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Ballad Creation and Circulation: Congers and Mongers

by Kris McAbee and Jessica C. Murphy (2007)

A Merry new Song

While some remarkable individuals stand out as playing a singular role during the heyday of the broadside ballad in seventeenth century England, ballad dissemination in the period largely depended upon the dynamics of groups. The individual writers, printers, singers, and/or sellers had to navigate through and work within these complex groups, whether these were organized parties controlling licenses or copyrights or mass audiences in crowded marketplaces where ballads were performed. Thus, when it comes to producing and disseminating ballads, there is no single or clear-cut story of how the "typical" ballad was made and circulated. A multifarious—and always changing—process among various contributors resulted in a ballad being composed, printed, sung, sold, and appreciated.

Like any piece of literature, early modern ballads were not written ex nihilo. The composition of a ballad could have been inspired by any number of events, and occasionally a publisher or printer commissioned a writer to compose a ballad. In other cases, a particular event—such as a political episode, natural disaster, or other extraordinary or interesting occurrence—inspired an attempt at composition. Often ballads describing significant happenings (such as a royal procession or an execution) were composed before the event even took place, and then sold among the crowd gathered to witness the spectacle. On the whole, ballad writers, described by one scholar as "hack versifier[s],"1 did not tap into the system of patronage available to writers in other literary circles, and, were therefore predominately poor unless they had another more lucrative source of income.2 Notice the details about printing, in lines of text known as the ballad "imprint," that appear on the ballads in EBBA: How often is a particular publisher ("for" whom the ballad was printed) or a particular printer ("by" whom it was printed) identified? In contrast, how frequently do the ballads credit a particular author? In general, a ballad writer sold his ballad to a publisher or printer (or a publisher who was also a printer) for a nominal price, thus giving up his "ownership" of the ballad. 3 The ballad writer was unlikely to see any additional profit from the ballad's distribution once it was in the hands of the printing house.4

In the early seventeenth century, a royal patent limited the number of printers permitted to print broadside ballads; the writer's finished ballad could be legally printed only by one of these printing houses. Printing houses were run by the printmaster, often called "father," and required a veritable "family" of workers: there were compositors, who placed the letters into a composing stick in order to load the galley which was a tray into which the type was transferred; pressmen, who often worked in pairs because the forme, which held all of the galleys for a given printing, was very heavy, and a lot of force was required to press the ink onto the paper; and proofreaders, who made corrections as the sheets came off the presses. Broadside ballads were printed on one side of a sheet of paper and required only one time through the press, unlike broadsheets, which were printed on both sides and went through the press once for each side.

Legally, nothing "should" have been printed that was not first registered with the Stationers' Company, but as with many aspects of the ballad trade, nothing is that clear-cut. For example, the imprint for Pepys ballad 4.23, "Modesty Amazed," states: "Printed for I Deacon at the Angel in Guiltspur-street without Newgate. You are desired to beware of a false Counterfeit Song in imitation of this true Copy, which is only Prined (sic) for I. Deacon, at the Angel in Guiltspur-street." 5 "I" or Jonah Deacon registered the title for this ballad and should have had exclusive rights to it, but there was still a pirated version on the loose. In 1557 the Stationers' Company, which was made up of men and women involved in the book trade, received a charter that gave them exclusive rights to all printing and permitted them to search bookshops and printing houses for works that violated these rights.6 Ballads, along with other non-book items, were explicitly included in this charter by a 1637 Star Chamber decree. The charter, which evolved over the years, kept the Stationers' Company in control of what was printed until 1694, when the House of Commons ended the long line of renewals. Although it might seem as if the Stationers' Company's monopoly was complete, however, many printed ballads were unregistered—one scholar estimates that about half of all surviving broadside ballads escaped registration.7

The publisher, in whose name a broadside ballad was registered and who was also frequently a bookseller or occasionally a printer, may have been one of the "Ballad Partners." Originally formed in 1624, the Ballad Partners were a group of six publishers: Cuthbert Wright, John Wright, Edward Wright, John Grismond, Thomas Pavier, and Henry Gosson. This group of changing membership is often called a "conger," a word that denotes a business syndicate in reference to the book trade, but which literally means a large eel that devours smaller creatures.8 The Ballad Partners did not have a complete monopoly over broadside ballads, however; there were competing associations, such as the Brooksby group, consisting of Phillip Brooksby, Jonah Deacon, Josiah Blare, and John Back. Whereas the larger eel might publish more conservative content, these smaller creatures were able to get away with less conventional and more topical material. Take a look at the publishers names listed at the bottoms to many ballads in EBBA—do you notice different trends in content or tone in ballads published by big congers or smaller publishers?

It is estimated that in 1656, the Ballad Partners decided to make a stronger effort to take on their competition and established a "Ballad Warehouse," in which they kept a stock of ballads to sell.9 This warehouse seems to have been effective enough to warrant rebuilding it after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The Ballad Warehouse was one of the places from which booksellers got their stock, keeping popular favorites in distribution.

While any individual looking to purchase a ballad could buy it directly from a bookseller, most individual purchases were made from itinerant sellers who would buy wholesale from the bookseller.10 Although ballad imprints could point to specific bookshops, these locations generally served as a point of origin for such distributors, who took the ballads out into the streets and even into the country to sell; in fact the imprint for Pepys ballad 4.65, "The MAY-Morning Ramble," tells us explicitly that "the Stationers-Arms in the Little Old-Bayly" is "Where all Country Chapmen and others may be Furnish'd with all Sorts of small Books and Ballads, at Reasonable Rates."

The success of these itinerant sellers, whether chapmen (traveling salesmen of small printed wares) or hawkers (less seemly characters who "cried" their wares in public), relied on their ability to perform the ballads. Their showmanship a function of their salesmanship, these ballad-sellers needed no permission or special license to perform and sell the ballads. They were seen as vagrants and they moved and worked along with the fringe elements of society, alongside such criminals as pickpockets (who could use the distraction of a lively ballad performance to swipe items from the audience). Exemplifying their less-than-respectable reputations, ballad sellers are variously described as "mongers." While this term denotes merely that these people traffic in a particular commodity, the connotation is a much more negative one: that they are engaged in a disreputable trade. Generally "ballad-monger" refers specifically to sellers, but, in keeping with the amorphous nature of ballad circulation, the term has also been applied to other players in the ballad game, such as Martin Parker, a man who was especially famous in his time as a ballad writer. These different types of "ballad-mongers" are emblematic of the issues at work in the production and dissemination of ballads: at every stage of circulation an individual could occupy a number of difficult-to-distinguish roles—writer, publisher, printer, singer/seller—many of which might earn him or her a bad reputation and all of which functioned concurrently with various groups, from the Stationers' Company to the Ballad Partners to the judging public itself.

1 Claude M. Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1966), ix.

2 Natascha Wurzbach, Rise of the English Street Ballad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 21.

3 Most ballad writers were probably men and there is no concrete evidence that women at this time wrote ballads. In any case, after the Restoration women increasingly played a role at all other levels of ballad dissemination, especially as singers (who are conflated with the authorial subject in many ballads in such phrases as "Listen to my tale" or "I have penned this"). Gender distinctions thus tended to blur at every stage of production.

4 Robert S. Thomson, "The Development of the Broadside Ballad Trade and Its Influence upon the Transmission of English Folksongs" (unpublished Ph.D. diss., Queens' College: Cambridge, 1974), 185.

5 An imprint includes publication information and is often found at the bottom right-hand side (or end) of a ballad. In the imprint "I. Deacon" stands for "Jonah Deacon." It was common in the early modern period to use "I" for "J." The facsimile transcriptions in EBBA correct for this to avoid confusion.

6 Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 78.

7 Hyder Rollins, "The Black-Letter Broadside Ballad," PMLA 34.2 (1919): 281.

8 Johns, Nature of the Book, 151.

9 Thomson, "Development of the Broadside Ballad Trade," 67.

10 Johns, Nature of the Book, 150.