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The Making of a Broadside Ballad
by Meaghan J. Brown

The Making of a Broadside Ballad. Edited by Patricia Fumerton, Andrew Griffin, and Carl Stahmer. EMC Imprint at UCSB, 2016,


The Making of a Broadside Ballad is an ambitious foray into experiential learning, presented in a multimedia Scalar publication that is equal parts video, still image, and text. In the fall of 2013, the project set out to create a broadside ballad from scratch, in both material and textual terms.[1] The participants were primarily doctoral candidates and Ph.D. students in English at the University of California, led by Drs. Patricia Fumerton, Andrew Griffin, and Carl Stahmer, who edit and introduce the work. With help from experts, they hand-dipped their own paper, wrote their own ballad, set type, carved woodcut illustrations, printed their ballads on a replica eighteenth-century Franklin press (and later on a mid-nineteenth-century Seggie Edinburgh press after the Franklin proved problematic), and sang the new ballad to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

In his introductory essay “Why Making?” Andrew Griffin explores the goals behind the project: “Specifically, we experimented with craftwork to see what it might do for humanistic inquiry, or what we can gain as scholars when we train as papermakers, printers, wood-block cutters, pop versifiers, and singers.” This is not, he acknowledges, the same as believing that by dipping a scholarly toe into papermaking, hand-press printing, or wood-block cutting that a researcher could recreate the exact experience of a trained craftsperson in any period, much less one who lived five centuries ago. Griffins argues that rather than attempting to emulate the lived experience of Early Modern craftsmen, he and his fellow participants were “wrestling with the ‘stuff’ of the broadside ballad” to bring the problem-solving experiments of the workshop to bear on objects of humanistic inquiry.

The University of California-Santa Barbara English Broadside Ballad Archive ( serves as the historical context for the project. Patricia Fumerton argues that the “critical making” of craftwork can also be used to describe the collaborative creation of the digital archive, for which many of the participants are project managers, ethnomusicologists, and graduate assistants. The EBBA is strongly invested in the materiality of the ballads it archives, representing them not only as transcribed text, but also in multiple facsimile views and with accessible TEI-XML encoding. These facsimiles are employed throughout the essays to illustrate points and this project should be viewed as heavily indebted to, and dependent on, the EBBA. Unfortunately, although EBBA ID numbers appear in captions for each item depicted, only in Fumerton’s introduction are these IDs linked to their EBBA records, so most of the essays do not take full advantage of the potential for connections to the repository.

The videos and essays seem to be aimed at rather different audiences. The videos focus on step-by-step explanations of the process the project undertook, including illustration of tools described. Of these, the woodblock and “finding and singing tunes” videos are among the best, while audiences may find the sound uneven in the video on papermaking. Although the menu mentions one, there does not appear to be a video associated with the “writing verses” unit. While these videos might be quite useful for a scholar looking to supplement a course with visual examples of material production, there are no accompanying textual introductions to the filmed processes. Students who would like to review tools or techniques in environments where sound is discouraged are out of luck.

Some of the essays do focus on the physical processes, features, and effects described in the videos as the authors use their experiences in the lab and the archive to draw conclusions about the creation of Early Modern objects. Megan E. Palmer’s essay “Cutting through the Wormhole: Early Modern Time, Craft, & Media” contains a standout analysis of the role of bookworms and the wormholes they leave in creating a chronology for woodcut use and disambiguating related woodcuts. Fair warning, it also contains a graphic video of actual A. punctatum beetle larvae. Palmer traces the use and degradation of a woodcut she refers to as “Our Lady of the Artichoke” over an eighty-year span. Kristen McCants’s essay “Making an Impression: Creating the Woodcut in Early Modern Broadside Ballads,” extrapolates from her personal learning experience to larger “impressions” (all puns clearly intended) about the process of creating woodcuts and illustrating ballads. Anyone who has turned their hand to using gouges can sympathize with her description of slips which remove a bit too much of a flower and slice up hands.

Although Nicole Dib’s essay is titled “The Happənstance of Early Modern Printing and Print Culture,” hers is similar to McCants’s in extrapolating larger theories about the evidence of misplaced type from her personal experience, rather than actually examining Early Modern print or its records. The processes she describes participating in are (as she points out) often divergent from Early Modern practice: the project used a California Job printing case, a mid-nineteenth century press, and a rubber roller instead of ink balls, and she describes nineteenth-century typesetters’ races to emphasize the importance of both speed and accuracy. While the suggestion is intriguing, she gives no basis for her claim that typesetters made fewer mistakes when the typesetter considered whole words, rather than setting letter by letter. Although Griffin’s introduction stresses the exercise is meant to create an opportunity to question the material object through experimentation and experiential learning, several of these essays could have done with deeper—and better documented—historical research to ground some of their broader statements.

Other essays provide more tangentially material examinations of ballads: Jeremy Chow explores the “Ballad as Body: Solicitation and Corporeality in Early Modern Print Culture,” analyzing the “bodily nature of the ballad itself” from a wide variety of angles, including depictions of sex work, the physical resemblance of paper to skin, gymnastic initials, the “pressing” of papers and inked type, and the performance of the ballads by living singers. Philip James Martinez Cortez employs a highly formal premise of a series of “axioms” (and a heavy reliance on Dard Hunter) to explore papermaking, beginning with a somewhat ill-fitting homage to Jane Austen when he notes “It is a truth universally acknowledged” that humanities scholars in possession of papermaking supplies must be in want of paper. 

An essay by Caroline Bennet, on finding tunes, on the other hand, shows the benefits that great familiarity with a genre can bring. She highlights textual and physical clues that point to the proper tune to fit a given ballad, noting for example that a ballad sung “To its own proper tune” was not only associated with an eponymous tune, but also often lacked woodcut illustration. Studies like this one highlight the recovery work the EBBA facilitates, along with the aid of librarians elsewhere, who helped Bennet bring tune and text together from disparate repositories.

Erik Bell’s essay on “Fitting Texts to Tunes” contains a similarly fascinating discussion on the ways music and texts were written to accommodate each other. He provides a detailed discussion of how to align text with tune via “stressed syllables and strong beats.” The strongest part of his essay explores the methods through which a singer might alter a tune to fit a newly encountered ballad text.

Bell’s discussion of the collaborative nature of ballad creation is framed as the functional distance from the “unified” ballad in the author’s mind at the time of composition to its printing and subsequent performance by both distributors and buyers who match the printed text to tunes they know or learn. The historic details of this journey are shaky; Bell claims, for example, that for this to be “a completely legal process” the ballad would have to be registered with the Stationers’ Company. Any printer willing to forego the trade protections it entailed, however, may well have skipped registration with the Company and its accompanying fee, at a cost of 6d per title. The claim that printers were legally required to register ballads seems to be repeated from one of Bell’s sources, an EBBA article by Kris McAbbe and Jessica C. Murphy external to this project.[2] The repetition of factual errors among the articles within the archive and the project raises unfortunate questions about the historical research underpinning otherwise interesting claims.

There seems to be a strong dependence on a limited number of scholarly sources; among the most cited is Tessa Watt’s Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640.[3] Surprisingly absent is Ruth Samson Luborsky and Elizabeth Morley Ingram’s seminal Guide to English Illustrated Books, 1536–1603.[4] While Dard Hunter and Edward Hodnett make the cut, it’s surprising to find a work ostensibly about workshop practice and the Early Modern period that contains few scholarly discussions of historical print-shop practices or the book trade. The sparse citations to peer reviewed work may be among the biggest detractions for this project.

The format for the presentation occasionally increases this frustration. Although Carl Stahmer notes in the introduction that the Scalar format was chosen explicitly to “confront the same relationship between form, function, and meaning that the volume attempts to elucidate,” it fails to take advantage of some of the most intuitive benefits of a hypertext document: the ability to move readers quickly and easily to and from references and citations. While the project does, as Stahmer points out, make complex links between still image (with particularly attractive and well-captioned selections from the EBBA) and video, essays treat quotes and citations in an uneven and perplexing manner. Some citations get pop-up boxes containing the citation, making them easier to follow, but these seem to be primarily tangential (“See also …”) references, while the references that provide the most support for the essay get MLA-style in-text parenthetical citations and a works cited. Without anchors to the point of reference, returning to a lengthy scroll of text from the works cited page misses out on the benefits of hypertext and lacks the physical mnemonics of print. Some quotations are emphasized through larger font, as if they were magazine pull-quotes, yet do not function as such in the flow of the essay.

The Making of a Broadside Ballad is an interesting pedagogical experiment in the same “empirical bibliography” mode as the Making and Knowing project at Columbia ( and the Texas A&M Book History Workshop ([5] These projects allow students to encounter the messy realities of textual production and experience some of the physical and material challenges that shape our cultural heritage. To draw larger conclusions, however, the compromises made in the twenty-first century experimental studio need to be balanced against documentary and physical evidence of the historical working practices they approximate. As an experiment in artistic creation, the project is brilliant. Scholars and students can learn valuable lessons about material affordances of ink, gouge, boxwood, lead type, and deckle-and-mold best by putting their hands on them. However, there are ways to ground such experiments in historical research: the Making and Knowing project bases its efforts on explicit instructions contained in the late sixteenth-century manuscript now known as Ms. Fr. 640, while the Book History Workshop stresses period-accurate materials and tools. The Making of a Broadside Ballad has introduced enough variables in practice to raise substantial questions that should be addressed by solid scholarship if the term “Early Modern” is to remain applicable as a touchstone rather than a term of inspiration.

Meaghan J. Brown
Folger Library

[1] Scalar is an online publishing platform specifically designed for long-form, open-source scholarship (see

[2] Kris McAbee and Jessica C. Murphy, “Ballad Creation and Circulation: Congers and Mongers,” English Broadside Ballad Archive, edited by Patricia Fumerton, Carl Stahmer, and Megan Palmer-Brown, University of California at Santa Barbara, Department of English, 2007,—circulation.

[3] Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640, Cambridge UP, 1991, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History.

[4] Ruth Samson Luborsky and Elizabeth Morley Ingram, A Guide to English Illustrated Books, 1536-1603, Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1998.

[5] For an explanation of the term and a detailed history of the Texas A&M Book History Workshop, see Todd Samuelson and Christopher L. Morrow, “Empirical Bibliography: A Decade of Book History at Texas A&M,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 109, no. 1, 2015, pp. 83–110. 


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Meaghan J. Brown , "The Making of a Broadside Ballad," Spenser Review 46.1.15 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed September 29th, 2021.
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