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 fake 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]

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