Anglo-Norman Literature: Part IV ~ Ballads

5 Tips for Writing a Ballad | Power Poetry

5 Tips for Writing a Ballad | Power Poetry

“A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads derive from the medieval French chanson balladée or ballade, which were originally “dancing songs”. Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of the British Isles from the later medieval period until the 19th century and used extensively across Europe and later the Americas, Australia and North Africa.

“The ballad derives its name from medieval French dance songs or “ballares” (L: ballare, to dance), from which ‘ballet’ is also derived, as did the alternative rival form that became the French ballade. As a narrative song, their theme and function may originate from Scandinavian and Germanic traditions of storytelling that can be seen in poems such as Beowulf. Musically they were influenced by the Minnesinger. The earliest example of a recognisable ballad in form in England is “Judas” in a 13th-century manuscript.

“Many ballads were written and sold as single sheet broadsides. The form was often used by poets and composers from the 18th century onwards to produce lyrical ballads. In the later 19th century the term took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song and is now often used for any love song, particularly the pop or rock power ballad.” [Wikipedia]

Many English ballads arose from rustic festivals, moving in oral tradition from singer to singer. They conveyed tale sod love, adventure, and of the supernatural. Because they were developed for those who were not literate, they have a simple form, making them easy to the listener to remember. The refrain was customarily the first part of the ballad that the listener memorized. The refrain was the nucleus of the narrative, but more importantly it tied the story together for the audience. The concept of the “narrative lyric” is based in Elizabethan times. 

Ballads belong to three classes: Historical (i.e., Robin Hood cycle); Romantic (i.e., Douglas Tragedy), and Supernatural (i.e., Wife of Usher’s Well). 

Some popular ballads included: 

[1] “Riddles Wisely Expounded” is a traditional English song, dating at least to 1450. It is Child Ballad 1 and Roud 161, and exists in several variants. The first known tune was attached to it in 1719. [Riddles Widely Expounded] In it, a knight comes to the house of a lady in the country and picks the youngest of the three daughters for his bride. Before he extends his offer of marriage, the knight demands that the girl answer three riddles. 

Riddle 1 – What is longer than the way? [Love] What is deeper than the sea? [Hell]

Riddle 2 – What is louder than the horn? [Thunder] What is sharper than the thorn? [Hunger]

Riddle 3 – What is greener than the grass? [Poison] What is worse than a woman? [The Devil]

[2]”The Douglas Tragedy” is a ballad in Scott’s Border Minstrelsy. Lord William steals away Lady Margaret Douglas, but is pursued by her father (Lord Douglas) and his seven sons. Being overtaken, a fight ensues, in which the father and the sons are killed by William. Lord William, wounded, creeps to his mother’s house, and there dies; the lady before sunrise next morning dies also. [The Douglas Tragedy]

[3] “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” or Child Ballad 118, is part of the Percy collection. It introduces and disposes of Guy of Gisborne who remains next to the Sheriff of Nottingham as the chief villain of the Robin Hood legend. This ballad survives in a single 17th Century copy, but is recognized as much older in content, possibly older than Robin Hood and the Monk. A play with a similar plot survives in a copy dated to 1475. “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne only survives in the folio manuscript acquired by Thomas Percy (British Library Add MSS 27879), which is dated in the mid seventeenth century and clearly is a collection of pre-existing materials; this is the only one of the six Robin Hood ballads in the manuscript that Percy printed in his Reliques of 1765. He gave it the title used here, though in other more recent versions of the title Robin’s opponent is called Sir Guy. This honorific is used frequently in the text, but Percy may have omitted it, as Child does, from the ballad’s title because the text states that he and Robin are both yeoman (line 87), and so the knightly title seems anomalous, though Percy did add a note that “Sir” was used outside the knightly class (1765, p. 86). He edited the manuscript version considerably for meter and comprehension, though in his fourth edition he reinstated some of the original readings; Ritson also edited the text fairly heavily for his 1795 collection.” [Middle English Text Series]

[4] “‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ is preserved in Cambridge University manuscript Ff.5.48. The manuscript is damaged by stains and hard to read and was, it seems, not known to Percy or Ritson, unlike all the other major Robin Hood ballads. It was first printed and given this title by Robert Jamieson in his Popular Ballads and Songs of 1806 (II, 54-72). The edition itself was quite heavily edited and erroneous, and a better text appeared in C. H. Hartshorne’s Ancient Metrical Tales in 1829. Nevertheless, Sir Frederick Madden wrote, in a slip preserved in his copy in the British Library, that this was “the worst edited text” he had come across, and he re-collated the whole edition; his version of this ballad then appeared in an appendix in the second edition of Ritson’s Robin Hood in 1832 as Robin Hood and the Monk. Although this title, like that of other early ballads, only refers to the initial enemy, not the sheriff who is the ultimate threat, it still seems better than “A Tale of Robin Hood” used by Hartshorne and Gutch.” [Middle English Text Series]

The Passing of Robin Hood by N. C. Wyeth, 1917 ~ Public Domain ~ Robin_Hood%27s_Death

The Passing of Robin Hood by N. C. Wyeth, 1917 ~ Public Domain ~

[5] “Robin Hood’s Death” is the 120th ballad of the Child ballads collection. The fragmentary Percy Folio version of it appears to be one of the oldest existing tales of Robin Hood; there is a synopsis of the story in the fifteenth century A Gest of Robyn Hode. A later broadside version of the ballad also exists, which includes the famous detail of Robin Hood’s last bowshot.

[6] “Sir Patrick Spens” is a confused echo of the Scotch expedition, which should have brought the Maid of Norway to Scotland in 1285. “In the reign of Alexander III of Scotland, his daughter Margaret was escorted by a large party of nobles to Norway for her marriage to King Eric; on the return journey many of them were drowned. Twenty years later, after Alexander’s death, his grand-daughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, was heiress to the Scottish throne, and on the voyage to Scotland she died.” [The Ballad of Sir Patric Spens the_ballad_of_sir_patrick_ spens.htm. the_ballad_of_sir_patrick_ spens.htm.

[7] “The Wife of Usher’s Well” is a ballad of a poor woman whose three sons all perish at sea without her knowledge. Their ghosts return to spend one evening with their grieving mother…to bring her an evening of hope. “This ballad is also known in the Appalachians as Lady Gay and The Miracle at Usher’s Well. It first appears in print in Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott collected this tune from West Lothian.
This ballad is Child Ballad #79.” [Contemplator]

[8]Edward, Edward” is “presented as a dialogue between Edward and his mother. The mother asks, why is there blood on your sword? The son replies that he killed his hawk. The mother doesn’t believe this explanation, and the son then claims he killed his horse. The mother doesn’t believe this either. The son finally confesses that he killed his father. Accepting this, seemingly without any sorrow, the mother then asks her son what he will do with his property, wanting to know what she will receive. A curse from hell, the son replies, and goes on to implicate his mother in the murder.” [Tragic Ballads]

[continued on Thursday, August 27] 


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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