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.

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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.

 

 

 

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