Archive Project Preserves 17th-century Ballads

A portion of a Pepys Collection ballad before it was transcribed and archived. The original ballads were written in heavy black type, seen here, which is difficult to read. The Early Modern Center is creating facsimile transcriptions of the ballads and replacing the black type with Roman type. (courtesy M. Patricia Fumerton)

Three hundred years from now, researchers may be restoring and archiving copies of the National Enquirer. That’s akin to what is happening now with UCSB’s Early Modern Center efforts to archive thousands of English broadside ballads from the 17th century.

Broadside ballads were songs printed on cheap, one-sided broad sheets of paper. Often illustrated with lavish woodcuts, they were intended to entertain the common man in 16th- through 19th-century England. They cost next to nothing—a half-penny to a penny— and were widely distributed. Few remain today, but scholars are trying to preserve those that have survived the centuries by converting them into modern English, recording them, and creating electronic archives that can be easily accessed by scholars and the general public. The goal is to make the ballads fully available as texts, art, music, and cultural records of the period.

“In the 17th century, song was a communal experience, as was reading,” says Patricia Fumerton, English professor and director of the Early Modern Center. “The reason the 17th century is so important is because that was the heyday of the ornamental (illustrated) ballads.”

Fumerton started the English Broadside Ballad Archive in May 2003. Her goal initially was to convert and archive the 1,857 ballads from the Samuel Pepys Collection. The largest known collection of English broadside ballads, it is housed at the Pepys Library at Magdalene College in Cambridge, England. Fumerton used UCSB Instructional Improvement Grants and individual faculty research money to launch the archive, then received $325,000 in National Endowment for the Humanities funding in 2005 to complete the Pepys project. In 2008, the NEH granted Fumerton another $350,000 to add roughly 1,300 to 1,500 ballads from the Roxburghe Collection, housed at the British Library in London.

The Roxburghe collection is the second-largest collection of 17th-century black-letter, or gothic-style, ballads. Unlike the Pepys, which was maintained by one person, the Roxburghe collection had four different owners over the years, which makes cataloguing more difficult. The collection was started in the late 17th century by Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford. Thomas Pearson acquired it in 1773 and bound the collection into two volumes. The Duke of Roxburghe bought it in 1788 and added a third volume.  It was then sold to Benjamin Haywood Bright in 1813, who added a fourth volume. The collection was purchased in 1845 by the British Museum, which is now the British Library.

English broadside ballads were easy to memorize and featured catchy tunes, with rhyming lyrics that often focused on love, topical events, or poked fun at the aristocracy. They were commonly sung on street corners or in pubs, and featured detailed woodcut illustrations.

“The people saw them as art,” Fumerton says. “They posted ballads upon the walls. They saw them as music, and they saw them as literature. These things were really traveling and transmuting and being used by different people in different ways for different reasons.”

Because they were so cheap, someone might line a pie with one, or roll one up and light a pipe with it. They were even used as toilet paper, Fumerton says.

More than 90 people, including graduate and undergraduate students, have worked on the project from the UCSB history, art history, English, music and media studies departments. A lot of the ballads were sung and recorded by the music department, Fumerton says. The ballad team has built the archive with very sophisticated computer coding that is expected to remain usable for all future computer platforms. Additionally, the archive benefited from the expertise of the Davidson Library staff, which created MARC (machine-readable cataloguing) records to make the archive compatible with other library databases.

The center has already begun the process of cataloguing the Roxburghe ballads into roman text, and Fumerton anticipates that part of the project will be done by late summer 2009. The entire project, cataloguing and archiving the woodcuts, recording the songs, and posting all the material on the archive Web site, will be completed by the end of 2010.

Fumerton says there are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 English ballads extant from the 17th century. With Roxburghe and Pepys, UCSB will have archived about 3,500 of them. After Roxburghe, there are other ballad collections Fumerton would love to add to the database. Among them are about 400 ballads in the British Library’s Bagford Collection, and the Anthony Wood Collection, also of about 400 ballads, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. In the United States, the Huntington Library holds the 70 or so Britwell Ballads — made up of mostly 16th-century ballads, which are very rare and important, Fumerton explains.