Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 July 2019
MOVING FROM THE PAST of the ballad to the past depicted in the ballad, the previous chapter touched on the idea of the ballad past as constructed memory. Although Michael Bruce thought of the ballad as being ‘founded on some passage of history’, this was clearly not the case in any real sense. Even ballads like Fair Rosamond, The Lamentable Fall of Queen Eleanor, or Jane Shore (ostensibly medieval, but actually early modern), though founded on passages of history, are really indistinguishable from other pieces like Patient Grissel or The Wanton Wife of Bath, or the ‘disguised king’ ballads. ‘The Battle of Otterburn’, ‘The Hunting of the Cheviot’, and the endlessly reprinted broadside Chevy-Chase, versions of the ballad that so moved Sir Philip Sidney, rework a battle that was ‘of virtually no strategic or historical importance’. Rather, Andrew Taylor infers, ‘The emotional power of the old Border ballad of Percy and Douglas lay in part in its invitation to emulate the old knights, as Sidney did throughout his life and in the last rash cavalry charge in which he died, and in the implicit promise that the knight who did so would not fully die but would have his own deeds remembered.’ So here is another glimpse of ballad medievalism and the ballad past as constructed memory coming together, at a strikingly early date.
Matthew Hodgart generalizes: ‘No ballad can be called truly historical, for none is reliable on matters of fact. There is rarely any proof that such ballads have been written within living memory of the events they describe.’ That is probably not entirely true if one considers, say, historical and frequently overtly political, but also frequently ephemeral, ballads on things such as the Anglo-Dutch Wars or Monmouth's rebellion. The corpus of murder and execution ballads, ‘last dying speeches’, too, were very much written for the occasion, although their representation of ‘matters of fact’ is quite likely to be highly partisan and governed as much by convention as by the actual events. But Hodgart is entirely correct in the sense that ballads – printed ballads as well as ballads from the folk song collections – do not relate episodes from the past for the sake of the historical record.