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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVII. Ballads

§ 3. Outlaw Ballads and Political Songs

Short work can be made of other assumptions. In the fourteenth century, “rimes of Robin Hood and Randolph, earl of Chester,” are mentioned in Piers the Plowman as known to the common men of that day. Robin Hood ballads are preserved; the Randolph cycle is lost. But the outlaw literature must have been popular long before that. The story of Fulk Fitz-Warine, preserved in French prose and paraphrased by Leland in fragments from “an old English boke yn ryme,” gives its hero traits and experiences not unlike those of Robin Hood. The forged chronicle of Croyland says that “ballads” about Hereward were still sung, in the chronicler’s day, by the common people and by women at the dance. The deeds of Waltheof at York, told by Malmesbury, are plainly taken “from a ballad”—so Freeman declares; but from what sort of ballad? Waltheof, it is true, was sung “in the warlike songs of the tongues of both his parents”; one of these songs, however, the Danish one, is preserved, and has no trace of balladry about it, but all the art and artifice of the professional scald. Ballads of the outlaw, indeed, would be of a popular and traditional type, as the Robin Hood cycle shows; but political songs, which also had their vogue, were doubtless, made by the minstrel, who, also, retouched and sang again the rude verses which warrior or outlaw had improvised, taking them out of their choral conditions, smoothing, adding, connecting, and making them fit for chant and recitation de longue haleine, precisely as the jongleurs of early France, according to Gaston Paris, remade the improvisations of an age that knew no minstrel class at all into the chansons degeste and into the epic itself. Such remade poems could again be broken into ballads, popular enough, sung and transmitted by very humble folk. For a late example, the Scottish ballad Gude Wallace has its evident source in the Wallace of Blind Harry; but “the portions of Blind Harry’s poem,” says Child, “out of which these ballads were made, were, perhaps, themselves composed from older ballads, and the restitution of the lyrical form may have given us something not altogether unlike what was sung in the fifteenth, or even the fourteenth century.” Nevertheless most of the “ballads” cited by the chroniclers seem to have been political songs, more or less popular—not what could be called, in strict use of the term, a traditional ballad.

In one case, we are on sure negative ground. Henry of Huntingdon has a flery piece of description in which he reproduces the story of a battle; as with similar passages, a “ballad” is his source; but here, luckily, that source is known. He is translating a poem, inserted in the Old English Chronicle, on the battle of Brunanburh; and whoever will read this poem, whether in the original or in Tennyson’s spirited rendering, can see at how great a distance it stands from any ballad of the traditional kind. Minstrels, moreover, as actual authors of the ballads recorded at a later day, are utterly out of the question. Barring a few wretched specimens labelled by Child with the minstrel’s name, and inserted in the collection because they still may retain some traditional note, that “rogue by act of parliament” to whom Percy ascribed the making of practically all English and Scottish ballads is responsible for none of them. It has been pointed out by Kittredge as “capable of practically formal proof that for the last two or three centuries the English and Scottish ballads have not, as a general thing, been sung or transmitted by professional minstrels or their representatives. There is no reason whatever for believing that the state of things between 1300 and 1600 was different, in this regard, from that between 1600 and 1900.…” Still stronger proof lies in the fact that we have the poetry which the minstrels did make; and it is far removed from balladry. “The two categories are distinct.” When, finally, one studies the structure and the elements of the ballad itself as a poetic form, a form demonstrably connected with choral dramatic conditions in its origin but modified by a long epic process in the course of oral and quite popular tradition, one is compelled to dismiss absolutely the theory of minstrel authorship, and to regard ballads as both made and transmitted by the people. This phrase is often misunderstood and challenged, but in vain. All poetry, good and bad, is found by the last analysis to be made in the same way; and there is no romantic mystery or “miracle” about the ballad. What differentiates it from other forms of poetry is the conditions under which it is made and the agency by which it is handed down. We may reasonably infer for early times such a making and such a transmission; but the older product is lost, and we are restricted for our study to the actual and undisputed material at our command.

All English and Scottish ballads agree in the fact of tradition,—tradition, in the main, oral and communal; and there result from this fact two capital exceptions to the ordinary rules of literary investigation. It is well nigh useless to hunt for the “original document of a given ballad, or to compare the several varying versions, and so establish, by whatever means, an authenitic text. It is also useless to lean with any confidence upon chronology. Some of the ballads gathered, within a century or so, from oral tradition of Scotland, are distinctly older in form than many of the ballads of the Percy manuscript, written down in the seventeenth century, and are closer to the traditional ballad type than many pieces of even earlier date of record than the famous folio. This renunciation of authentic original texts, and of chronology in the ordinary sense, is generally conceded. A few critics, however, are still of opinion that ballads are, after all, nothing but anonymous poems, and that to trace a ballad to its author is not, necessarily, an impossible task.