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The Social Function of the Broadside Ballad; or, a New Medley of Readers

by Paxton Hehmeyer (2007)

Broadside ballads were sung, read, memorized, collected, quoted, copied—or met more ignominious ends as kindling for a pipe or paper for the privy house. They were pasted on alehouse walls or in the collections and commonplace books of high officials. In short, ballads inhabited what Tessa Watt has called a "shared culture" of cheap print that reached across social and geographic boundaries in early modern England.1To follow the ballad along its vagabond course in the packs of chapmen and pockets of the gentry is to follow it through the hands of many different readers, for the very length of its reach ensured the variety of its reception.

Reading a Ballad

Sometimes ballads spread the latest news and gossip, inspiring the famous ballad scholar Hyder Rollins to compare ballads to the "modern newspaper,"2 but this common comparison can mislead. "Turners Dish of Lenten Stuff" (Pepys 1.206), for instance, a ballad we will revisit throughout this essay, provides us with a medley of London street cries and trades. However, while this ballad does offer some useful information about tradesmen—beware the coal seller who hides a stolen goose in his pack—most of the facts reflect general attitudes towards the common vices of the trades rather than specific instances of abuse that we might find in a modern newspaper. As Mark Booth suggests, since hawkers sang the ballads when selling them—at least most of the ballads—customers would not have bought them simply to learn the content.3 Indeed, we should reconsider the comparison to the newspaper not only in regards to the ballad's content but also in regards to the unique representation of that content through the poetry, song, and woodcuts of the ballad. When trying to recover the broadside ballad's social function, we must move past analogies to modern media, as useful as they may be, to examine the ballad on its own terms. Indeed, what did people at the time think of ballads?

Many contemporaries—from Puritans to poets—insulted everything associated with ballads. In fact, broadside ballads seem to have occupied the place of "low" literature in an emerging high and low binary, a designation that colored the study of ballads well into the twentieth century.4 In "Turners Dish," the author even makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to this debate when he writes, "And Turners turnd a gallant man, / at making of a Ballet," boasting of his financial success from writing ballads compared to the "thredbare poets" who "write too eloquent." Although most ballad writers probably made little money from their endeavors, scholars believe ballads were a commercially successful product tailored to accommodate the largest possible readership. At the price of one penny, ballads were affordable to many of the poor, and when sung aloud they could be experienced even by the illiterate. However, forcing ballads into the place of solely low literature ignores their socially diverse readership and imposes upon them inappropriate generic standards. Therefore, though contemporary opinions about ballads give us a sense of the ballad's place in a developing definition of literature, they don't give us a sense of the ballad's place in the streets of London. To understand the ballad outside literary discussions, we have to investigate the people and practices surrounding the ballad's consumption.

The modern student most often reads a ballad alone and silently; but to its early modern audience, the ballad was first and foremost an exciting performance, "belonging to the 'show business' of the time."5 Peddlers sang them on street corners and in fairgrounds, telling tales of the Hog-faced woman or a recent battle in Ireland. These stories drew a crowd around the seller; in fact, the ballads were often written with that purpose in mind. "Turners Dish" begins by calling listeners to approach the singer: "I pray you all attend a while, / and lissen to my song." This rhetorical device, though common to folk songs and ballads, not only gathered customers but, even after the sale, grounded the ballad's performance in a group, helping cement social bonds between the participants. Whether sung by mongers in the street to their customers, between women to the rhythms of their spinning wheels, or amongst friends in alehouses, ballads created relationships.6 Perhaps we can even imagine the motley crew in "Turners Dish" as a cast list of performers united in song.

As important as singing ballads was to groups, it was also important to individuals. Ballads allowed their performers and listeners to inhabit new and different personas. As Patricia Fumerton describes it: "The audience can freely take or leave the offered voices, speculating wholeheartedly or intermittently in the ballad's multiple and dispersed identities. Such an audience quite literally expresses unsettled subjectivity."7 In "Turners Dish" the ballad's voice jumps in two stanzas from complaining of the cheats of peddlers, "your trickes I know full wel," to chanting the cries of a coal seller, "Buy smale Coles, or great Coles, / I have them one [sic] my back." Clearly, people could wear these personas both critically and sympathetically. In other words, ballads invited various responses from a single reader. Furthermore, playing a coal seller for a time must have meant very different things to the struggling poor than to the well-to-do; that is, to the various readers, a single persona also invited different responses. A ballad even occasionally prompted an improvised song on a different or related topic, thereby providing the template for more individual expression.8 We can see that the multiple subject positions within a ballad, the audience/performers' various backgrounds, and the specific combination of different performers meant that a ballad functioned uniquely each time it was sung.

As aural events, ballads made possible role-play and the reinforcement and creation of social bonds. But however much the ballad echoed through the soundscapes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, it also circulated as a visual artifact. A Londoner wandering the streets would have come across ballads pasted in part or in whole on public posts, church doors, and the walls of homes and alehouses.9 For some, ballads would have first been encountered here not as performance or song but as decoration or advertisement.10 In early modern England, even writing and print were seen as visual art. With its handsome black-letter or gothic lettering and whimsical woodcut, "Turners Dish" could have provided an attractive adornment for a humble home or business. Of course, posted ballads could also serve as the sites for further readings, but as visual artifacts, these ballads must have helped habituate their audiences to new forms of visual communication including typography and the iconography of woodcuts (see the essays on Black Letter and Woodcuts). Finally, the ubiquity of writing and print as decoration may have also nurtured a secondary literacy, whereby certain well-known and widely-posted words or phrases became recognizable even to the illiterate.11

I have used a medley of terms here to describe the individuals and practices surrounding ballads: reader, writer, audience, singer, performer, listener, viewer, buyer, and seller. We could apply more. But in concluding we should reflect that the ballads before us today have been preserved through the collecting habits of Samuel Pepys, representing a different type of consumption altogether. Pepys may well have seen his collection as archiving the vanishing world of the black-letter broadside ballad.12 Perhaps, just as the creation of high and low categories for literature may have helped bring order to the chaotic world of print culture, Pepys used his collection to "gain a sense of control or completion" in his world.13 The modern reader will do well to keep that world in mind, even while bringing the ballad to the new situations and uses of the twenty-first century.


1 Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 5

2 Hyder Rollins, “The Black-Letter Broadside Ballad.” PMLA 34.2 (1919): 265.

3 Mark Booth, The Experience of Songs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 107-108

4 Garret Sullivan and Linda Woodbridge, "Popular Culture in Print," in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature: 1500-1600, ed. Arthur Kinney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 265-269; see also Natascha Wurzbach, Rise of the English Street Ballad, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 242-245.

5 Wurzbach, English Street Ballad, 228; See also Adam Fox, "Ballads and Libels," 317.

6 Bruce R. Smith, "Ballads Within, Around, Among, Of, Upon, Against, Within," in The Accoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: Unversity of Chicago Press 1999), 170-171 and 184-185.

7 Patricia Fumerton, Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2006), 150-151; for her discussion specifically of “Turner’s Dish,” see 149-150.

8 Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000), 321.

9 Rollins, “Black-Letter Broadside Ballad,” 326, 324-326, and 336-338.

10 Tessa Watt, "Publisher, Pedlar, Pot-Poet: The Changing Character of the Broadside Trade, 1550-1640," in Spreading the Word: the Distribution Networks of Print, 1550-1850, ed. by Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Winchester: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1990), 67.

11 Tessa Watt. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). 320.

12 Richard Luckett, "The Collection: Origins and History," in Catalogue of the Pepys Library. Ed. Robert Latham, vol. 2.ii. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994), 179.

13 Garret Sullivan and Linda Woodbridge, "Popular Culture in Print," in The Cambridge Campanion to English Literature: 1500-1600, ed, Arthur Kinney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 266; Marjorie Akin, "Pasionate Possession: The Formation of Private Collections," in Learning from Things: Method and Theory of Material Cultural Studies, ed. David Kingery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 108.

Works Consulted

Akin, Marjorie. "Passionate Possession: The Formation of Private Collections." Learning from Things: Method and Theory of Material Cultural Studies. Ed. David Kingery. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Booth, Mark. The Experience of Songs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Day, W.G. The Pepys Ballads. 5 vols. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1987.

Fox, Adam. Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000.

Fumerton, Patricia. Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Luckett, Richard. "The Collection: Origins and History." Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Ed. Robert Latham. Vol. 2.ii. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994.

Rollins, Hyder. "The Black-Letter Broadside Ballad." PMLA 34.2 (1919): 258-339.

Smith, Bruce R. "Ballads Within, Around, Among, Of, Upon, Against, Within." The Accoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Garret Sullivan and Linda Woodbridge. "Popular Culture in Print." The Cambridge Campanion to English Literature: 1500-1600. Ed. Arthur Kinney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wurzbach, Natascha. Rise of the English Street Ballad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

-----"Publisher, Pedlar Pot-Poet: The Changing Character of the Broadside Trade, 1550-1640." Spreading the Word: the Distribution Networks of Print, 1550-1850. Ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris. Winchester: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1990.