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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You may have noticed that I didn’t post a blog last week.  This was mainly down to the tremendous amount of stress I was under – several problems, nothing to do with my PhD and way beyond the scope of this blog, came together to make last week the week from hell.  What few attempts I made to do some work mainly consisted of staring at the screen, writing a couple of sentences, staring at the screen some more and then deleting the couple of sentences.  One step forward, one step back.  On Wednesday evening I went to the Willows Folk Club in Kirkham, where I had a lovely chat with an old friend, Sue Bousfield.  Sue has worked with the EFDSS on their Full English project, so it was nice to talk about my work with someone who is familiar both with the material and the style of English folk songs.  Hard to know whether it was the music (and herewith I attach Steve Tilston singing the traditional song ‘Courting is a Pleasure’, simply because I can’t find a video of him singing ‘Martin Said to his Man’, which is known to late Elizabethan or early Jacobean – I forget which) or the conversation with Sue about the extent of source material from the mid-Tudor period, but on the Thursday, for the first time in weeks, I managed to write 1000 words.  And what’s more, I didn’t feel the need to delete them.  Writer’s block demolished?  It seems so.  Still, I have an enormously long list of things to do and although I am slowly ticking things off it, it gets longer and longer all the time.  The latest addition is to explore the Full English Digital Archive.

On Saturday I went Hebden Bridge for the afternoon , to the Trade Roots Festival.  I spent Sunday afternoon working on my ballad epitaph article, then on Monday I went into Manchester to read a book by Steve Hindle and have lunch with a friend.  By Monday evening, I felt much better.  My plan this week was to get the first draft of the full length version of my ballad article complete by yesterday afternoon, and thankfully, I managed.  That meant that today I was able to turn my attention to the seminar paper that I will be giving in a couple of weeks, on the Thomas Cromwell ballad flyting.  By just after lunch I was happy with the skeleton I’d constructed.  I will practise it over the next couple of weeks, but I have no intention of fleshing it out any more than it already is.

…which I suppose is not really surprising!  I’ve had a really good day, but I know I can’t carry on now, because it’s too late to start on another section that could drag on into the night.  I’ve written 4800 words of my chapter on images of Mary, and although doubtless some of them need pruning, I’m just going to keep writing for now, and try to cull it later.  I’ve been writing about the ballads that I’ve found, and placing them in the context of the other publications that describe.  I’m having a whale of a time, and really enjoying it.  There is something very satisfying about investigating these ballads, and reading between their lines to see the attitudes to women in power.

However, today has had its poignant moments.  I’ve been looking through the Calendar of State Papers (Spanish) and State Papers Online, and came across several messages sent from Europe congratulating Mary on the birth of the son she never had, and the announcement of the birth with gaps left for the sex of the baby.  On a human level, regardless of her murderous reputation, it’s so sad.

I’ve changed tack a bit this week.  Instead of doing random keyword searches or looking up all the records in English for each year on EEBO, I looked up recusant women on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, made some notes on them and then started trying to find references to them on EEBO, State Papers and British History Online.  It’s quite interesting, though it hasn’t particularly turned up anything stunning (so far?).  What strtikes me is that women bring up the children, and presumably are responsible for passing on Catholicism to their offspring, and then they marry them into recusant families or send them abroad to seminaries and convents.  Is it going down the female line?  I’m not sure that this theory doesn’t fall down as soon as women get married into a recusant family.  Unsurprisingly, Catholic families like the Arundells, Howards and Vauxes intermarry.  Margaret Clitherow was converted to the old faith, and although her husband remained Protestant, the children were brought up Catholic.  One at least went abroad to be trained as a seminarian.  I wonder what is known of the rest of them – I’d have to check.

Is it easier, in a way, for a woman to be a recusant than a man?  They don’t face the same social, legal and work restrictions that a Catholic man would because they don’t apply to a woman anyway.  It’s not as if a woman is going to be barred from a career because of her beliefs!  Quite a few of the devout women I looked up seem to be married to church papists (men who went to church but didn’t communicate and still held Catholic belief in private).  For the wives of church papists, is it possible that their husbands would object to their overtly Catholic activities because they were afraid that their womenfolk would hold them back?  Or is it possible that they let their wives shelter priests and hold Masses in their homes because they secretly sympathised with their faith?  Indeed, what could they in fact have done to stop them?

I’m also interested in the way that having a confessor in the house shifts patriarchy from the male head of the family to the male confessor.  I know that there has been work done on it, but there just haven’t been enough hours in the day and week to look into it yet.

I didn’t do my update last night, so here it is.

Yesterday was much more productive. I checked all the records for 1555, which was interesting, if a little on the slow side. In the afteroon I carried on with my secondary reading – I’ve moved on to Megan Matchinske, because it was shorter. I rarely choose books from my shelf on that basis, but after the slog that was the Anne Dillon book I wanted something that I could finish quickly. I am getting along quite quickly with it. I think I might go for ‘Neither Saints Nor Sinners’ next, as it was recommended by a university friend. I really ought to finish Questier and Lake’s Margaret Clitherow book that I have on my kindle, and I had started Stephen Haliczer’s ‘Between Exaltation and Infamy’, so perhaps I ought to go back to that rather than leave it as unfinshed business. The thing is that they are all books that I own, but I feel a compulsion to read library books before they are due back.

I also did some singing practice, and I now have an earworm – Falla’s Seguidilla Murciana – which is running round my brain constantly. It would be easier to handle if I knew the words, but all I can remember at the moment is “Cual quiera que el teja-a-do/ Tenga de vi-i-drio…” Admitedly those two lines then repeat a couple of times in the first verse, but nevertheless it’s not a lot to go on and could well mean that it sticks in my brain wrong and at some stage I have to make a superhuman effort to relearn it!