Considered the “people’s literature” in the 17th century, broadside ballads were sold for a penny or halfpenny, their pairing of a comic or satiric song alongside a woodblock illustration making them popular bawdy amusement across classes. Due to their cheap, mass-produced quality, only about 10,000 English broadside ballads from the whole of the 17th century are known to survive, and scholars have long lacked a central research resource.
“They were printed in the millions,” Patricia Fumerton, professor and director of the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA), told Hyperallergic. “You couldn’t walk from point A to B in London without hearing ballads sung and hawked on the streets, or seeing them pasted up on walls. They were even carried far into the countryside by peddlers. They were far more common a form of literature than Shakespeare or the classics we read today.”
The EBBA launched in 2003 at the Early Modern Center in the University of California, Santa Barbara English Department. It is currently focused on archiving over 1,150 broadside ballads from Houghton Library at Harvard University. These join recent additions from the National Library of Scotland’s Crawford Collection, as well as material from the Pepys Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Magdalene College, the British Library’s Roxburghe Collection, the University of Glasgow’s Euing Collection, and the Bindley and Britwell collections at the Huntington Library. While broadsides generally date from between the 16th and 19th centuries, and come mainly from in England, Ireland, and later North America, the 17th century is considered their heyday.
One challenge for the EBBA is conveying original context and social meaning. In addition to high-resolution scans, the open-access archive has facsimiles with more legible modern transcriptions alongside the messy, old, gothic, black-letter typeface that was often quickly set. There are also recordings of singers, unaccompanied as they would have been on the streets, replicating as closely as possible the aural aspect of the ballads. Whether warning of damnation or giving a eulogy for a lost soul, a popular or traditional tune would be suggested on the broadside for the rhymes. Here’s a full citation page of a Houghton ballad with a facsimile showing the broadside as collected, a facsimile transcription, a text transcription, and a recording.
“To make this form of cheap print available online for all people to read, see, and hear is to restore them to the masses for whom they were originally intended,” Fumerton said. “It is also to make available the common person’s vision of their culture, since broadside ballads discuss topics such as sex and marriage in striking open ways not seen in elite literature.”
Themes and topics vary all over the spectrum, from crime to “ballads of the freaky and inexplicable.” You can listen to a jaunty tune on “A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish-Plot,” about “how the Jesuit, Devil, and Pope did agree, our state to destroy and […] murder our king,” while another conveys the curious case of a dangerous stray dog. One, from 1684-94, features a debate sung between death and a young man, called: “A Seasonable Warning for Youth to Forsake their Sins, and to lead a Religious Life: / Lest Death Surprize them, and Repentance comes too late.” Many have rips and tears from being stuck on walls or folded into pockets.
“Once pasted up, they might be whitewashed over. Once handed around and learned, they might be used to line a bird cage or pie plate, or even used as toilet paper,” Fumerton added. “But today, precisely because ballads in their period were cheap, disposable print accessible to everyone, few have survived and most libraries value and protect them like jewels.” Through the EBBA, what broadsides made it from the 17th century to the 21st are gradually becoming as accessible as when they were the stories and songs of the masses.
View the English Broadside Ballad Archive online through the Department of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara.