Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 9. Sources of Ballads

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

XVII. Ballads

§ 9. Sources of Ballads

Turning now to the ballads as a body, their sources both textual and material, and the classification of them, one notes the difficulty with which collectors have to contend on the frontiers of their subject. A few manuscripts preserve what may pass as ballads, because, although sacred legend is the source of them and a carol is their evident form, they bear the marks of popular tradition. Whether these inclusions be always necessary or not, there is no doubt with regard to certain exclusions which still cause unnecessary comment. The famous Nut Brown Maid, for example, a spirited and charming dramatic poem long ago laid to the credit of some woman as her oratio pro domo, her plea for the constancy of the sex, has not the faintest claim to its position in many a collection of popular traditional verse. So it is, for different reasons, with The Children in the Wood; there is no mark of popular tradition upon it. Still another question rises over the counterfeit ballad. By Child’s reckoning, Auld Maitland is spurious, and he drops it from his list; but Andrew Lang makes a vigorous plea for it. It has the marks of a traditional ballad; but are they genuine? Some of the poorer and later pieces in his collection Child admitted only because of the possibility that they may contain traditional elements more or less obscured by the chances of the broadside press. In general, however, his path has been fairly plain. The oldest ballad, by record, is Judas, from a manuscript of the thirteenth century. Another legendary piece, St. Stephen and Herod, along with a curious old riddle-ballad, may be dated, in their manuscript record, about 1450, the time also of Robin Hood and the Monk and Robyn and Gandeleyn, which are followed, half a century later, by Robin Hood and the Potter, and by the earliest printed copy of the Gest of Robyn Hode. From the nature of the case, these ballads, oldest of record, are all far gone in the epic process, or else, like the riddle-ballad, are stripped of choral features; it was reserved mainly for tradition to hold in survival that old ballad structure, and to give to eighteenth century collectors the stretched metre of an antique song as unlettered folk still sang it at work and play. The legendary pieces, however, which have been recovered from oral tradition are never equal to the old manuscript copies; and one of the very few “finds” since the close of Child’s collection shows the disorder in the extreme.

In print of the early sixteenth century comes a long outlaw ballad, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough and William of Cloudesley; and, slightly later, there follow in manuscript Cheviot and Otterburn, Captain Car—the latter, also, recovered later from tradition—and a version of Sir Andrew Barton. Only eleven ballads, as Kittredge notes, “are extant in manuscripts older than the seventeenth century.” But then came the Percy folio, written about 1650, a strange medley of poems good and bad, with many of the finest ballads interspersed; it was partially known through Percy’s Reliques, printed first in 1765, but its actual and precious contents came to light only in recent years and made possible the publication of Child’s collection itself. This folio is the most important of all the ballad sources. It is supplemented by the Percy papers—copies made at sundry places in England and Scotland, mainly from recitation; by a number of broadsides and “garlands,” where the task of culling out real traditional material becomes difficult to a degree; and, finally, by collectors in Scotland, Herd, Mrs. Boun of Falkland, whose memory saved several sterling ballads, Scott, the “old lady” whose manuscript Scott obtained, Sharpe, Motherwell, notorious Peter Buchan and the rest.