Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 31. Broadsides and Street Ballads

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 31. Broadsides and Street Ballads

All this while, the exuberant national life continued to find yet another form of expression in the broadsides and street ballads which had grown out of the people’s love of singing in early Tudor times. Songs were sung and sold at every street corner and crossway, or outside the theatre doors, and so popular did some airs become that Guilpin reckoned the chanting of Kemp’s Jigge and The Burgonians Tragedy among the nuisances of London. Cornwallis describes a crowd gathered round a city minstrel. He tells us “how thoroughly the standers by are affected, … what shift they make to stand to heare. Ballad-mongers, who were sometimes men of education, represented the public opinion of the lower classes. News of foreign and political events was circulated this way; accounts of monstrosities, portents, prodigies and disasters were graphically reported. Prophecies were composed or revived. R. Waldegrave even published, in 1603, a whole volume of medieval oracles from Merlin, Eltraine, Beid, Thomas the Rimer and others. Murders and executions were described with appropriate apologues or, as in the case of Ravaillac’s tortures, with harrowing and imaginary details. Tales of love-making and domestic scenes are found, some in dialogue or a kind of rude four-act drama. There were other ditties, especially drinking songs, which were merely coarse, and “Nownow,” in Kinde Hart’s Dreame, complains that crowds gather to hear children sing immoral lays. The old heroic ballads were still favourites, as, also, were naïve tales which bore mark of medieval origin. A large number were nothing else than church hymns, which a householder could buy on Saturday evening for Sunday use. A pronounced liking for repentances and confessions can also be traced. Many broadsides represent a doomed man on the scaffold, addressing a farewell homily to the world, in which he confesses his crimes and warns others to shun his besetting sin. Some contain tragedies of love or jealousy; others touch on social and political grievances.

It will be noticed that these doggerel fragmentary verses deal with the very subjects which supplied material for the great pamphleteers and satirists of the age. Nor can the work of Greene, Nashe, Dekker, Rowlands, Hall, Marston, Guilpin and their peers be really understood unless this vast background of varied plebeian sentiment be kept in view. And yet the golden age of popular literature was past. The sixteenth century had seen the rise of thoughtful humourists and investigators, whose first care had been to probe the errors and expose the frauds of the common people among whom they lived. But, in the literary atmosphere of Jacobean London, this tractarian movement was gradually becoming a series of elaborate experiments. The brilliant writers of the age were evolving complex organs of expression and, already, before the Civil War, had laid the foundations of eighteenth century prose literature. But they lost touch with the deeper interests of the people. Meanwhile, broadsides and flysheets continued to multiply; but it was not till the advent of the romantic movement that a school of writers again devoted their talents to the interpretation of social life.