Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800

By Patricia Fumerton, and Anita Guerrini, with Kris McAbee. 2011. London: Ashgate Publishing. 285 pages. ISBN: 9780754662488 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Andrew Rouse, Pécs University

[Review length: 3101 words • Review posted on April 23, 2012]


I received my review copy in the middle of an undergraduate course on British popular culture for Hungarian students of English, and from the first to the last page was repeatedly struck by two mutually exclusive thoughts -- this is exactly what they needed... what a shame their English isn’t up to it! Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 does indeed holds true “to its promise of offering a groundbreaking and fuller perspective on ballads and broadsides in Britain” between those two dates (5), and the seventeen sections paint a broad palette of the three-hundred-year ballad scene.

Despite having an introduction (Fumerton and Guerrini’s, “Straws in the Wind” -- also the name of the conference in 2006 which initiated this volume) and an afterword (Bruce R. Smith’s “Ballad Futures”), each specifically written to “parcel” the product, it is not entirely simple to discover a central guiding purpose to the volume. There is, of course, the title itself which gives a chronological perspective. A glance at the authors in the table of contents might justify the reader in believing that this is a largely feminist experiment (with apologies to Messrs. Newman and Pettitt), but the studies are not united down this narrow path, and, in fact, the one overtly feminist approach is one of the weaker moments in this otherwise strong collection. Finally, one must conclude that diversity is what brings together the individual pieces, but it is also a largely successful attempt to achieve the totality of that diversity. (Luckily, what it omits can be found in another recent, chronologically overlapping Ashgate publication, Vic Gammon’s Desire, Drink and Death in English Folk and Vernacular Song, 1600-1900 [2008]). An interesting and helpful element of the book is that its authors cross-reference one another throughout.

The volume is divided into five main sections, each containing three studies. Part One, Re-Collecting and Re-Defining Ballads, begins with co-editor Patricia Fumerton’s exploration into “something very new... afoot via the workings of the web in the ways we collect and think about the past” (13). While we must be grateful for the sudden upsurge in available data (trustworthy and otherwise), we should remember that “there is nothing much new in the drive to assemble different kinds of information on a grand scale” (13). Indeed, if we observe Child’s own ambition to create a definitive collection of ballads and make them available in one place, then the mentality of the database was already at work, even if lacking the technical wherewithal to juxtapose items in the way now possible through search engines. While electronic archives offer ballad multidimensionality-- art, text, song-- in a way hitherto unimaginable, we should beware of believing that this access allows “whole vision” (34) and more than physical collections did.

Paula McDowall predates the database, citing the doom-and-gloom prognosis of Ong (1967) that electronic devices as well as writing and print were attempting to displace the word from its natural oral habitat, and comparing this with Percy’s evaluations two hundred years earlier. In the eighteenth century, the first in which ballads were collected as a preservation exercise, attitudes, treatment, and esteem varied considerably, even within a single collection. Ballads make money, but they are also praised for their “historical, educative and entertainment value” (41). Ritson’s views on Percy’s methods are shown; north of the border, the theoretical work of Scots Pinkerton, Scott, and Motherwell, for “the invention of printing necessarily occasioned the downfall of the Order of Minstrels” (50). We are finally reminded that popularity (and for Child his ballads were “popular”) can be found in both oral and written form, and that we should remain open to all forms of balladry, no matter in what guise we find it. This could almost be a manifesto of the combined authors of the book.

As Mary Ellen Brown’s essay on Child’s ballads opens we experience how, for the most part, excellent editing gives one the feeling that the authors are involved in some ball game whose aim is to expertly and aptly “pass the ball.” Ballads and Broadsides is adroitly edited. Child was faced with a conundrum, for “In Child’s thinking, manuscripts were a more reliable source than print; and behind manuscripts lay an even more reliable source, oral tradition” (59). Yet he himself was not exposed to that most reliable of sources, relying upon second-hand sources to provide him with his working material. Child constructed an infrastructure of field collectors: he advertised through appeals and circulars in his search for “original” material. Collectors varied from those doing piecework for money (P.Z. Round) to fellow scholars like Professor Skeat who willingly assisted Child. Child’s conundrum deepens, as Brown reminds us, since he preferred manuscripts even when they considerably post-dated broadsides. His attitude was shared by others, Sabine Baring Gould and others who “assumed that the broadsides were different, that they regularized the text, rather than reflecting and/or participating in tradition, which fostered multiformity” (69). Child is seen as “waffling about authenticity” (71), and I am grateful to Mary Ellen Brown here and to other examples throughout the book when I can enjoy the author departing from the anonymous academic to the flesh-and-blood conversational in order to put a point. The closing paragraph emphasizes that “there are...many things called ‘ballad,’ only some of which are Child ballads” and (Brown having just called upon Fumerton) ends with the words cited by McDowall: “popularity need not be limited to the oral.” It would be uncharitable to call this a mutual appreciation society.

Part Two is titled Strange News: Tradition, Journalism, and Monstrosity, and turns away from the traditional ballad firmly toward the street commodity. Here we have the murdered sweetheart, the hog-faced woman, and other advertised monstrosities popular in the eighteenth century and, to be fair, today. (It was not twenty years ago when the population of the tiny Hungarian village in which I live was entertained by an itinerant dwarf!) But to return to the murdered sweetheart. The vast majority of murder ballads is purportedly journalistic; the victims are rarely if ever strangers, they are female, and quite possibly pregnant. In other words, not only, as Pettitt states, in ballads of femicide, but also in some cases infanticide: a large proportion of young women had proven their fecundity prior to the calling of the banns. They were also sensational, and as a result selective in the degree of truth they contained. Pettitt uses the well-known tale of Maria Marten to illustrate, going into marketing strategies that are responsible for manipulating the tale, which centralizes the victim and as such can be seen as an older ballad type.

Tassie Gniady investigates the story of the unfortunate Dutchwoman Tannakin Skinker, who in 1639 sailed to England in hope of a husband who would release her from a curse laying a hog’s face upon her until such time as she married. At this time monsters were favored and commonplace entertainments at fairs and elsewhere-- Pepys enjoyed a visit-- so why did the poor girl receive such undue attention in the printing-houses? The accompanying figures show Tannakin as otherwise unmonstrous and well-dressed – she merely has an appended snout. The ballad (and later versions) shows “enduring misogyny inherent in assigning blame to the mother in births that produce children that are in some way anomalous” (100). Ugliness keeps Tannakin single, within the confines of a public exhibition: she will never become the reverse of the more commonly depicted wife in “Noyes Fludde” or “The Pensioner’s Complaint,” who doubtless was taken to wife in the full flush of beauty but has become a harridan.

Guerrini’s writing, concerning more monstrosity and human exhibition in early eighteenth-century London, also begins with a Dutch example-- this time the “tallest person that ever was seen here before...to be seen, for Two Shillings and Six-Pence” (109). Part of the draw of monstrosity is its foreignness-- a 1690s poster advertises a “Changling-Girl...taken by a Venetian Galley, in the Turks Country...of Hungarian Parents” (111), and conjoined Hungarian sisters attracted crowds in the early eighteenth century. (Did “Hungarian” itself attract, like the misnationalized Eliza Doolittle?) Even local foreignness was preferred to proximity of origin -- the “bristly boy” came from Suffolk. Seventeenth-century adverts and ballads alike mostly bypassed Stationers’ Company registration. Descriptions are quasi-scientific, and “control the narrative of display” (127). Yet Guerrini’s use of the past perfect form in her penultimate sentence (“Vulgar curiosity had not yet lost its appeal, even to the learned” [127]) may be optimistic in the implied current non-existence of that curiosity.

Part Three, The Criminal Subject: Gender, Law and Emotion, provides us with three aspects of crime that may have attracted more attention in the ephemeral press than in courts of law: the making of oaths and murderous wives, the petty traitor, and the emotional life of crime. For those worried about gender imbalance in domestic murder so far, Simone Chess redresses it in her piece about husband murder, although I fear that some gratuitous phallic metaphor weakens the argument. By their very nature, the majority of physically handled weapons, whether by design or un/sub/conscious choice, will be more likely to be pointed than rounded, and to treat them as phallic is ingenious more than psychological. One wonders what tool of John Wallen’s could have been picked up as murder weapon that would fail to have “phallic” implications (136). The “fear of the actual angry female body” (143), as Chess refers to it, needs to be seen in a historical context. In The Struggle for the Breeches Anna Clark makes a good case for industrial working women being “actual angry female bodies” in lieu of a political voice.[1] “The mob” was certainly not gender specific, or when it was, then in surprising ways.

Frances E. Dolan reassesses the relative reliability of different sources: law records, pamphlets, ballads, plays, etc., and selectivity: “a petty traitor had to: succeed in killing her husband, get caught, and get convicted. Popular print...leaves out both ends of the legal spectrum--those who don’t get caught and, for the most part, those who are acquitted” (152). Conversely, with later goodnight ballads, those of murderous wives could appear many decades later than the deed itself, answering “a period of intensified interest” in the phenomenon (153). Dolan’s treatment of a particular subject across genres reminds us of the importance of multiple sources in historical interpretation.

Joy Wiltenburg approaches the ballad as a source for the “true-life” emotional in general and specifically in crime. Her premise is that a discourse more complex than the conventional division of fact-reason and fiction-emotion is required, a caveat wherein “the representation of [a] power over subjectivity does not make it reality” (174). She depicts the necessarily genuine repentance of goodnight ballads, the culprits’ “weeping eyes and... bleeding hearts” (174-5), “sorrow for one’s family” and “to my friends a shame” (178) as endorsement of public opinion and the justice system. The genre is long-lived--from at least the sixteenth century through to (more or less) the end of public execution. These ballads, with notable exceptions (Sam Hall), are suffused with guilty consciences, with the wringing of hands, the wracking of the soul, “even in cases where the protagonists were unlikely to have felt such sentiments” (181). Ballads also manipulated the sympathies of the audience/reader. They are, after all, the judgment of two executions: one carried out in earlier time by the culprit, and another surrogately through the law by the audience itself. For this reason they “invite intensive imaginative participation” (186).

Part IV turns to The Matter of Print: Class, Craft and Authorship, beginning with Steve Newman’s discussion of the elite appropriation of popular song through “The Maiden’s Bloody Garland,” attributed in places to Thomas Warton; a strange piece on the rarely found topic of suicide. Even the tune suggests that “we are in the presence of mere fakelore” (193). Newman pieces together the elements and clues surrounding the ballad through time and geography, allowing us a way to “see a way to complicate our understanding of what was involved when elite authors appropriated popular song” (205).

Angela McShane investigates the political ballads of the “shoomaker” balladeer, Richard Rigby, active at the turbulent time (as far as political ballad printing was concerned, at least) of William of Orange’s successful Protestant takeover bid for the crown. No shrinking violet, Rigby (unusually) both named himself and included woodcuts paramount to signatures on his some dozen political ballads. In following Rigby’s career, McShane gives both a “rare example of interplay between ballad text, author, and image [but] also ... the fluidity of the relationship between authors and ballad publishers” (215). McShane suggests that as a cobbler he would have had regular access to “people from every station” (219), making him more politically aware and so apt to compose ballads. Rigby was what we would today call freelance, but in a time before the 1710 copyright act. The power was with the printers and publishers: “If a name sold, then they used and abused it, bringing in other writers to augment and exploit the potential of that name” (225), so we should see ballad writing as often being a workshop product.

This section closes with Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell’s sophisticated likening of Hogarth’s pregnant ballad sellers with the engraver’s matrix. Whether or not “Hogarth’s gritty print vendors” really did “register the overall tone of the scene” as “barometers sensitive to their social climate” (243) is a matter for debate. The final paragraphs of this chapter arguing paternity are suspect in their unhappy and exclusive use of the male-- “the visual artist and his art,” “compelled to promote his copper plates and engravings,” “part of himself,” “metaphoric relation to his work” (my italics). Especially when the printing industry listed more than one woman.

The final section of this fascinating collection of studies engages the border crossings that cannot be ignored in studies of English balladry, whether those crossings are transgressions of adjacent political borders or longer migrations. “Chevy Chase,” the subject of the first chapter, is an excellent case in point: it is a “border ballad” with versions (and protagonists) on either side. The border was long in flux, and language (as opposed to accent) was not a valid criterion for distinguishing between Scot and Englishman, for, as Ruth Perry cites from a 1583 source, the clans on either side “will be Scottishe when they will and English at their pleasure” (251), rather like a Scottish lorry driver in trouble with the law will doubtless ask for the British consul! Before the death of the clan system, chieftains could -- and judging from the ballad –would demand a terrible blood price of their men for a personal disagreement. This study sees in the last line of the ballad a modern prayer: “a hope that the wars foisted on [ordinary people] by their superiors might one day come to an end” (262).

Dianne Dugaw’s revisitation of her warrior women was a delight, not only to read but to hum as well. In a book dealing with what, after all, is a performance genre, it seems a shame to have to wait until the penultimate study before encountering a stave with notes, though in fairness “to the tune of” is alluded to more than once, and is central to some arguments and examples. Nevertheless, Dugaw has taken the invitation to return to her theme and reanimate some of the many historic women who were not content with their conventional roles and were prepared to discard their petticoats to achieve their aims. These are flesh-and-blood women whose objectives are by no means always as romantic as some ballads would have it, loyally following their true loves across the briny sea; like oldest sons in the Irish famine, they left to alleviate suffering of their loved ones, sought out an economically more advantageous lifestyle, or simply preferred their new way of life. Daring a personal note: I met Dianne at an IBC conference and purchased her Warrior Women fresh off the press. As they say, you don’t have to have read the book to appreciate the study...but it helps.

Noelle Chao winds up the volume (bar the afterword) by looking at the English Opera, more specifically John Gay’s importance in creating the genre and most specifically through his lesser-known sequel, Polly, a play that earned Gay a tidy sum and secured him a home even though it was only published, not performed, during his lifetime. (That came in 1777 at the Haymarket Theatre, with a new version in 1922 at the Kingsway Theatre.) Chao sees the emergence of the English, low-life opera in contrast with the fashionable Italian opera, a product in a foreign language, with foreign stars, with an exclusively sung libretto divided into recitatives and arias. London was musically cosmopolitan and Handel was “a German composer writing Italian operas for an English audience” (299). But across the Atlantic another narrative was being played out, or perhaps more accurately choreographed, by colonial and native forces. British or English (the author disconcertingly interchanges these titles as though synonyms) (302) inhabitants of South America and the West Indies as well as “further north” were dependent upon the Mosquito and the Iroquois, respectively. As these political and military alliances played themselves out, chieftains were persuaded to visit Britain for educational and diplomatic reasons (and, let’s be fair, to be shown off). It was inevitable that they should enter street balladry and so, though less inevitable, not surprising that Gay should choose them as a topic for a sequel to his Beggar’s Opera.

Though this last chapter in the volume may seem to stand out on a limb from the other contributions, in fact it rounds off the collective “totality” of the chapters. Bruce Smith’s afterword also rounds them off, in another way, by observing that the ballad is an entity placed in a past, a present and a future, both chronicling and providing “true” and topical news items. Even “a new tune could make an old story new” (321). Re-collected in such archives as EBBA, the ballad, in whatever guise, will play--is already playing--an important and complex future role in reconstructing our history.

One final comment. As a lifelong loyalist to the footnote cause, I was delighted once again with Ashgate’s footnote policy whereby I can see at a glance whether it is necessary to consult more deeply a number in the text, or happily pass it by, and fervently hope that this signifies the eventual demise of the pernicious, annoying endnote.

[1] Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.