University of California Humanities Research Initiative - February 2006

Ballads and Broadsides Conference Project Narrative

The English Department’s Early Modern Center at the University of California–Santa Barbara is requesting $10,000 in funding from UCHRI towards a two-day conference on ballads and broadsides, 1500-1800, to be held at the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, UCSB, on February 24-25, 2006.

The Early Modern Center at UCSB is uniquely positioned to host such a conference. The Center is not only equipped with a small research library and the latest computing equipment and databases, but it is also strongly manned by nine faculty and twenty-five graduate students specializing in the study of literature and culture from 1500-1800 as well as affiliated faculty and students from other UCSB departments. Most importantly, the EMC has recently begun work on a one-of-a-kind online archive of English broadside ballads, 1500-1800. Unlike other recent ballad sites, such as the Bodleian’s, which offer only relatively poor quality facsimile images of its holdings, the EMC’s ballad archive will provide a fully searchable database and catalogue of high-quality facsimile images (digitized in three sizes) as well as modern transcriptions of the broadside ballads provided in such a way that the viewer never loses sight of the original ballad artifact. That is, visitors to our ballad site will be able to view a blackletter ballad with all its woodcuts and other ornaments and then be able to view the same aesthetic features while toggling to whiteletter or roman print, for easy reading (and printing). The "toggle" feature of our site makes it invaluable for the many scholars newly interested in broadside ballads both for personal research and for teaching. Viewers, especially undergraduates, will not be stymied by the difficult-to-read blackletter print, and the ballads will print easily as readable texts on 8 x 11 paper (for insertion in class Readers). The EMC ballad team is also working closely with the UCSB Music Department to provide authentic ballad music for the site. Art History (for help with the woodcuts) and the History Department (for contemporary issues and related broadside materials) are also involved with the project. Finally, we are working to ensure that the textual encoding of the ballads is TEI and XML compliant so that the archive will last the test of time and maximize accessibility to the scholarly community. The first stage of our project began this summer with the digitizing (in three sizes) and the cataloguing of all 1,775 broadside ballads in the Pepys collection. We shall have those ballads up in a searchable database within the next month. We began with the Pepys collection because the need here is greatest: most of these ballads are in blackletter print, which is extremely difficult to read even in the facsimile edition published by the Pepys Library. Furthermore, the EMC has been granted unprecedented and sole permission by the Pepys Library to mount its ballads online (Early English Books Online has been denied this right, hence Pepys’s ballads are mostly missing from this database). The next stage of our project will be to transcribe and then provide the music for the Pepys ballads, before moving on to other ballad collections in need of public access, such as the Roxburghe collection of some 2,000 blackletter ballads at the British Library. Given the EMC's intense investment in broadside ballads at UCSB, no other UC campus–indeed, I dare say, no other campus anywhere-- is better positioned to host the conference we propose.

The conference we propose, "Straws in the Wind: Ballads and Broadsides, 1500-1800," derives its title from a comment made by John Selden (whose collection of ballads Samuel Pepys built upon) in touting the importance of ballads or what he called "libels" of his time. "Though some make slight of libels," Selden protests, "yet you may see by them how the wind sits. As take a straw, and throw it up into the air; you shall see by that which way the wind is, which you shall not do by casting up a stone. More solid things do not shew the complexion of the times so well as ballads and libels." Produced by the millions, ballads not only reflected the temper of the times (especially lower and middling aesthetics, culture, and politics), but spoke volumes by comparison with the small production of texts printed primarily for the elite classes. Recognizing the historical weight of such flimsy “straws,” Selden and successive collectors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as Pepys and Roxburghe, gathered together what would otherwise be lost to the winds of time. Later editors who modernized these collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Hyder E. Rollins and W. Chappell, continued the collecting and thus preserving tradition. But the serious critical study of early ballads and broadsides only took off in the late twentieth century.

Exploding onto the literary and historical scene–with a series of books on ballads and broadsides produced between 1989 and 1992–critics such as Tessa Watt, Natascha Wurzbach, Joy Wiltenburg, and Dianne Dugaw held up these hitherto largely ignored literary "straws" for serious critical and cultural study. At the time, these scholars were participating in the emerging movement of what is known as "new historicism" or "cultural criticism." At the same time, however, they were taking a stance against the "elitism" that had governed such cultural study in its early years of the 1980s. Their books opened up the aesthetics of the "low," which in fact constituted the vast majority of early modern print. And they did so primarily for scholars of sixteenth through eighteenth-century studies. Broadside ballads, to be sure, are in some senses ageless–stretching back to medieval times and forward to the present day–but the period from 1500-1800 marked the rise of the printed blackletter broadside ballad as well as its eventual decline and displacement by other more popular forms of cheap print, such as chapbooks and, ultimately, the novel. This explains the temporal focus of our timely conference in the early modern period, defined as 1500-1800.

And our conference is indeed timely. Academia has recently entered a new wave of interest in ballads and other broadsides (a broadside, it should be noted, is any single sheet of paper printed on one side, which includes ballads). Spurred by the groundbreaking critics mentioned above, and aided by new electronic sites that have provided some public access to facsimile images of broadsides, such as the Bodleian Library’s "Broadside Ballads" ( and the National Library of Scotland’s "The Word on the Street" (, advanced and early-stage professors, as well as graduate students just beginning dissertations in the early modern field, are seizing the opportunity to expand and ground their visions of the early modern period by turning to ballads and broadsides. (It is precisely this new interest in broadsides that the EMC ballad archive seeks to further, by collecting and transcribing all extant ballads in a single database.) Addressing this breadth of interest, we have organized our conference so that it allows scholars at all career stages and levels of investment in the subject to come together to exchange ideas. Of the twenty-three listed participants, seven are distinguished early modernists internationally recognized as experts on ballads and/or broadsides; four are distinguished early modernists, whose focus has newly turned to ballads and/or broadsides; three are early modernists relatively early in their careers, and thus relatively new to the field of ballads and broadsides; and seven are graduate students just beginning work in the field. The various speakers and their qualifications are provided in Appendix II. A quick glance at this list will further reveal that our conference at the moment brings together no less than three UC campuses: UCSB, UC-Irvine, and UCLA. We plan to continue to reach out to other UC campuses in order to make sure that anyone interested in the subject is involved (a colleague yesterday, for instance, pointed us to John Niles, in the Department of English at Berkeley, whose work has included ballads from the textual point of view, and we wrote to him today). As befitting the multidisciplinary nature of the broadside ballad (text, document, art, song), furthermore, four Departments at UCSB are involved in the conference: English, History, Art History, and Music. Finally, it should be noted that, though varied in the stages of their careers and though affiliated with a variety of UC campuses and departments, the speakers listed below are unified in their enthusiasm to participate in the conference. We have received eager acceptances from 21 out of the 23 invited speakers (Helen Weinstein and Richard Luckett have not yet been reached). For the speakers's enthusiastic email letters of acceptance to participate as well as additional expressions of a desire to attend as moderator or respondent, by Helen Deutsch (UCLA) and Deborah Harkness (USC; recently of UC-Davis), please see Appendix III.

We have planned the conference so that it will bring this varied and eager group together around issues central to the study of ballads and broadsides. The first day will consist of sessions devoted to general concerns surrounding the problems of ballad collections as reliable sources of the past (with an emphasis on the Pepys archive, which the EMC is re-archiving electronically) as well as other questions about the formal features of ballads and broadsides (woodcuts and blackletter print) as well as of course ballad music and tunes. This first day will end in an afternoon of song, in which the audience will experience first hand the twinned role of being both audience of and participant in the singing of ballads, a "doubling" position characteristic of the early modern ballad experience. The second day will consist of sessions devoted to more specific themes pressing in ballads and broadsides of the period: the problem of women on the streets, the concern over transgressions of intimacy, in the form of both "bent" sex and violence; the preoccupation with monsters and wonders; and the rise to dominance in the late-seventeenth century of the political broadside, in both England and America. For a detailed list of the Conference Sessions, including the speakers assigned to each session, see Appendix I. We are very confident that this conference will draw large numbers of interested people from the UC system, the surrounding community, and even the country at large. We plan to publish the proceedings either on the EMC’s website or in paper publication, with accompanying CD.

Because so many scholars working on ballads and broadsides have been invited to participate in this conference--many of them distinguished scholars in the early modern field--we are requesting the maximum allotment the UCHRI grants: $10,000. Based on my past experience running conferences–the EMC sponsors one afternoon colloquium and one full day conference every year–I am confident that we will have no difficulty matching the grant by 50%. The Chair of the English Department, William Warner, has written a letter signifying as much: Appendix IV. UCSB has in the past been a strong support of the EMC’s activities, and this very worthy conference, conjoined as it is with the Center’s important online ballad archive, will undoubtable be recognized as most deserving of support. I hope you agree.

[Proposed conference sessions and budget follow. Speakers include such distinguished scholars as Frances Dolan, Dianne Dugaw, Patricia Fumerton, Anita Guerrini, Ruth Perry, Sean Shesgreen, William Warner, Joy Wiltenburg.]