Last Farewell to the World: Semi-oral Autobiography in Seventeenth-century Broadside Ballads

  • Henk Dragstra
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


Seventeenth-century England saw autobiography spreading out, or trickling down, from privileged individuals to the common citizen. This development mirrored the spread of literacy, and followed in its wake, but not instantly: there can be no autobiographical writing without ‘a sense of one’s own importance as an individual’.1 Most study of seventeenth-century autobiography has concentrated on autobiographies as products of literacy, which implies that the nascent sense of autobiographical self that is encountered has crossed the threshold between the literate mindset and the oral. But what about all those masses whose literacy, whatever it may have been, stopped short of literary self-expression? Was there no such thing as a sub-literate, or semi-literate, or semi-oral sense of autobiographical self?


Seventeenth Century Sixteenth Century Specific Tune Modern Reader Moral Lesson 
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  1. 1.
    Paul Delany, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1969) p. 108.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    J.A. Sharpe, ‘“Last Dying Speeches”: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past & Present 107 (1985) 144–67; Thomas W. Lacqueur, ‘Crowds, Carnival and the State in English Executions, 1604–1868’, in The First Modern Society, ed. A.L. Beier et al. (Cambridge 1989) 305–55; Peter Lake, ‘Deeds against Nature: Cheap Print, Protestantism and Murder in Early Seventeenth-Century England’, in Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Peter Lake (London, 1994) 257–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (Cambridge, 1981); and Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550–1640 (Cambridge 1991).Google Scholar
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    All ‘default’ references are to W.G. Day’s five-volume facsimile edition of The Pepys Ballads, in the series ‘Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge’ (Cambridge, 1987).Google Scholar
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    See, for instance, Edward Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1554–1640 (London, 1875–94) and Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of the State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714 (Oxford, 1857).Google Scholar
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    According to Carole Rose Livingston, in Chapter 4: ‘Broadside Treasons and Ballad Treacheries’, of her British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth Century (New York, 1991) p. 855, ‘pleasing the crown was indeed the intention of virtually every ballad printed’ in the century covered by her study. The Commonwealth interval with its perils to royalty was not likely to make Charles II a more liberal ruler in this respect.Google Scholar
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    Cf.: ‘In the popular ballads the Last Goodnight has the more poetic purpose of allowing a brave man to give a final display of courage. Such is the case in “Hobie Noble” (189) and in “Johnie Armstrong” (169B) where the Border hero bids a defiant goodbye to life …’; Alan Bold, The Ballad (London, 1979) p. 38.Google Scholar
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    In his communications to Notes and Queries on the Stationer’s Registers, J.P. Collier claims the tune assigned to ‘The Lamentacon of Christofer Tomlinson’ (of 1592) is “Fortune”’; quoted by Francis Oscar Mann, The Works of Thomas Deloney (Oxford, 1912) p. 503. However, the first verses, which Collier quotes, do not fit that tune. The same objection applies to ‘A New Scotch Ballad called Bothwell-Bridge’ of 1679 (RB 4, 537–40).Google Scholar
  19. 43.
    The only exception to the rule of sadness is “A ioyful new ballad of the late victorye obtained by my Lord Mount Joy and our Maiesty’s forces in Ireland’, dated 1602 (The Shirburn Ballads, 1585–1616, ed. Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1907) XXXI, pp. 123–8).Google Scholar
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    The Pack of Autolycus, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, Mass., 1927) 62–7.Google Scholar
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    Origins of the Individual Self: Autobiography and Self Identity in England, 1591–1791 (Cambridge, 1997), Chapter 7, pp. 162–201.Google Scholar
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    John Taylor the Water Poet, The Travels of Twelve-Pence; in All the Works of John Taylor the Water Poet (1630; reprinted facsimile London, 1973), I, 66.Google Scholar

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© Henk Dragstra 2000

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  • Henk Dragstra

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