Imagining early modern working women, or, economic history’s image problem

Detouring into PhD territory (although broadside ballads feature in the discussion)…

A thought-provoking and very exciting post by Brodie Waddell on economic history’s ‘image problem’ in post-Reformation England through an exploration of depictions of working women. John Styles’ comments below are also essential reading!

the many-headed monster

Brodie Waddell

In 1658, the Czech scholar John Amos Comenius published what’s been called ‘the first children’s picture book’. It proved extremely popular and was republished many times, in many different languages. What brought it to my attention was the fact that it included 150 pictures of ‘the visible world’, a rare treat in an early modern publication.

It was designed to teach Latin and, in the 1705 edition, English to young people, so most of its illustrations depicted the sorts of things a child might be expected to know from life. They would find, for example, pictures of youth at study and at play, stilt-walking or bowling.

At school and at playHowever, the ones that caught my eye were the many illustrations of working life. If you, like me, teach or write about early modern economic history, you’ll know that this particular subfield has an ‘image problem’. Perhaps thanks to a strong seam…

View original post 339 more words

‘Hailstones as bigg as Eggs’: freak storms on 18th May, 1680

Evening all!

I hope you’ve managed to stay dry over the past few days and that you’ve dodged the spectacular pink lightning that has been illuminating the skies of late – I can only imagine what early moderns would think of that! At work today I met a man who was inadvertently struck by lightning outside York St. Mary’s in Coppergate a few years ago – apparently the General Synod was taking place in York at the time and rumours spread that St. Mary’s had offended God in some way. Which provides a neat little segue to…

‘A Ballad of the Strange and Wonderful Storm of Hail, Which fell in London on the 18th of May 1680, which hurt several men, killed many Birds, and spoiled many Trees; with other strange Accidents, the like never before known in ENGLAND’ (1680), Magdalene College, Pepys 2.137. Image courtesy of English Broadside Ballad Archive (ID 20757).

After another day of downpours it seems apt to share with you a ballad concerned with a specific bout of freak weather. That is, ‘a Strange and Wonderful Storm of Hail’ which was reported to have struck London on 18th May. It appears that this was not an isolated phenomenon: parish records from a Gloucestershire parish reported a similar event (right down to the 8-inch hailstones); a pamphlet (also printed in London in 1680) reported similar storms in Oxfordshire, at sea and further across the Channel in Blois on the same day. The latter account adopted a similarly religious tone to our ballad:

there was a terrible storm in Oxfordshire of lightning and hail, barns were burnt down, a boy was struck with thunder but recovered, reports of a Catholic Jesuit churches being destroyed in a similar storm in France, yet the Protestant church in this town remained unharmed, lightning also struck a ship and several crew members

The ballad’s urging for its audience to repent and to prepare for death is, as ever, reinforced by its tune – Fortune My Foe (renamed Aim Not Too High in this and one other Pepys ballad of a similar genre) was commonly associated with executions, unfortunate ends and atoning for sin.

There are plenty of fascinating elements to this ballad – its macabre imagery of birds having their wings torn off by giant hailstones, resurrection narrative and fantastic woodcut (featuring what appears to be a hail-drift and a man having to dig out his cow with a shovel). However, I particularly enjoy the juxtaposition of seemingly divine retribution with the localism of neighbours, friends and kin coming to the aid of the stricken hemp-dresser. Although the circumstances were extraordinary, this ballad displays the practices of good neighbourhood and kinship that were so familiar in the streets, homes and parishes of early modern England.

If you would like to hear a recording of today’s ballad and take a closer look at the original ballad sheet facsimile, head on over to the English Broadside Ballad Archive and have a listen!

Keep well, dear readers – watch out for hail.

Yours &c.,


Upcoming Conference ~ “Living English Broadside Ballads, 1550-1750: Song, Art, Dance, Culture”

Dear readers,

A quick post to spread the word that EBBA’s director Patricia Fumerton is convening a two-day conference at the Huntington Library on April 4-5th. The brochure can be found here and I can tell you right now, it looks flipping fantastic. From anonymity and authorship through to dance, image and the digitisation of ballads – not to mention performances from academics and accomplished musicians including Bruce Smith, Chris Marsh and Lucie Skeaping – the conference brings together experts from a range of disciplines exploring the relevance of broadside ballads to questions of mediapreservationauthorshipauthority and audience.

Go, go if you are able – I hope there are many more conferences like this to come.

Until next time,


A “Butt Song from Hell”

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), "The Garden of Earthly Delights" c.1480-1505, oil on panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), “The Garden of Earthly Delights” c.1480-1505, oil on panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Good evening readers!

Today’s post is not strictly to do with ballads, but darn good fun anyway. I loves a bit of Bosch, me.

Whilst trawling Facebook at lunchtime, I stumbled across this piece in the Guardian. In summary, an American blogger named Amelia recently posted on her Tumblr that whilst she and a friend had been examining the artist’s famous triptych (above for your delectation), they spotted “music written upon the posterior of one of the many tortured denizens of the rightmost panel of the painting which is intended to represent Hell”. Good description, no?

This particular section, singing sinners surrounded by warbling demons and deformed, oversized instruments, is thought to be a warning against music as a potentially dangerous pleasure, and specifically an allusion to the notoriety of musicians and wandering minstrels. This warning would recur frequently throughout our period, particularly with regards to broadside balladry, ballad-singers and sellers.

A tortured denizen’s posterior

Following this discovery, music student Amelia decided to transcribe the sheet music into modern notation (based on her familiarity with early modern choral music) and recorded the tune for piano. Elsewhere in the Tumblr-verse, the tune was given some daft lyrics along the lines of “this is the butt song from hell/we sing from our asses while burning in purgatory” and rearranged as a choral piece.

Silly? Absolutely. You might say the same about this Oxford-based project that aimed to reconstruct the distinctly bonkers instruments that perhaps accompanied the “Butt Song from Hell” (apparently, the results sounded “horrible”). Yet, creative musical experiments such as these are essential for developing an insight into early modern culture.

The discovery and recreation of a piece of music can also have quite breathtaking results. As part of the “Virtue & Vice” exhibition still currently on display at Hardwick Hall, the team decided to transcribe and perform 16th century sheet music carved into the Hall’s famous “Eglantine Table”…

From hellish “butt songs” to a godly Lamentation, I hope this post has given a sense of the variety of musical experiences available to early modern people, as well as the opportunities for learning and all-round fun that comes with their rediscovery and recreation.

Off to bed I go, and probably a night of bum-filled Boschian nightmares…


Love Me, Love My Dog

Fair readers! I’ve resolved to post far more frequently than I have been doing, and I thought I would begin a new year by sharing one of my favourite ballads with you.

Preview of Magdalene College Pepys 4.229 Image Pepys_facs_4_0229_XL_iBase.jpg

“My Dog and I” (1678-80), Magdalene College, Pepys 4.229. Image courtesy of English Broadside Ballads Archive (ID 21889).

As far as we know, this catchy ballad was initially printed in London in 1675 (the above version was printed a few years later), and was still found to be in circulation in the late eighteenth century. At first singing, its range of meanings seem innocent enough – the heart-warming bond between man and his pet, the independence that came with manhood. Moreover, the text itself claims that the ballad will not concern itself with warfare, courtship, monsters, wonders or death, ‘Nor any thing under the Sky, But onely of my Dog and I’. Yet it doesn’t take very long to gather that this ballad is ostensibly about sex.

It is full of innuendo for a start – “proper Probe”, anyone? However, the tune is the key to revealing the thoroughly bawdy nature of this ballad. ‘Bobbing Joan’, the melody behind ‘My Dog and I’ and a foundation for many contemporary songs and dances, was associated primarily with sex. It is probable that the exclusion of all potentially scurrilous themes quoted above was the ballad-writer’s attempt to deceive the official licenser – even in spite of the double entendres, the smut was not to be found in the text, but in the melody. All of a sudden, the protagonist’s relationship with the maid ‘Nell’ is based upon something far more titillating than a mutual love of animals! The inherent bawdiness of the tune also brings a new spin to the otherwise fairly topical subjects of the ballad including memories of Prince Rupert, famed and feared for his alleged barbarity during some of the bloodier conflicts of the Civil War and for his rare white poodle, Boye (suspected of being a witch’s familiar, the Devil in disguise, infallible to attack and a prophet amongst other things). His reputation as a dashing playboy – both before and after the Wars – probably did not go unnoticed either.

Prince Rupert and his dog Boye depicted in Parliamentarian propoganda, pillaging Birmingham. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

‘My Dog and I’ was certainly not the only ballad to employ this technique of covert smut. A particularly illuminating example comes from a correspondence between one Christopher Hoddeson and Francis Walsingham on 22nd September 1585. Hoddeson sent Walsingham a suspicious ballad, observing that ‘Allthoughe therbe in the beginning Fayre gloss yet if hit please your honour to Read hit to the eand I hope you will conceive I doo butt my deutye to sent hit to be concidred off”. 

These examples do much to highlight the importance of ballad melodies as much as their texts, and help to explain why ballads were feared as being ‘dangerously licentious’, ‘wanton’ and ‘full of scurrilous vanity’, however unassuming they may appear to the modern reader. 

As ever, a facsimile of this excellent broadside ballad is available for you to peruse on the English Broadside Ballad Archive website. I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend listening to this – as well as EBBA’s recording, the historian Chris Marsh has brilliantly recreated it as part of his groundbreaking study Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010). The tracks are available as MP3 files here – happy listening!

Yours in wanton ribaldry,



Chris Marsh, ‘The sound of print in early modern England: the broadside ballad as song’, in J. Crick & A. Walsham, The Uses of Script and Print (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 183.

– Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 2010)

Anonymous, The Weekly Register (1731)

Thence I receive them, and then sally

Strait to some market place or alley,

And sitting down judiciously,

Beginn to sing. The people soon

Gather about, to hear the tune.

One stretches out his hand, and cries,

Come, let me have it, what’s the price?

But one poor halfpenny, says I,

And sure you cannot that deny.

Here, take it then says he, and throws

The money. Then away he goes,

Humming it as he walks along,

Endeavouring to learn the song.

“Here comes the spirit of my love, with pale and gastly face”: a spooky ballad for All Hallows’ Eve

Dear readers (from this world or the next…)!

Just a quick post this evening (after a long, long hiatus, for which I apologise profusely) – sadly I have no carved pumpkin (although something woodcut themed, now I think about it, would be frankly amazing) or a horrific costume/“scary selfie” for the occasion, but I do have an appropriately ghoulish ballad!

This broadside from the late 1680s is a warning to all flighty young women who might be tempted to ditch their lover or go back on their promises as soon as someone better comes along. A Godly Warning for all Maidens tells the story of a beautiful woman who had many suitors, but none took her fancy until she fell for a handsome youth named Bateman. They made binding vows to one another, echoing the verbal vows of matrimony between couples that are often recorded in court cases, including breaking a piece of gold “in twain”, which appears in the accompanying woodcut. The young woman vowed that if she ever broke her promise, she would never have peace whilst she lived. Unfortunately for her, it seems she spoke too soon, with rather terrifying consequences.

Definitely brings new meaning to the phrase “If I can’t have you, no one can”…

“A Godly Warning for all Maidens”, Magdalene College Pepys Collection 1.504-505 (EBBA ID: 20238), 1686-1688.

For the original facsimile of this ballad and to hear how it may have sounded (learning, then singing it in a dark room whilst holding a torch/candle/lit pumpkin under your chin is absolutely encouraged) head on over to the English Broadside Ballad Archive!

Have a fun, dead-ex-lover-free Hallowe’en, everyone!

Paranormally yours,