Texts, tunes and pictures

Texts, tunes and pictures: engaging with broadside ballads

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing students of early-modern balladry is that of imagining how people of the period may have sought and found meaning in these single-sheet songs. Detailed evidence about consumption and interpretation is hard to come by and difficult to assess. While it is true that ballads are mentioned frequently in plays and other forms of literature, the status and significance of these references are a matter for debate. Taken together, they seem to identify various key features of ballad consumption: it often began with public performance in a highly interactive atmosphere; those who listened to ballad-singers were assertive and critical but also highly enthusiastic; this enthusiasm, often tipping over into credulity, was particularly characteristic of the lower orders; and it continued past the point of purchase, motivating ballad-buyers to sing the songs for themselves and pin them up for display. The literary evidence is extremely valuable and has been widely deployed by scholars but it is frequently coloured by satiric intent, polemical purpose and heavy reliance on tried-and-trusted tropes. The frequent identification of ballads with society’s lower ranks was, for example, part of a complex pattern in which prosperous and educated people distanced themselves from their supposed inferiors; it does not necessarily tell us that these songs were truly the music of the masses (see Audiences, performances and recordings). In the end, highly charged literary reflection may not reveal quite as much about the actual experiences of ballad-consumers as we might wish. For this reason, most historians would readily swap the inspired patter of Shakespeare’s fictional ballad-seller, Autolycus, for the detailed diary of an avid, flesh-and-blood ballad-consumer. Samuel Pepys may look promising in this regard but his famous diary actually suggests that ballads were an occasional interest rather than a staple of his cultural life during the 1660s, and he certainly cannot be considered a ‘typical’ consumer.[1]

An alternative approach is to study the surviving ballads themselves, including those that were collected by Pepys in a later phase of his life. Investigating consumption through the evidence of production is not straightforward, of course, but at least we have a ready supply of evidence in the thousands of published sheets that have been preserved. These embody the assumptions and expectations of ballad-makers about the assumptions and expectations of ballad-buyers. What, then, can these sources tell us about how contemporary consumers might have approached and understood what they read, saw, heard and held (the materiality of ballad sheets should not be forgotten in our age of electronic images)? For convenience, we might identify three distinct but intertwining components of most seventeenth-century ballads: texts, tunes and pictures. These components should probably not be considered in isolation from one another but it makes sense to discuss each in turn before re-combining them towards the end.


Scholars of all sorts typically concentrate primarily on ballad texts, and there is, of course, no reason to question the crucial and central importance of the lyrics. [2] Without them, there would be no stirring narratives, no moralising glosses and no politically provocative statements. Much of the information that survives about seventeenth-century ballads - beyond the sheets themselves - also concentrates, not surprisingly, on the texts. The Stationers’ Registers identified ballads on the basis of their words – specifically their titles – rather than in relation to their tunes and pictures. And on occasions when the early-modern authorities were concerned about the content of individual ballads, their attention was drawn primarily to the texts, rather than to the other features of the genre.[3] We also know the names of ballad-authors much more regularly than we know those of the creators of tunes or pictures. Of the 120 songs on this website, the authors are known in approximately 33 cases (for ballads more generally, however, the proportion is much lower). Overall, there is little doubt that the conscious attention of all and sundry was drawn primarily to the texts and, on occasion, to those who created them.

What, then, are the most striking characteristics of the 120 ballad-texts that appear on this website? For a start, they vary widely in length, ranging from a mere 5 verses (The Loyal English Man's WISH For the Preservation of The King and Queen) to a monumental 98 (An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel). The shortest of our recordings lasts just under 3 minutes (THE Rare Vertue of an Orange) while the longest extends to just over 25 minutes (The rarest Ballad that ever was seen, Of the Blind beggers daughter of Bednall-green). Most of the songs sit somewhere in between these extremes, though they are probably longer, on average, than ballads in general, reflecting the cultural value that was clearly attached to the lengthy ‘classics’ that dominate our List A (perhaps there was also a feeling that customers got more for their money by buying long songs).

And just as the lengths of the period’s hit ballads were highly varied, so too were the possible source materials. While most of the lyrics appear to have been specially and freshly written, it is also clear that a substantial minority had their origins in a range of other texts. Some were based on the narratives of plays (The Lamentable and Tragicall History of Titus Andronicus, for example) or lifted directly from works for the stage (The Delights of the Bottle). A few were closely related to courtly poems (A Friends advice) or to masques (A Strange Banquet). Others drew on well-known tales from famous authors of the ancient world (A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy and A worthy example of a vertuous wife, who fed her father with her own milk). Historical chronicles were another important source (The Woful Lamentation of Mistris Jane Shore), as were songs, poems and tales of the medieval era (A Pleasant Song of the Valiant Deeds of Chivalry, Atchieved by that Noble Knight Sir Guy of Warwick and A pleasant new Ballad of the Miller of Mansfield). Continental texts, old and comparatively new, were also mined for compelling stories (see, for example, A most notable example of an ungracious Son, who in the pride of his heart denyed his own Father and A Lamentable ballad of the tragical end of a Gallant Lord, and a Vertuous Lady). Others again were perhaps orally-circulating songs, put into print by enterprising publishers, probably with additions and alterations (it is difficult to be certain but A Memorable Song on the unhappy hunting in Chevy-Chase might well fall into this category).

Many of these texts are also marked out by the grandeur of their narratives. These may at times be a little difficult for modern minds to fathom; we are accustomed to engaging with stories through novels and films, and the comparatively concise form of the seventeenth-century ballad can leave us feeling short-changed in terms of plot development and the representation of character. This feeling may also be related to the manner in which creators in highly literate cultures (like ours) package and present narrative in ways that might have bemused many of our illiterate or partially literate ancestors. Modern readers - their expectations shaped by novels - enjoy slowly unfolding and complex narratives; in contrast, early modern readers of cheap print - their habits of mind rooted more deeply in oral and aural culture - instead preferred concise, episodic narratives, broken up into digestible chunks that were designed for memorability.[4]

Having said this, we can still feel the power in many of the tales that were told in successful songs: the tragedy of Dido’s unrequited love for Aeneas (A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy); the brutal and unstoppable confrontation in the Anglo-Scottish borders that results in the violent deaths of two great earls, one from each side of the line (A Memorable Song on the unhappy hunting in Chevy-Chase); and the destruction of a Scottish gentleman, burned alive by God for questioning His existence during a seriously misguided attempt at incestuous seduction (The wonderfull example of God shewed upon Jasper Coningham). Along the way, there are numerous points of pivotal high drama, skilfully captured in arresting language. In The Norfolke Gentleman, for example, there is the moment when the two deserted orphans die in one another’s arms, lying unburied ‘Till Robin Redbrest painefully,/ did cover them with leaves’. The final speech of a mortally-wounded pirate in A True Relation of the Life and Death of Sir Andrew Barton has echoed through the ages: ‘Fight on, fight on, my merry Men all,/ a little I am hurt, yet not slain,/ I’le but lie down and bleed a while,/ and come and fight with you again’ (these words were even quoted by Ronald Reagan on the White House Lawn in 1981). And in A Godly Warning for all Maidens, the curse delivered by Bateman to his disloyal sweetheart, just before he hangs himself in her doorway, is particularly chilling: ‘Thou shalt not Live one quiet hour/ for surely I will have/ Thee either now alive or dead,/ when I am laid in grave’. As it turns out, he is a man of his word.

The ballads also reveal a number of recurring narrative tropes, a feature that clearly boosted popularity while aiding memorability. Several ballads represent strong and resourceful women-in-love, often replying to disconsolate or accusing sweethearts (see A sweet Sonnet and Love and Honour, for example). The dangers of breaking romantic promises are addressed in numerous ballads (including The dying tears of a true Lover forsaken and A Godly Warning for all Maidens), and a series of songs warn parents not to obstruct true love or force children into loveless matches (A constant Wife, a kinde Wife and The Lamentation of Master Pages wife).  These show considerable sympathy for the young but there are also ballads that criticise ungrateful or disobedient grown-up offspring (A most notable example of an ungracious Son and  A most excellent Ballad, of an old man and his wife). Speeches made on the deathbed or the gallows also occur repeatedly (An Hundred Godly Lessons and THE Lord RUSSELS Last Farewel to the World ), and there are three songs about outlaws (A True Relation of the Life and Death of Sir Andrew Barton, The Seamans Song of Captain Ward and Robin Hood newly reviv'd). Those on the pirates, Andrew Barton and John Ward, mirror one another in seeming to celebrate and condemn their subjects at one and the same time (let us call them ‘Romanti-heroes’) There are also three ballads about supernatural abduction (A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy, The Judgement of God shewed upon one John Faustus and A Godly Warning for all Maidens), and many others that reveal the power of God to intervene directly in order to right wrongs and punish miscreants (good examples are The Norfolke Gentleman and The wonderfull example of God shewed upon Jasper Coningham). Several of the political ballads are less direct than these examples, being written satirically in the over-blown voices of the authors’ supposed enemies (The Catholick Ballad, The Whig Rampant and A NEW SONG). Presumably, these recurring tropes provide some sort of a rough-and-ready index to the priorities and preoccupations of early-modern people on all social levels.

Overall, there is much more darkness, tragedy, pain, sobriety and meaty morality in these super-songs than we might have expected from a genre that has often been associated, by commentators past and present, with bawdry and knockabout humour. Admittedly, a count of the descriptors that are used in our 120 ballad-titles to describe their contents includes multiple appearances for ‘Excellent’ (11), ‘Pleasant’ (8), ‘True’ (7) and ‘New’ (7) but the leading term is ‘lamentable’ (12 when combined with ‘lamentation’). Moreover, the prominence of death in these texts is very striking. Numerous titles focus explicitly on this topic, and the overall body-count in all 120 songs is an eye-watering 3884 (an approximate figure because the songs are not always precise about casualties). Admittedly, this includes several battles but the total is striking nonetheless.

The dark material of these songs is also emphasised by a comparison with Samuel Pepys’ ballad collection, the largest surviving example. Pepys organised his ballads by theme, pasting them into separate sections within his bound volumes. If we place our 120 hit songs into Pepys’ categories, then the differences and similarities between his own collection and the ballads that were demonstrably successful is instructive:


Pepys’ thematic
Ballads in Pepys’
Collection (% of total)
Ballads in collection of
120 hits (% of total)
Devotion and morality 9.7 18
History 5.3 16.4
Tragedy 6.9 11.5
The times 3.2 3.3
Love pleasant 33.4 16.4
Love unfortunate 8.7 8.2
Marriage, cuckoldry etc 8.9 4.1
Sea 6.5 4.1
Drinking and good fellowship 1 2.5
Humour, frolics etc 1.1 0
State 15.3 15.6


The comparison tells us much about Pepys’ own tastes but it also says something about the topics that really struck chords with the population at large. In general, the seriousness of the broader audience seems apparent. Ballads about ‘Devotion and morality’  were almost twice as prominent in the hit songs as in the Pepys collection. Historical ballads, which often involved tragedy and bloodshed, were around three times as common in the 120 super-songs. ‘Tragedy’ itself was significantly less appealing to Pepys than to the audience at large, but he was twice as interested in ‘Love pleasant’ and ‘Marriage, cuckoldry &c [etc]’. Overall, therefore, we can draw the tentative conclusion that ballad-consumers in general were surprisingly sober and sombre in their tastes.

Looking beyond the ballads on this website, it is clear that texts can also help us to understand patterns of consumption. Authors worked hard to ensure that their lyrics were composed in a manner that would assist the ballad-singer in performing and, most importantly, selling the songs.[5] Many ballads therefore include direct appeals to consumers, particularly in the opening and concluding verses, and these references provide important clues about the anticipated behaviour of interested parties. Opening verses in the ‘Give ear’ mould suggest that passers-by had to be actively recruited as the ballad-singer sought to fashion a temporary community of attentive listeners from the bustling throng (the fact that ‘throng’ rhymed with ‘song’ was a bonus here).[6] Sometimes, listeners were also encouraged to stay to the end of the song, rather than drifting off half way through.[7] In addition, the texts anticipate clearly and consistently that the seller will also be a singer and that the consumer’s first engagement with a ballad will be primarily auditory. Having said this, some texts also draw attention explicitly to the accompanying pictures, clearly inviting the ballad-singer to make a feature of these within his or her performance. The Dutch-Miller, for example, includes the lines, ‘View here but my picture, and mark well my Mill,/ And see how my customers flocketh in still’.[8] Occasionally, audience members are explicitly encouraged to join in by singing the refrains at the end of each verse. In Brave boys of Bristol, for example, the performer urges listeners to ‘sing the Chorus now with me,/ It does to you belong’.[9]

This anticipates optimistically the desire of audience members to take possession of the song by purchasing their own copies at the end of the rendition. ‘Then buy this Song, and give your Judgement of it’, urged one text. Another seemed to encourage the ballad-singer to brandish his sheets while singing, ‘Then read them, and buy them, and bear them away’.[10]  In appealing to potential purchasers, ballad-texts also suggest a popular appetite for songs that might exert a transformative influence in people’s lives. Ballads could deliver self-improvement for those who bought them but they could also be used to reform the behaviour of others. A dainty new Dialogue between HENRY and ELIZABETH, for example, urged all long-suffering wives to buy a copy, then ‘carry it to your Husbands for to show’. It even promised that bad men would be rendered good by the song’s influence.[11] Authors expected that purchasers would read the texts for themselves, an activity that often seems to have entailed singing. To learn a ballad was to ‘have it out’, an expression that nicely encapsulates the task of transforming silent texts into sounded songs. Some authors also imagined that their lyrics would in future be ‘sung to a Lute’ or a fiddle.[12] Ballads were also useful for teaching children to read, or they could be sung by men to women during courtship.[13] A ballad could therefore play many roles in the lives of consumers, and one author even imagined his composition as a cherished personal companion: ‘I hope this song to you will be a friend’.[14]

The authors of ballad texts clearly anticipated that their creations would be consumed within a society that blended the developing culture of cheap literature with long-established modes of understanding that were primarily oral and aural. Ballads were printed publications, works of literature, but they were shot through with features associated by Walter Ong and others with orality. These included the repetitive narrative tropes outlined above, but also the frequent use of rhyme, rhythm, proverbs, refrains, larger-than-life characters, and an emphasis upon interpersonal situations. Language was imagined as sound, and memorability was far more important than originality.[15] Furthermore, ballad-writers must frequently have gone about their work with particular tunes in mind so that the aural shaped the textual. Ballad texts were crossover creations, clearly designed to transcend their material identity as pieces of paper, covered in signs.

Texts were absolutely vital to the appeal and significance of balladry. Having said this, even the most cursory consideration of almost any of the publications featured on this website will probably convince viewers and listeners that the texts did not operate alone. Tunes and pictures have already begun to intrude into this account, and there is clearly a compelling case for considering them alongside the texts. Fortunately, this has been the direction of travel among scholars in recent decades and we are finally coming to understand that a ballad was a multi-media menu of possibilities, rather than a silent poem on a page.[16] Seventeenth-century consumers probably knew this instinctively; we, in contrast, have had to build the knowledge afresh.


Tunes have been seriously neglected by scholars of cheap print, though in recent years an argument has been steadily building about the need to integrate music into our discussions of early-modern balladry.[17] Of course, most of us find it harder to discuss tunes than lyrics for the simple reason that, in writing about music, we are effectively using one language to try and make sense of another. We also tend to feel that words, for all their slipperiness and contestability, can name, specify and describe phenomena in a manner that music, on its own, cannot. Skilled manipulators of written words do not control the interpretations adopted by others but, arguably, they exercise a higher degree of influence than tunesmiths. These feelings are understandable, of course, but we nevertheless need to find a register for discussing tunes that goes beyond the important but very basic observation that they rendered song-lyrics more memorable.

Most black-letter ballads of the seventeenth century named a melody but did not provide musical notation. Consumers were expected either to fit the text to a tune they already knew, or to do so after learning a new tune from the ballad-seller. Of the 120 ballads identified as hits by this project, roughly 37 (31%) were set to new tunes while 82 (69%) named existing tunes. Both types of tune clearly appealed but the reliable force of the familiar is readily apparent. Several of the most successful tunes were short, simple and highly memorable. The three melodies that feature most regularly on this website were ‘Chevy Chase’, ‘Fortune my foe’ and ‘In Pescod time’. All of these tunes were just four lines long and narrow in compass. The fact that they could easily be sung by virtually anyone presumably helps to explain both their popularity and the success of so many ballads that nominated them. It is also true, however, that some very well-known tunes were much longer and/or more complicated. ‘Russell’s farewell’, for example, is eight lines long and difficult to sing, while ‘Gray's Inn masque’ extends to twenty-six musical lines. The success of these more challenging tunes suggests either that musical memories were in general highly advanced in this period, or alternatively that accomplished musicians were more actively involved in the performance of some ballads than we have hitherto realised.

Individual tunes often travelled under several different names, and it seems clear that particularly successful ballads often generated new titles for existing melodies. ‘In pescod time’, for example, became ‘The Lady’s fall’ after the success of the song entitled A Lamentable Ballad of the Ladies Fall, and ‘Fortune my foe’ was also known variously as ‘Aim not too high’, ‘Doctor Faustus’, ‘A lesson for all true Christians’, ‘The Virgins ABC’, ‘The godly mans instruction’, ‘A letter for a Christian family’ and ‘Kings Tryal’ (after a ballad about the execution of Charles I in 1649). High numbers of alternative titles reflect the fact that successful tunes were used for numerous different ballads. 'Chevy Chase’, ‘Fortune my foe’ and ‘In Pescod time’ combined to provide the music for 20 of the 120 songs on this website. And if we broaden the search to include all surviving black-letter ballads, we find that these three tunes were called for on at least 133 different titles (‘Fortune’ led the way with 78 nominations).[18]

It seems clear, moreover, that individual tunes tended to develop associations with one or more distinct themes during their careers (these can be investigated via the ‘featured tune histories’ on this website). The process by which this happened involved a complex interaction between the perceived mood or character of a tune and its accumulated relationships with particular ballad-texts. ‘Chevy chase’, a serious and somewhat restless tune in the Dorian mode (a precursor of the modern minor scale), was used for numerous ballads that were set in the distant past and often involved some form of confrontation. ‘Fortune my foe’, also in the Dorian mode, feels considerably more lugubrious than ‘Chevy chase’. It began as a romantic tune but rapidly acquired a primary association with sin and repentance. ‘Fortune’ was sometimes referred to as ‘that preaching tune’ or, because of the frequency with which it animated the repentant speeches’ of convicts, the ‘hanging tune’.[19] And ‘In pescod time’ (aka 'The lady's fall') was often nominated on ballads about suffering women, despite its relatively buoyant Ionian mode (the precursor of the modern major scale). These patterns raise the distinct possibility that melodies, working by association, regularly brought their own baggage to the party, encouraging listeners – sometimes consciously but more often unconsciously - to connect each new song with others that they had previously heard performed to the same tune.[20] This effect must have been further enhanced by the fact that songs to the same melody often carried direct textual echoes of one another (these are discussed in the ‘featured tune histories’). Through melody, therefore, different ballads were interconnected and compared. If each tune was ‘merely a vehicle’ for its words, as Richard Luckett has claimed, then this was a vehicle with attitude (like Herbie, the Volkswagen Beetle of cinematic fame).[21]

The capacity of recycled melodies to generate meaning through association was not often discussed explicitly in literature of the early modern period but it was instinctively recognised in the loose but patterned system of tune designation that developed and endured. And in 1778, James Beattie took the unusual step of reflecting directly upon the implications of this recycling habit. He argued that music without words was ‘vague and ambiguous’, and not really capable of generating explicit meaning, but he added an interesting caveat: ‘It is true, that to a favourite air [tune], even when unaccompanied by words, we do commonly annex certain ideas, which may have come to be related to it in consequence of some accidental associations’. The ballad-consumer, he suggested, ‘may annex the ideas of romantic love and rural tranquillity’ to a tune ‘because these form the subject of a pretty little ode, which he has often heard sung to the air’. Beattie added that a foreigner, hearing the same tune for the first time, ‘entertains no such fancy’.[22]

Some tunes, however, followed a rather different course, becoming so strongly linked to a particular text that they were rarely used for other songs. Examples that can be heard on this website include ‘Guy of Warwick’, which survived for many decades but was only ever used – as far as we know – for the singing of A Pleasant Song of the Valiant Deeds of Chivalry, Atchieved by that Noble Knight Sir Guy of Warwick. This may have occurred because of the distinctive metre – eight syllables per line and eight lines per verse - in which this song was written, or perhaps the tune came to identify Sir Guy, an English super-hero, so conclusively that no ballad-maker felt brave enough to tie the old tune to a new text.

Overall, it has been estimated that something like 1000 ballad tunes circulated in England during the early modern period, of which roughly 400 can be confidently identified today. On this point, all ballad scholars are deeply indebted to the incredible research of Claude Simpson, published in 1966.[23] The investigations that underlie this website have uncovered a few tunes that Simpson missed but, in all honesty, remarkably few. The absence of musical notation from most ballads led Simpson to seek out the tunes in a wide variety of alternative sources, including song books, printed collections of dance tunes, plays, and numerous volumes of instrumental music, whether in print or in manuscript (ballad tunes were regularly harmonised and elaborated in versions for virginals, viols, lutes and citterns). These varied sources also draw our attention to the many ways in which balladry was entwined with other forms of musical culture in this period.


The diminutive pictures that appear on most black-letter ballads of the seventeenth century have been similarly neglected by most commentators but – as with the melodies – the situation is now changing.[24] These pictures are known as woodcuts because of the manner in which they were created. The anonymous artists used knives and chisels on small blocks of wood, carving away much of the surface in order to leave the lines of the picture standing out in ‘relief’. Presumably, they often sketched their designs onto the wood before setting to work with their tools. Then, in the printing process, the carved block was fitted into a tray with the type before being inked with a dabber and passed through the press. The pressure exerted in this last phase was substantial and the woodblocks might be used thousands of times. For this reason, strong wood – often from fruit trees – was preferred. Although English woodcut art has frequently been found wanting in comparison to that which was produced on the continent, this was highly skilled work and the nameless artists deserve more credit than they have ever received. They worked within the confines of their technology – it is difficult to depict fine detail in relief carvings on wooden blocks that are destined to receive an absolute pounding in the printers’ workshop – but they frequently produced work that proved popular with the purchasing public for decades and even centuries. Later critics have not been impressed but the ballad-consumers of early-modern England clearly were.

Woodcuts were not a standard feature of ballads before c. 1600 but by the 1620s they were present on the vast majority of black-letter sheets. This development was almost certainly driven by the desire of the leading ballad publishers to maximise their profits by supplying products that appealed to as many people as possible. Individuals whose literacy was less than fluent were presumably more likely to buy a ballad with a picture than one without. A few successful songs bucked the trend and never included pictures - An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel, for example – but, for most consumers, woodcuts quickly became one of the defining features of balladry. In 1648, one writer asked, ‘How many Ballads would sell without a formall wood cut?’ A little later, a character in a play by William Cavendish recognised the sheet being sold by a ballad-seller, commenting ‘I know it by the Picture’.[25]

In a minority of cases, the publishers or printers commissioned specific woodcuts that illustrated ballads directly. These included detailed imagery that tied them tightly to the particular narrative, and several examples can be viewed on this website (see, for example, The Norfolke Gentleman his last Will and Testament and A Godly Warning for all Maidens). In fact, it has become clear during our research that highly successful songs were much more likely than ballads in general to display such specially commissioned woodcuts. Roughly 31 out of the 120 hit songs that appear on this website – almost exactly a quarter - were, at some point, issued in editions that displayed a specially commissioned woodcut. Other ballads carried such illustrations far less regularly: if we exclude all editions of this website’s hit songs from the calculation, only around 10 out of 1300 black-letter ballads in the Pepys Collection seem to have had special woodcuts (in practice, it is not always easy to be certain, so the figure is an estimate).[26] The long-lived ballads that form our List A also carried special woodcuts much more often than did the short-term hits that constitute List B (see Methodology): an examination of all known editions suggests that 38% of the former (29 out of 77) but only 6% of the latter (2 out of 32) were honoured with specially-commissioned woodcuts. These statistics clearly imply that publishers and printers were generally unwilling to pay the extra costs of ordering fresh and detailed artwork unless a song had already established itself as a hit. The ballads of List A proved themselves across the decades, but those on List B came and went more quickly, missing the chance to earn such pictorial enhancement.

Most ballads, therefore, were illustrated with woodcuts that had already been used on other sheets. The woodblocks seem to have been held in stock by the printers, and a good selection of options was presumably one of the assets that encouraged the ballad publishers to use the services of individual operators. We cannot be sure who made the decisions about over which woodcuts appeared on which ballads, but in most cases it was probably the result of discussions between the publisher and the printer. Many scholars have argued that these decisions were not taken with careful thought but there is a strong case for revising this opinion.[27] If possible, we must abandon modern expectations – which typically demand that a picture in a book or magazine should be an exact visual representation of something in the accompanying text – and seek to recover a distinctly pre-modern aesthetic in which recycled images were a staple of cultural life. If this view is taken, it soon becomes apparent that many printers in fact worked hard to select images that tracked ballad narratives, however imprecisely. Take, for example, the simple but effective arrangement of three woodcuts on The Nightingales Song. This is a bawdy and humorous ballad about a sexual encounter between a soldier and a maiden. On the left, we therefore see two pictures, one of a young woman and the other of a soldier (note his sword and baldric, or shoulder belt). He looks as if he may be talking to her, and she duly looks towards him (‘With kisses and compliments,/ to her he said…’). The ballad’s big joke is the repeated referencing of the nightingale’s song, here serving as an obvious euphemism for the woman’s orgasm. The third picture, therefore, is a giant bird whose role is to add visual reinforcement to a verbal joke. This is not a nightingale but a partridge and yet the fit was clearly close enough for early modern consumers, lacking our exacting sensibilities. The song was successful and the woodcut of the bird also appeared on at least one other edition. Printers or publishers, like the woodcut artists, worked skilfully and creatively within the confines imposed by their resources (see also Broadside ballads and the origins of pop).

Admittedly, some of the many text-picture incongruities that we encounter on early-modern ballads are more perplexing than this one, but we should nevertheless consider the possibility that consumers may actually have enjoyed the challenge of interpreting generic woodcuts as if they were specific illustrations. On The Woman to the PLOW; And the Man to the HEN-ROOST, for example, one of the woodcuts presents a man with horns, the symbol of the cuckold. There is, however, no mention of sexual infidelity in the text of this marital role-swapping romp. As consumers, we must decide whether to filter out the horns because they do not fit the narrative or embellish the narrative in our own minds so that the picture makes sense. The husband in the ballad struggles to maintain dominance over his wife and, for seventeenth-century minds, it was probably almost instinctive to assume that there was a sexual dimension to his inadequacy. The picture, arguably, tells us that his wife has cuckolded him by having sex with another man, even though the text does not. The horns are not so much an inconsistency as an invitation to assimilate and elaborate.

Printers often copied one another’s woodblocks very closely, and examination of the resulting pictures often reveals the existence of several slightly variant versions. On occasion, images were reversed when they were copied, so that left and right swapped positions (this presumably happened because the copies were based on printed versions but were turned into mirror images during the printing process).[28] The picture we have dubbed the How-de-do-man does not appear to have been reversed at any point, an interesting fact because it suggests the importance of his apparent movement from left to right across the sheet, paralleling both the unfolding of the narrative from first to last verse and the direction in which consumers read the text. The How-de-do-man can be found in at least thirteen variant forms, and it is therefore clear that printers felt the need to have versions of the most successful woodblocks in their stock. Occasionally, the How-de-do-man appears twice on a single sheet, demonstrating that the printer actually held two blocks bearing the same image.[29] He was one of numerous figures who appeared hundreds of times on different songs, often across periods of several decades. He can be seen four times on this website, though the woodcut we are calling the Welcoming Woman tops the rankings, managing five appearances.

There can be no doubt that the pictures were crucial to the appeal of individual ballads. Punters must have had their favourites, and printers continued to use cherished blocks long after the point at which they had begun to suffer damage under assault from an unholy alliance of printing machinery and woodworm (the latter were responsible for the small white circles that can be seen on images produced from ageing wood-blocks: see, for example, the left-hand image on our featured edition of An Hundred Godly Lessons). The depth of attachment to particular woodcuts was demonstrated in 1823 when a printer refused to sell his old wood-blocks to the antiquarian, William Hone. Even when Hone offered to replace all the blocks with new and better versions, the printer remained resistant: ‘Yes, but better are not so good; I can get better myself: now these are old favourites, and better cuts will not please my customers so well’.[30] The deep conservatism of printers and punters could hardly be more effectively expressed.

As with the tunes, it seems likely that recurring images steadily built up associations and reputations (these can be tracked in the ‘featured woodcut histories’). There is considerable variation in the roles that individual woodcuts were called upon to play but also a tendency for these pictures to cluster around particular topics or types. For example, the Gallant with small hand was primarily an admirable character with a taste for good fellowship. The Woman in charge was most frequently assertive – her unfeminine body language helped her to land roles here – but she appeared on ballads about admirable and reprehensible women alike. In such cases, a complex interplay was perhaps set up in the viewer’s mind, and a great deal depended on the particular ballads that each individual had encountered in the past. Similarly, the Couple with leafy fan were almost always romantic but they represented both the lucky and the unlucky in love. We cannot know for certain but it seems probable that consumers established relationships with some of these constantly re-appearing characters, following them through good times and bad. In sum, it is hard to sustain the view that the woodcut pictures were largely an irrelevance when it came to the generation of meaning, included only because they made ballad sheets look more attractive.

All together now!

Today, many of us might feel cheated if the artwork on the cover of a vinyl record or CD was exactly the same as that on several previous productions, or if most of the songs on the album were sung to the tunes of earlier tracks by other artists . When reading articles in newspapers or magazines, we generally expect the pictures to ‘illustrate’ the text in a clear and direct manner. These are deeply-rooted expectations, though it also seems possible that the electronic circulation of memes and the prominence of ‘sampling’ in pop music today are encouraging us to think differently about originality and its relationship to repetition (see also Broadside ballads and the origins of pop). At the same time, scholars have recently become much more acutely aware of the enormously important role that repetition plays in all forms of music.[31] Is this why the dismissal of early-modern ballad tunes and woodcut art as irrelevant, careless and crude no longer feels appropriate?

Reassuringly, the move towards a more integrated understanding of historical ballads - in which texts, tunes and woodcuts are all considered - is richly supported by recent research on cognition, particularly in relation to music and to art.[32] When we hear a piece of music or look at a picture, we automatically apply the principles and codes of interpretation that we have absorbed without conscious awareness during a lifetime spent within a particular culture. Prior knowledge is incredibly important in the processing of music and pictures: the brain creates mental templates or ‘schemas’ against which new or repetitive experiences can be assessed; associations are sparked in our minds and we filter them to select the most relevant; we generate expectations based on what we already know, and we experience emotion when these expectations are fulfilled or frustrated. We are programmed to find meaning and resolve discrepancies in the cultural products with which we engage. Remarkably, we do the bulk of this work without thinking, and every region of the brain is involved in the process. Most of us are expert listeners and lookers well before we reach the age of ten. On music, Levitin notes the ‘enormous possibility for interconnection’ that characterises the human brain, and, on artwork, Shimamura writes of ‘the enormous capacity we have for associative links’. We prefer music and pictures that offer recognisable elements because ‘familiarity breeds fluency’, though our wish to experience emotion also means that surprises – moments at which our expectations are thwarted – also have their place.[33] In many ways, therefore, early modern ballads were skilfully set up to suit the cognitive processes of humans, and the evident appeal of the genre is not surprising. Ballads, by constantly re-combining familiar elements in new arrangements, gave the brain what it likes most.

The clear demarcation of texts, tunes and pictures in the earlier sections of this essay is, of course, misleading. Most seventeenth-century consumers presumably engaged with an integrated package of these components, deciding as they did so whether or not to pay the ballad particular attention and where to concentrate their efforts. The ways in which different individuals experienced the same ballad must have varied considerably, depending on a whole host of underlying factors: the level of their interest in balladry as a whole; the degree to which they felt ready and able to devote their attention to the particular song that presented itself at a specific moment in time; their degree of familiarity with that song and with the themes that it addressed; their established views on these themes; the full richness of their own personal experience (age, status, sex, background, and so on); their past experience of the tune and the pictures; the company they kept as they encountered the ballad; the mood in which they found themselves at the time; the date of their engagement and the broader political or social context in which it occurred; and, if witnessing a performance of the song, its style and its tempo (see Audiences, performances and recordings). The spectrum of engagement included, at one end, the passer-by who merely heard a snatch of the ballad-seller’s tune in a crowded marketplace as she hurried by, and, at the other, the  individual who stopped, moved to the front of the throng, listened intently, recognised the tune and the pictures, purchased a copy and took it home for further consideration, display, memorisation, sharing and re-performance. Not surprisingly, recent scholars have tended to emphasise the variability of interpretation and the instability of meaning.[34]

While it is true that a theoretically infinite number of possible interpretative positions existed for every individual ballad, we should also note that knowledgeable readers, lookers and listeners probably clustered around a smaller number of the more obvious interpretations. In all ages, the capacity for immense variety in the understanding of cultural products is to a considerable degree constrained by the social, political and religious environment in which the consumer has been raised and conditioned. And most consumers, moreover, are not in fact impervious to the techniques through which cultural creators seek to guide and manipulate their understandings. Take, for example, A Lamentable ballad of the tragical end of a Gallant Lord, and a Vertuous Lady. This song, published repeatedly for 250 years following its first appearance in 1569-70, was based squarely on an even earlier Italian source and told the story of an aristocratic family, most of whom were cruelly murdered by their black servant while the lord of the house was out hunting (he was subsequently tricked into cutting off his own nose before dying of grief). Patricia Fumerton, arguing in favour of a wide range of  interpretative possibilities, has suggested that some consumers in seventeenth-century England – particularly the young - would have sided with the servant, despite the horrific violence of his behaviour. Others, she suggests, would have felt intensely critical of the lord for spending his time hunting, rather than at home with his family.  She even suggests that for some parents, this song may have been a fantasy about getting rid of their own children once and for all.[35]

It is, of course, possible that these interpretative positions were occasionally taken up but it is profoundly unlikely that most consumers heard or read the song in these ways. Admittedly, all consumers brought their own distinctive pre-knowledge to the ballad, and no two interpretations were therefore identical. Most, however, surely followed the ballad-makers’ guidance in feeling intense sympathy for the lord and his family, and deep hostility towards the black servant. The text, the tune and the picture all encouraged the consumer along this interpretative road, and the role of this particular ballad in generating negative attitudes to black people in early-modern England deserves to be acknowledged (see also the various notes that accompany the song on this website). In summary, all positions were possible but the constraints imposed by contemporary culture meant that some were much more possible than others, and responses to individual songs – despite their variability – probably clustered around a small number of the most appealing options.

Ballads like this one exerted enormous appeal not just because they presented compelling textual narratives. The power of many stories must have been dramatically enhanced by their status as songs. When words are set to music, they become instantly more memorable, more persuasive and more social. According to Mark Booth, ‘the true and valid power of song’ resides in ‘The glimpse of authentic togetherness’ that it affords (though he disagrees with the arguments about associative meaning that are set out above).[36] Woodcut pictures -  typically rich in either detail (if specially commissioned) or associations (if recycled) - added a further ingredient to the cognitive cocktail. The combination of different stimuli enabled ballads to appeal to a wealth of consumers with varying aptitudes and abilities. It also allowed each individual to engage with a ballad on a variety of different levels, ensuring a veritable feast for the mind. Both for individual consumers and for society as a whole, ballads covered all the bases and ticked all the boxes.

Christopher Marsh

[1] For a different reading of Pepys’ relationship with ballads in the 1660s, see Patricia Fumerton, The broadside ballad in early modern England. Moving media, tactical publics (Philadelphia, 2020), chs. 6 and 7.

[2] See, for example: Francis James Child, The English and Scottish popular ballads, 5 vols. (Cambridge, 1882-94); Hyder Rollins, ‘The black-letter broadside ballad’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, XXXIV, n. s. XXVII (1919), pp. 258-339; Natascha Würzbach, The rise of the English street ballad, 1550-1650 (Cambridge, 1990); Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000), ch. 8; and David Atkinson, The ballad and its pasts (Cambridge, 2018).

[3] Hyder E. Rollins, An analytical index to the ballad-entries (1557-1709) in the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London (1924; Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1967). On ballads that attracted the attention of the government, see also: Paula McDowell, ‘ “The manufacture and lingua-facture of ballad-making”: broadside ballads in long eighteenth-century ballad discourse’, The eighteenth century 47.2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 156-59; and Angela McShane, ‘Political street songs and singers in seventeenth-century England’, Renaissance studies 33.1 (2018), pp. 94-118..

[4] See Walter Ong, Orality and literacy. The technologizing of the word (London, 1990).

[5] This technique is discussed extensively in Natascha Würzbach, The rise of the English street ballad, 1550-1650 (Cambridge, 1990).

[6] THE Wonderful Praise of Money (1685-88), EBBA 21916.

[7] The Sorrowful Wife (1685-88), EBBA 21780.

[8] The Dutch-Miller (1675-80), Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries.

[9] The Brave Boys of BRISTOL (1671-99), Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries.

[10] Poor Robin's Prophesie (1675-80), EBBA 32699; THE bad Husband's Information of ill Husbandry (1670-98), EBBA 20712.

[11] A dainty new Dialogue (1666-79), EBBA 33323.

[12] The two Faithful LOVERS (1675-80), EBBA 31503; A Merry Dialogue between Thomas and John (1660-78), EBBA 30419; Poor Robin’s Dream (1668-74), EBBA 31899.

[13] TOBIAS Observation (1687), EBBA 21167.

[14] A Groatsworth of Good Counsel for a Penny (1670-98), EBBA 21742.

[15] Ong, Orality and literacy; Adam Fox, Oral and literate culture in England 1500-1700 (Oxford, 2000).

[16] Various works that make this point are listed in the endnotes below.

[17] See, for example: Christopher Marsh, ‘The Sound of Print in Early Modern England: the Broadside Ballad as Song’, in The uses of script and print, 1300-1700, ed. Julia C. Crick and Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 171-90, and Music and society in early modern England (Cambridge, 2010), ch. 6; Alastair Bellany, ‘Singing Libel in Early Stuart England: The Case of the Staines Fiddlers, 1627’, Huntington Library Quarterly 69 (2006), 177–93.Una McIlvenna, ‘The Power of Music: the Significance of Contrafactum in Execution Ballads’, Past and Present 229.1 (2015), pp. 47-89, and Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900 (Oxford, 2022); Sarah F. Williams, Damnable Practices. Witches, dangerous women, and music in seventeenth-century English broadside ballads (Farnham, 2015); Lindsay Ann Reid, ‘To the tune of “Queen Dido”. The spectropoetics of early modern English balladry’ in Helen Dell and Helen M. Hickey (eds.), Singing death: reflections on music and mortality (Abingdon, 2017), pp. 139-53; and Fumerton, Broadside ballad

[18] English Broadside Ballad Archive; Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries.

[19] Christopher Marsh, ' “Fortune my Foe”: The Circulation of an English Super-Tune’ in Dieuwke van der Poel, Wim van Anrooij and Louis Peter Grijp (eds.), Intersections. Interdisciplinary Studies in Early Modern Culture: Identity, Intertextuality, and Performance in Early Modern Song Culture, vol. 43 (Brill, 2016), pp. 308-330.

[20] This possibility is discussed in most of the works listed in endnote 16, above. For a sceptical view of this approach to melody and meaning, see Oscar Cox Jensen, The ballad-singer in Georgian and Victorian London (Cambridge, 2021), pp. 6-8 (but see also pp. 127-29 for a section in which the author nevertheless applies the argument about melodic association to his chosen material).

[21] Richard Luckett, ‘The collection: origins and history’ in R. Latham (ed.), Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, 7 vols. (Woodbridge, 1978-84), vol. 2, pt. 2, p. xv.

[22] James Beattie, Essays on the nature and immutability of truth (London 1778), vol. 2, pp. 138-39.

[23] Claude M. Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (New Brunswick, 1966).

[24] Recent work on ballad-art, often considered alongside other aspects of pictorial culture, includes the following: Martha W. Driver, The image in print. Book illustration in late medieval England and its sources (London, 2004); James A. Knapp, ‘The bastard art: woodcut illustration in sixteenth century England’ in Douglas Brooks (ed.), Printing and parenting in early modern England (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 151-72; Angela McShane, 'Revealing Mary', History Today (March 2004) pp. 40-46; Simone Chess, ‘Woodcuts: Methods and Meanings of Ballad Illustration’ (2007), English Broadside Ballad Archive (online); Helen Pierce, Unseemly pictures. Graphic satire and politics in early modern England (New Haven, 2008), and ‘Images, representation and counter-representation’ in Joad Raymond (ed.), Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660. Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, vol. 1 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 263-79; Claire Backhouse and Angela McShane, ‘Top-knots and lower sorts: popular print and promiscuous consumption in late 17th Century England’ in Michael Hunter (ed.), Printed images in early modern Britain. Essays in interpretation (Farnham, 2010), pp. 337-58; Malcolm Jones, The Print in Early Modern England: An Historical Oversight (New Haven, 2010); Theodore Barrow, ‘From “Easter Wedding’ to “The Frantick Lover’: the Repeated Woodcut and its Shifting Roles’, in Kevin D. Murphy and Sally O’Driscoll (eds.), Studies in Ephemera: Text and Image in Eighteenth-Century Print (Lewisburg, 2013), pp. 219-39; Alexandra Franklin, ‘Making Sense of Broadside Ballad Illustrations in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’  in Murphy and O’Driscoll (eds.), Studies in Ephemera, pp. 169-93; Christopher Marsh, ‘“The Blazing Torch”: New Light on English Balladry as a Multi-Media Matrix’, The Seventeenth Century, 30.1 (2015), pp. 95-116, and ‘Best-Selling Ballads and their Pictures in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past and Present, no. 233 (November, 2016), pp. 53-99; Megan E. Palmer, ‘Picturing Song Across Species: Broadside Ballads in Image and Word’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 79.2 (Summer, 2016), pp. 221-44; and Fumerton, Broadside ballad.

[25] Anon., Mercurius Britanicus Alive Againe (London, 1648), p. 2; William Cavendish, The Triumphant Widow: or, The Medley of Humours: A Comedy (London, 1677), pp. 6–7.

[26] W. G. Day (ed.), The Pepys Ballads, 5 vols. (Woodbridge, 1987).

[27] Ballad art is treated rather dismissively in Natascha Würzbach, The Rise of the English Street Ballad, 1550–1650 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 9, Robin Ganev, Songs of Protest, Songs of Love: Popular Ballads in Eighteenth-century Britain (Manchester, 2009), p. 14, and Margaret Aston, ‘Bibles to Ballads: some pictorial migrations in the Reformation’, in Simon Ditchfield (ed.), Christianity and Community in the West: Essays for John Bossy (Aldershot, 2001), pp. 106-30.

[28] Compare, for example, the images on EBBA 20246 and EBBA 30201, two editions of The Norfolk Gentleman.

[29] A New Ballad of King Edward and Jane Shore (1671), EBBA 30969.

[30] William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described, Especially the English Miracle Plays (London, 1823), 100–1.

[31] See, for example, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, On repeat. How music plays the mind (Oxford, 2014).

[32] The short summary presented here is informed by a range of writings: Robert L. Solso, Cognition and the visual arts (Cambridge, Mass., 1994); Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.),The visual  culture reader (London, 1998), and

An introduction to visual culture (London, 1999); Richard Howells, Visual culture (Cambridge, 2003); Daniel Levitin, This is your brain on music: understanding a human obsession (London, 2006); Peter Burkholder, ‘A simple model for associative musical meaning’ in Byron Almen and Edward Pearsall (eds.), Approaches to meaning in music (Bloomington, Indiana, 2006), pp. 76-106; Arthur P. Shimamura, Experiencing art: In the brain of the beholder (Oxford, 2013); and Margulis, On repeat. How music plays the mind.

[33] Levitin, This is your brain on music, p. 88; Shimamura, Experiencing art, pp. 107 and 119.

[34] See, for example, Fumerton, Broadside ballad.

[35] Ibid., ch. 8.

[36] Mark  W. Booth, The experience of songs (New Haven, 1981), p. 206.

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