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.







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).

After a couple of dodgy days at the beginning, the week has definitely ended on a high.  I spent quite a lot of time at the beginning of the week consolidating the ideas that my trip to the British Library generated and I wrote a thousand words in a couple of hours, bringing together my thoughts .  It was very satisfying, especially in the light of the 6 months I’ve been struggling with the 7000 words of the commonwealth chapter.  In a sense, it made the chapter all the more frustrating.  Although the chapter had improved, I was still really struggling  to make it flow.  Everything was there, in vaguely the right order, but with no grace and no flow.  Cue accusations that the naughty child in me didn’t want it to flow yet.   My response was along the lines of ‘get lost’.  There is nothing fun about spending six months messing with the same set of words.  But at least writing about London proved to me that I hadn’t lost it (whatever ‘it’ is) completely.

On Wednesday night I did something a bit different.  I read the chapter aloud.  Perhaps I should have done it a long time ago, because it was so obvious when I thought about it, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me.  I printed the chapter out and attacked it with a red pen and scissors.  And it worked.  Bashing it out line by line, aloud, showed exactly where the  problems were and what didn’t make sense, what needed more explanation and what would be better broken down into more sentences.   Thursday I spent typing up all the changes that I had made and by 2.30 that afternoon, I was a very happy girl.  It’s not ready, by any stretch of the imagination, but it will do as a first draft.  What’s more, it has lost its hold on my nightmares and no longer causes me feelings of guilt and insecurity.  Maybe it won’t be the best chapter in the thesis (who knows, maybe it will), but at least I’ve now got something down that I’m confident about.

I celebrated by unpacking a box-load of books.  I’ve inherited another library, he second in three months, so my brand new shelves are now groaning under the weight of scholarship I could never have afforded to buy.

Today I checked through the results of some searches that I ran on State Papers Online and found a perfect little nugget to help with one of my arguments, so I am very happy indeed.

Finally, I’d like to pass on my very best wishes to Glyn Redworth who retires from the University of Manchester this week after more years than either of us probably cares to think about.  Time to start a new chapter, in more ways than one.

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’ve been rather unpredictable in my blog posts lately, mainly because I used to write them on Friday evenings as a review of what I’d done during the ‘normal working week’ (Show me a scholar who works a normal working week?  No? No, me neither…), but since the summer the whole family has been going to choir practice on a Friday evening.  That has thrown out my blogging routine completely and it has yet to settle in to a new one.  My child-free time (the school day) is so precious for work that I’m loathe to use it to write the blog.

Anyway, the other reason that I haven’t given many reports on what I’ve been doing lately is because I haven’t been doing all that much work.  It doesn’t seem all that interesting to report that I’ve read a few books.  I finally finished Steve Hindle’s The State and Social Change in Early Modern England.  I started on it before I had my nasty infection, which finally forced me to take a day or two off to recover, then I finished off and submitted the article I’d been writing.  When I went back to work I started reading Ethan Shagan on Popular Politics and the English Reformation.  My supervisor asked me what I thought about the Hindle monograph, I confidently gave a reply, he asked if I’d finished reading it, I said ‘yes’ and then as the conversation progressed I began to doubt myself…  When I hung up the phone, I went and picked the book up and, sure enough, I was only half way through.   So that put the wind up me.  I genuinely thought I’d finished it.  I had finished it by the end of the next day!

I catalogued 50 more ballads.

I organised another research trip to the British Library for January.

I had yet another telephone conversation about the abandoned common weal chapter, another ‘wobble’.   It was a conversation with my husband that gave me the starting point that sent me running to my study to grab a notebook and start scribbling ideas.  He unwittingly found me the angle I’ve been missing for the last 2 months and I filled a couple of pages with scribblings about how to turn the disparate ideas into something resembling a chapter.  I then had only a few days before the children finished school for Christmas in which to get started.  I decided to write a plan for the chapter and develop it from there.  So at the moment I have a file on my computer called ‘Developed Chapter Plan’ which lists in order all the points I want to make.  It includes a chunk of writing I’d already done on some manuscript miscellanies and several useful primary and secondary quotations that I’d already come across.  My intention is for the chapter to grow from the plan.

So then the break for Christmas.  Father Christmas brought me a large stack of books.  Alexandra Walsham on Church Papists, Hiram Morgan on Tyrone’s Rebellion, Landlords and Tenants in Britain, a book on the Aztecs and one on Mindfulness.  Plenty of reading material there for the new year.

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.

You may  have noticed that there wasn’t a blog post on Friday evening.  Nor was there one the Friday before.  There reason was that I didn’t feel like it; I didn’t want to acknowledge in public that I’m still stuck in the bog, probably waist rather than ankle-deep now.  In fact, if truth be told, I just didn’t want to think about my work any more than I absolutely had to.  Not that it worked – I was thinking about it constantly anyway.


English: Looking over the bog

English: Looking over the bog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The chapter is not going well.  I’d go so far as to say that the chapter is doing something quite unusual:  it’s going backwards.  Having eventually managed to churn out around 6500 words, I then decided that what I’d done was a load of rubbish.  I haven’t hit the delete button, but you can be quite sure that no-one is ever going to see those 6500 words ever again.  I’m not at all happy with the way I approached the material, but I can’t see another way of attacking it.  I know it’s not right, but I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve spent this entire week wondering how to improve things and trying to think of an angle to take that will let me approach the common weal ballads, but I can’t come up with a solution.  As I have a supervision meeting this week, I have concentrated on writing about four manuscript miscellanies I’ve studied, really just to practice writing with clarity and simplicity rather than because I think it will be particularly useful for the thesis. Oh, and because I needed something to hand in to my supervisors on Monday.

English: Snowed trees Polski: Ośnieżone drzewa...

English: Snowed trees Polski: Ośnieżone drzewa w Dąbrówkach Breńskich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I distracted myself by working ridiculously long hours on the ballad database last weekend.  It’s going quite well, except that moving information from the spreadsheet to the database proved to be more of a challenge than I expected and has proved to be rather time consuming.  But it is considerably easier, already, to find the information I need.  There are long hours ahead of me working on that, I fear.  I am in the process of planning a trip to the British Library too.  So I think the main problem with my work is stress – I’m just snowed under.  The problem with the chapter was exacerbated by a realisation of just how much work I have to do in the next few weeks.  So there’s plenty to discuss at my next supervision meeting, not least of which is strategies to cope.