Thinking Categorically and Pepys’s Categories

by Eric Nebeker (2007)

Samuel Pepys organized his ballads, in part, by topic: “Devotion and Morality,” “History,” “State and Times,” “Tragedy,” “Love—Pleasant,” “Love—Unfortunate,” and so on. Along with these rather straightforward sounding categories (and the essays on the particular categories will show that they are not as straightforward as they seem), Pepys included “promiscuous” and “miscellaneous” categories. One of my responsibilities in preparing this essay was to read each of the ballads in these miscellaneous categories and assign them to their proper topical category. In doing this, I realized a challenge that Pepys and those who worked for him faced: the proper category for a ballad is often not self-evident. This ambiguity poses certain problems in regard to the categories, and in particular in regard to the “promiscuous” and “miscellaneous” categories. Should we approach Pepys’s categories as meaningful units or as somewhat haphazard groupings? If we see them as meaningful units, what do we make of the “promiscuous” and “miscellaneous” categories? Are they for ballads that do not fit well into any other category? Or are they the signs of fatigue, that at some point the task of assigning each ballad to a category was simply overwhelming? In this set of essays we address Pepys’s categories because we find them meaningful. But we also recognize that the categories are shaped not only by the content of the ballads but also by the difficulties and limitations inherent in collecting, organizing, and managing a group of texts this large.

In order to understand the interplay between conceptualization of the collection and the difficulty of making that conception a reality, some preliminary remarks about Pepys’s organization of his ballad collection are required. He organized his collection according to topic and format, the format also roughly corresponding to the dates of the ballads. The organizing principles of the volumes are evident in the table of contents for the five volumes. On the left page of the table of contents is a list of the topical categories. On the right page is a table with page numbers and volumes. The volumes are further divided into three groups: “MSS [manuscripts] & Long Ballads ancient” (Volume 1), “Common Ballads in the Black Letter” (Volumes 2, 3, and 4), and “Verse Ballads in the White Letter” (Volume 5). Organizing the collection, then, required choosing between three groups based on format and date, and eleven topical categories.

Though it seems that placing ballads in one of three groups would be simple, “A Small Promiscuous Supplement” of Volume 1 demonstrates that even this could turn into a problem. Along with a few sixteenth-century manuscript ballads, Volume 1 primarily consists of early to mid-seventeenth century ballads. As explained in my “Heyday” essay under Ballad Culture and Printing, those ballads are longer than and formatted differently from the ballads in the other volumes. The “Promiscuous Supplement” in Volume 1, however, consists of ballads printed in the late seventeenth century. We know that at least several (and perhaps all) of these ballads are reprints of ballads that date back to at least the early seventeenth century. A few of the ballads even appear as earlier editions in other categories in Volume 1.1 The ballads of the “Promiscuous Supplement” retain the format of the earlier editions, and thus are visually out of place with the format of the later ballads in the other volumes, even though they were printed contemporaneously with them. The logic behind the “Promiscuous Supplement” appears to be that the ballads grouped therein do not entirely belong in either the grouping of Volume 1 or in the groupings of Volumes 2 through 5. Creating a separate, supplemental category for them is a simple solution to that organizational problem.

Thus the table of contents is an interesting record of ambitions and frustrated intentions. The immense labor of dividing over 1,800 ballads into eleven different categories (as well as defining adequate categories) becomes clear through the way some of the categories are collapsed during the process of sorting. “Love Pleasant” and “Love Unfortunate,” for example, are collapsed in Volume 4 in the list of pages they occupy (on the right). However, they retain their separate status in the table of contents in the list of categories (on the left), which indicates that they occupy the same space while maintaining the conceptual idea of separate categories. Why? It is likely that the work required to continue to sort the ballads was just too great.2 This problem is intensified for the categories “Humor and Frolicks, and mixt” and “Drinking and Good Fellowship.” These categories are also combined in Volumes 4 and 5, making Volume 1 the only place they remain distinct. Furthermore, the title pages to these sections in Volumes 4 and 5 rename them “Various Subjects Mixt. vizt”; thus, unlike “Love Pleasant” and “Love Unfortunate,” “Humor and Frolicks” and “Drinking and Good Fellowship” lose even their conceptual distinction in these volumes.

Richard Luckett, in explaining why Pepys’s ballad collection lacks an index, mentions a note in Pepys’s papers in which employees complain of the labor involved in completing the task. As Luckett paraphrases, “the number of ballads was too great, and their individual importance too small.”3 Clearly, organizing the ballads presented a similar problem. The problem of labor was intensified by the haste with which the collection was finished and bound. There is evidence that Pepys felt pressure to finish organizing and binding his library—of which the ballads are only a small part—in the last years of his life (for more on Pepys’s library and collecting practices see Fumerton’s essay “Recollecting Samuel Pepys”). This pressure led to haste in completing the collection, as evidenced by the inclusion of duplicate ballads, something Pepys tried to avoid, and the quick unbinding, reorganizing, and rebinding of the ballad collection between 1700 and 1703.4

The labor-intensive process of organizing the ballads was not the only difficulty associated with Pepys’s categories. In the miscellaneous sections, some of the ballads are very difficult to categorize. For example, the miscellaneous section of Volume 4 contains a series of three very similar ballads about lamenting birds (4.267-4.269). In “The Birds’ Harmony ” (4.268, EBBA 21929), the ballad uses characteristics of birds to express sorrows:

Then said the Black-bird as she fled,
      I had a Love but now she’s dead,
And now my Love I dearly lack,
      which is the cause I do go in black,
And by my self I sadly mourn,
      like to one forsaken, helpless, and forlorn.

Each stanza is assigned to a different bird, and all but two have been unfortunate in love.5 In addition, this ballad is adorned with woodcuts of a man, a woman, and a couple.6 Both the text and the woodcuts would seem to fit perfectly in the “Love Unfortunate” category. But there are two complications. 1) In “Love Unfortunate” there are no other ballads that use personified animals to express the sorrows of lovers. Its technique, then, makes it stand out even if the general topic is the same; 2) the other ballads in this series of lamenting birds are less consistent in their theme.

The woodcuts on the other two ballads in the series, “The Woody Querristers [choristers]” (4.267, EBBA 21928) and “The Birds’ Lamentation” (4.269, EBBA 21930), are exclusively of birds, none of which hint at the topic of love. Furthermore, while most of the sorrows are the result of unfortunate love, some are explicitly the result of other things; the goldfinch in “The Birds’ Lamentation,” for instance, is in a “rage” because he is “penn’d up in a Cage.” Thus despite the similarity of these ballads (the first and the last even share several stanzas), the series could have been broken up and the individual ballads placed in separate topical categories within the collection. Placing these ballads required deciding whether or not they should be kept together as well as deciding in which topical category they best fit. In this instance a miscellaneous category apparently seemed the most appropriate choice.

The miscellaneous categories help us understand both the practical difficulties and the conceptual difficulties Pepys and his team encountered when compiling this collection. Furthermore, they can help us understand the other categories by forcing us to ask what kinds of ballads might or might not be included in these categories. On a larger scale, they remind us to keep a proper perspective on genres and categories: they are useful, but limiting. It is important to think within, without, and about these categories. In short, they remind us once again that ballads are promiscuous.


1 For example, an early seventeenth-century copy of “Constance of Cleveland” appears in the “Tragedy” category, and a late seventeenth-century copy is in the “Promiscuous Supplement.”

2 In Volume 5 the “Love Pleasant” and “Love Unfortunate” categories are again separated. This may seem surprising, but it is unlikely that the organization of the ballads was done in a chronological way.

3 Richard Luckett, “The Collection: Origins and History,” in Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge, II:ii, compiled by Helen Weinstein. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), xiv.

4 Richard Luckett, interview conducted by Patricia Fumerton, July 10, 2007. Pepys’s ballad collection was rebound at least twice and perhaps three times up to 1703. The binding recorded in 1693 included four volumes. The binding made around 1702 added a volume, bringing the total to five.

5 The two stanzas in which the birds are not lamenting unfortunate love are nonspecific in their sorrows. Thus, given the context of unfortunate love in the other stanzas, they may nevertheless be read along those lines.

6 There is also a woodcut of what appears to be a fox. The significance of this woodcut is not clear.


Works Consulted

“Appendix Classica.” In Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Ed David McKitterick. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1991.

Facsimile of Pepys’s Catalogue. Vol. 7, Part 1: “Catalogue” and “Alphabet” and Vol. 7, Part 2.

Luckett, Richard. “The Collection: Origins and History.” In Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge, II:ii, compiled by Helen Weinstein. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994. xi-xxi.

---. Interview conducted by Patricia Fumerton. July 10, 2007.