Ballads, Broadsides, and Eighteenth-Century Culture (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2005 semester seminar.

Ballads and broadsides constitute the literature of the people—from the often illiterate old women who hawked them in the streets to the ordinary laborers who tacked them on the walls of their cottages as decor and as aides memoire. Sung by minstrels, peddlers, and ordinary people in their domestic lives, these songs gave literary expression to everyday experience. They recorded popular reactions to current and historical events, were a common entertainment, and provided a rudimentary source of reading material. Drawing on the collections of the Folger and the Library of Congress, the seminar examined the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century impulse to collect the oral literature of ballads—or the liminal literature of printed broadsides—as the impulse of an increasingly literate society with an antiquarian interest in its past. Participants studied ballads and folk songs for their literary qualities, their historicity, and their evidence of social and political attitudes, and the work of collectors for evidence of their special interests. Literary historians interested in reconstructing the interface of oral and print culture, political historians interested in gauging popular reactions to public events, historical sociologists trying to find materials that reflect laboring-class positions, musicologists tracing melodies, and folklorists interested in the history of their field—all were welcome.

Director: Ruth Perry is Professor of Literature at MIT and a past President of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. She has written widely on eighteenth-century English literature and culture. Her most recent book, Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture 1748–1818, is forthcoming.