relationship with her husband and position as a wife, Elderton emphasises above all the lady marques’s feminine virtues of modesty, cheerfulness and piety:

Me thinkes I see her modeste mood,

Her comlie clothing plainlie clad,

Her face so sweete, her cheere so good,

The courtlie countenance that shee had;

But, chefe of all, mee thinkes I see,

Her vertues deutie daie by daie,

Homblie kneeling one her knee,

As her desire was still to praie.

Parr’s black clothing may have been a symbol of her piety, or simply an acknowledgement that she was a servant of the queen, because according to May-Shine Lin, ‘The combination of black and white gradually became the personal colors of Elizabeth as her reign progressed, and men wore black and white garments at court masques, tiltyard and her progresses, in tribute to the queen’.[3] Similarly, Alison Weir claimed that Elizabeth’s ladies were all ordered to wear black in order to make the queen’s clothing more prominent.[4]  Certainly, Elizabeth Parr wears black in the Cobham family memorial portrait painted in 1567 and now held in the collection of Longleat House.[5]


[1] Petition from William Parr, marquess of Northampton to the king, [January x April] 1547, in State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Edward VI, 1547-1553,vol. 10/2 fol.106, (State Papers Online, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), accessed June 27, 2013,|MC4300180080&v=2.1&u=jrycal5&it=r


[2] Llewellyn, The Art of Death (Reaktion Books, 1991), 55.

[3] May-Shine Lin, “Queen Elizabeth’s Language of Clothing and the Contradictions in Her Construction of Images,” (2010), accessed June 27, 2013,

[4] Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 259.

[5] Master of the Countess of Warwick, Cobham Family Memorial Portrait, 1567.