Writing a year before Mozart died, Joseph Ritson prefaced the earliest attempt to summarize the history of medieval English song with the comment:
To pretend to frame a History, or any thing resembling one, from the scanty gleanings it is possible to collect upon the subject of our Ancient Songs and vulgar music, would be vain and ridiculous.
Nearly two hundred years later it is still necessary to begin any such survey on a note of extreme caution and with a declaration that the picture must be built on a series of widely separated stepping-stones—or more precisely, on a scattered group of stones peeping up from the river and perhaps never intended to pave a way across. Perhaps I may continue the river metaphor for a moment by saying that a landing place is now fairly solidly established on the far bank thanks to the recent publication by John Stevens of the Fayrfax Manuscript (GB-Lbm Add. 5465), dating from around 1500, and of the English songs in the Ritson Manuscript (Add. 5665), some of which must have been copied around 1470. Further, a little way up the river, there is a more or less continuous path across provided by the English carol tradition, also fully published by John Stevens and surviving in a series of five manuscripts that are miraculously fairly even in their chronological and stylistic spacing over the years from 1430 to 1500.