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Getting emotional about handling a cache of early modern print

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

by Una McIlvenna

Last year I began teaching a brand new subject, ‘Crime, Punishment & Media 1500-1800’ which covers how criminality was assessed and punished, and how criminals were portrayed in the media of early modern Europe. Central to the subject are the passions of my research: the desire to reveal how, in a predominantly illiterate society, ordinary people made sense of the world they lived in. This means that we look at (and listen to) lots of ballads, particularly the execution ballads which I’ve spent the last 8 years researching, and explore images and objects connected to the history of crime and punishment. As a Hansen scholar at the University of Melbourne, one of my aims is to make the learning of history exciting through innovative approaches to the subject. One of the ways to do this is through Object-Based Learning, so I took my students on two ‘field trips’, one to our own Baillieu Library Special Collections and one to the State Library of Victoria, to experience first hand the treasures both collections hold. Little did I realise how emotional the experience would be for me.

The author viewing the collection of pamphlets in the Baillieu Library

During the preparation for our visit, our amazing Prints Curator at the Baillieu, Kerrianne Stone, asked me in an almost offhand manner whether I might be interested in showing my students ‘some pamphlets we’ve just discovered on the Popish Plot’. I hadn’t planned to study this event in detail in class, but since it involved an imaginary treasonous plot to murder the king, multiple executions of innocent people, the punishment in the pillory of the perjurers, and an explosion of printed material discussing the controversy, I thought that it would be too good to pass up on a class on early modern crime, punishment and media. This was more than just ‘some pamphlets’, however.

What Kerrianne brought out was a fully intact, bound volume of ninety-one items of cheap print collected on the streets of England at the very moment of the Popish Plot (1678-81). There are proclamations, published letters, speeches, gazettes, verses, and what appears to be a very bad play about the Plot. What the volume represents is pretty much everything one might have been able to find on the streets of London at the time of a major political controversy. It is as if the creator of the volume gathered up everything they could find at that precise moment, knowing how valuable these items would be for posterity. For a historian of early modern Europe, it is a treasure trove that is given extra value by the side-by-side nature of its contents. It is a perfect snapshot of a single moment in time.

But it is even more than that to me: tucked in at the back, slightly too big for the binding and thus folded at the sides to fit in neatly, are three broadside ballads: An Answer to the lady of qualities popish ballad of the Popish Plot, A ballad. The third part, to the same tune, and The Wiltshire ballad: or, a new song compos'd by an old cavalier. As I unfolded the pages of each one, I felt a chill all over; although I’ve been studying broadside ballads for nearly nine years, I’d never actually held one. I’ve never needed to: the major digitisation projects – the English Broadside Ballad Archive ( and the Bodleian Library Ballads Online ( ­– have done incredible work over the last decade, digitising, cataloguing, and recording these treasures, so that I can sit at my desk in Melbourne and learn everything I need to know. I could not have done the work I’ve done over the last nine years without these projects.

The volume of Popish Plot pamphlets showing one of the 'lady of quality' ballads

The first two (the ‘lady of quality’ ballads) are part of a series, each of which was a response to the previous ballad (the first in the series is not in the volume). All of these are set to ‘Packington’s Pound’, a very well-known tune in the seventeenth century, and one that many ballads about the Plot are set to. My knowledge of this melody meant that as soon as I opened the first ballad I could sing it to Kerrianne. For a moment I got a sense of what it might have been like to be in the streets of seventeenth-century London, buying the latest ballad from a street singer on the day’s hot topic, and being able to engage with all of its multimedia properties: its melody, its text, its bold typeface and its size. It is what is known as a ‘white-letter’ ballad, which used roman script as opposed to the more common ‘black-letter’ ballads that used gothic script. White letter ballads were predominantly used for political ballads, and their material qualities means that they are instantly distinguishable from the more ‘vulgar’ black-letter ones.

What I find extra fascinating is the ballad composer’s own complaints about the explosion of print that was at that moment flooding the streets of London. Everyone had something to say (or sing) about the Plot and this ballad was (meta-referentially) just adding to the cacophony:

Since Hell is broke loose, and the Press set a work

By Jesuit, by Jew, by Christian and Turk;

By Fools and by Fops, by Rascals and Knaves:

By counterfeit Ladies, and by scribling Knaves:

Each Mome and each Sot

Now talks of the Plot,

Some cry it is true, and some swear it is not:

New Fire-balls in Pamphlets and Ballats are hurl'd,

To cajole the People, and amuse the World.

Needless to say, my fellow early modern scholars, especially those who study the social history of seventeenth-century England and those who study balladry, are fascinated by the treasures that Melbourne boasts in its collections.

To hold this ballad in my hands and to sing it to my students was a pretty special experience for me. And for the students too, I think. In a recent survey my fellow Hansen scholars (Jenny Spinks and Kat Ellinghaus) and I did of our students’ experiences with Object-Based Learning, the responses the students gave were overwhelmingly positive. This kind of genuine engagement with objects from the past - especially objects like broadside ballads which have this extraordinary performative quality - can bring the long-lost emotions of history back to life for everyone. Including, in this case, even the teacher.

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