Last week I wrote about the first of my two small research projects, so this week I want to introduce the second: Fake News and Facts in Topical Ballads. This will be a digital humanities project which will use corpus data analysis to look at the links between ballad and pamphlet news.

Thomas Charles Wageman [Public domain]

Shakespeare’s ballad-seller Autolycus is famous for peddling tall tales to credulous commoners hungry for news of monstrous fish and miraculous births.[1]  So my project aims to check the accuracy of information in popular songs to challenge the assumption that ballads were full of news.  It will show that, despite recent scholarship which has challenged our belief in the existence of the ‘news ballad’, the genre really did exist prior to the invention of regular news periodicals.  By supplying information to its customers in an entertaining way, it helped to shape social responses to the news.  By using state-of-the-art corpus data analysis of ballads and pamphlets rather than viewing the ballad in isolation from – or in competition with – other news-forms, I hope to demonstrate that there was more than one way to tell the news, and one method was not intrinsically more important or accurate than another.  

Scholarly interest in ballads has surged since the publication of Christopher Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England. There has been a recent special issue of Renaissance Studies on street singers in Renaissance Europe (33:1), for example, and a plethora of articles on English balladry alone, but the role of song in spreading news remains contentious.[2]  Angela McShane argues that ‘there was no such thing as a “news ballad”’ and that ballads, being songs, served a different purpose.[3]  Nevertheless, I don’t believe that their entertainment value need necessarily undermine their newsworthiness.  I intend to carry out the first systematic study of the relationship between English ballad and pamphlet news prior to the development of a regular periodical press. This will enhance our understanding of early modern news networks by offering insights into the intermediality and interdependency of different cheap print genres.

The first step is a database of ballads identified from the Stationers’ Registers Online and British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth Century.[5]  I will access topical ballad texts using digital archives such as the English Broadside Ballad Archive, Early English Books Online and Broadside Ballads Online.[6]  Next I will try to find news pamphlets relating to the same events. And this is where the corpus data analysis comes in: specialist corpus linguistics software such as AntConc will highlight any textual overlap between the ballad and pamphlet texts much more quickly and accurately than even the closest of close readings could. This will demonstrate whether ballads have any significant relationship with news pamphlets.  If the software finds substantial similarities between the texts, I will attempt to explain how and why this might have occurred, for example, by looking for evidence that the texts were officially commissioned.  

But there is still no substitute for the human eye and the software can’t do all the analysis. Only by carefully reading the texts will I be able to see whether the need for a narrative story arc in ballads helped to shape the way the news was presented in songs.

Now all I have to do is decide which project I want to make a start on first.


[1] William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale.

[2] Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 2010).

[3] Angela McShane, ‘The Gazet in Metre’ in Joop Koopmans (ed.), News and Politics in Early Modern Europe (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), p.140.

[5] <https://stationersregister.online/&gt; [accessed 15 April 2019]; Carole Rose Livingston, British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth Century (New York: Garland, 1991).

[6] <https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/&gt;; <https://eebo.chadwyck.com/home&gt;; <http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/&gt;

[all accessed 15 April 2019]

.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_20170922_121859874

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.