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  • Damnable Practises: Witches, Dangerous Women, and Music in the Seventeenth-Century English Broadside Ballads by Sarah F. Williams
  • Marie Thompson (bio)
Damnable Practises: Witches, Dangerous Women, and Music in the Seventeenth-Century English Broadside Ballads. By Sarah F. Williams. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015. 240pp.

In March 1618 Mother Joan Flower and her two daughters, Margaret and Philippa Flower, were tried and executed in rural Lincolnshire. The three women were suspected of being witches and were accused of cursing the house of the Earl of Rutland, by whom the family had previously been employed. Less than a year after their trial and execution, two accounts of the Flower family’s crimes and fate appeared in bookshops in central London, including the broadside ballad Damnable [End Page 118] Practises (17). The ballad transmits the accuseds’ “examinations and confessions” and describes Joan Flower as a “swearing and blaspheming wretch” who was reported to deal with spirits. “Sister Phillip” is said to have been a lewd “strumpet” who bewitched and subdued young men. According to the ballad’s text, these women were acting on behalf of the devil: “Hereat the Divell made entrance in, his Kingdome to inlarge. And puts his executing wrath, unto these women charge” (171).

It is from this ballad that Sarah F. Williams’s remarkable book Damnable Practises: Witches, Dangerous Women, and Music in the Seventeenth-Century English Broadside Ballads takes its title. Williams examines how broadside ballads—foliosized publications consisting of hastily produced verse, orally circulated tunes, and woodcut imagery—reflected, perpetuated, and disseminated female stereotypes and reinforced gender hierarchies and moral values. She presents the ballad as “a uniquely powerful social tool” (1) that entertained and titillated but also informed and educated a diverse audience on, among other things, dangerous women, female crimes, and feminine transgressions. The singing, hearing, and seeing of broadside ballads was a daily experience for the majority of early modern English citizens (1). These ballads were performed in the streets and in the court, while ballads in printed form were part of the standard décor of seventeenth-century English homes, alehouses, markets, and victualing houses (55). Through performance and display, Williams argues, broadside ballads shaped early modern social attitudes to women (12). Examining the relations between broadside ballads and their cultural context, Williams convincingly argues that the broadside ballad and its associated music generate and articulate connections between various types of female crime, the supernatural, religious prejudices, noisy auditory signifiers, and notions of excess and disorder.

Williams clearly delineates the geographical and temporal scope of her study in her introduction. With regard to the former, she centers on London’s ballad trade, insofar as the city’s urban “perceptions and stereotypes of distant rural locales inform the connections broadsides make between witches, scolds and outsider political and religious groups” (11). With regard to the latter, she focuses on the seventeenth-century ballad trade, since, despite being a time of political instability, this was a period in which “the physical appearance of the ballad, somewhat in flux during the late sixteenth century, became standardized and remained largely unchanged throughout the century” (10). Williams’s study thus concentrates on a collection of ballads produced in London during the seventeenth century that contain within them musico-acoustic stereotypes of feminine transgressions and female maleficence (13).

The book consists of four main chapters, each of which addresses a different dimension of the broadside ballad, including its cultural context, musical tunes, verses, meter, and performance. Some common themes appear across chapters (e.g., feminine excess and disorder and anxieties about female voices). The emphasis placed upon these tropes can mean that the writing feels a little repetitive at times; however, given the historical and methodological complexity of the topic at [End Page 119] hand, this repetition is for the most part useful for the reader. Chapter 1, “Witches, Catholics, Scolds and Wives: Noisy Women in Context,” outlines the cultural and political milieu of the ballad. Williams notes how the ballad is expressive of prevalent social anxieties around women in seventeenth-century England, which identified “the locus of transgression primarily as the women’s voice” (21). As this chapter makes clear, these social anxieties...


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