Early modern English broadside ballads hovered between oral and print traditions, text and song, artifact and performance, high and low entertainment, and truth and fiction. The chapters in this diverse collection engage with the liminality of ballad culture from 1500 to 1800 in England and the New World. The result is conscientious interdisciplinary methodologies that engage with the histories of art, literature, music, and popular culture. Organized into five parts, the fifteen essays explore such broad topics as collecting and interpreting ballads, monstrosity and journalism, criminal subjects, class and authorship, and ballads in the New World.
Introducing the opening section on collecting practices and historiography, Fumerton's chapter, entitled "Remembering by Dismembering: Databases, Archiving, and the Recollection of Seventeenth-Century Broadside Ballads," exposes the collecting practices of antiquarians such as Samuel Pepys. Pepys and others often physically altered broadside sheets, even reordering the stanzas and ornaments themselves. Fumerton concludes the modern searchable electronic database, with its "dismembered" and fragmentary vision of the past, is very much like the shuffling, trimming, and rearranging of seventeenth-century collectors. Patricia McDowell's "'The Art of Printing was Fatal': Print Commerce and the Idea of Oral Tradition in Long Eighteenth-Century Ballad Discourse" continues this conversation by problematizing the origins of eighteenth-century ballad scholarship and the collecting habits of Thomas Percy and Joseph Ritson. She exposes their valorization of oral ballads, as opposed to print, and their exclusion of particularly vulgar examples. Finally, in "Child's Ballads and the Broadside Conundrum" Mary Ellen Brown explores the compilation, categorization, and institutionalization of Francis Child's ballads, as well as his reliance, though unacknowledged, on printed versions of the oral tradition he valued.
Seventeenth century broadside-buying audiences were fascinated by the monstrous and strange. Thomas Pettitt examines journalistic accounts of the murdered sweetheart alongside more conventional narrations in oral ballad formats. Tassie Gniady also compares narratives between the broadside and oral ballad genres when she examines accounts of the "hog-faced woman," a Dutch immigrant named Tannakin Skinker, who became a sensation in London's cheap print trade. Gniady posits that Skinker narratives functioned as a forum through which early moderns worked out their political and social anxieties about women, the nature of the human, and the economic [End Page 4] rivalry between England and the Netherlands. Co-editor Anita Guerrini concludes this section on monstrosities by engaging with the language employed in broadside advertisements of human anomalies. She concludes that these advertisements exhibit the shifting sensibilities toward curiosities at the turn of the eighteenth century—that is, new "scientific" language exists simultaneously with descriptions used earlier in the century for wonders.
Crime narratives were as popular as tales of wonder and the monstrous in the early modern era. Simone Chess examines the cautionary tales of murderous wives and the intentional oaths, or speech acts, they make before killing their husbands. These women's promises become perverted versions of not only their marriage vows but also legitimate male oaths. Frances Dolan also engages with husband-murdering wives in her essay on petty traitors as she examines the use of ballads as evidence. Utilizing a wide array of genres—broadsides, pamphlets, court records, and dramatic works—across several decades, Dolan questions the very notion of truth as no single source or genre can truly provide the entire picture of a single event. Many of the murderous wife broadsides are "good-night ballads," a convention wherein the text reads as the voice of the condemned. Joy Wiltenburg examines these types of moralizing broadsides for the language of emotional expression and marks a shift in attention away from the victim and toward the criminal, thus humanizing the condemned.
The problem of authorship is a slippery subject in broadside ballad scholarship. Steven Newman examines a particularly vulgar mid-eighteenth-century ballad "The Maiden's Bloody Garland" and the mystery surrounding its probable author, elite poet Thomas Warton. Like Guerrini and McDowell's essays, Newman finds that the interaction between popular and learned is symbiotic. This lurid, "low" ballad also captured the attention...