Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 July 2019
THOMAS PERCY's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (first published 1765) can be justly regarded as the foundation document of the European ballad revival. It can also be taken as a prime embodiment of the sort of desire for continuity outlined in the context of the discussion of Cecil Sharp's theory of folk song in the previous chapter. Percy set out to present the ballads as the ancient indigenous poetry of the English language which had been transmitted from the Middle Ages down to the present, eighteenth-century, day. In doing so, he gave considerable impetus to the gothic strain in English literature. The irony is that, for all Percy has been reviled by later generations of ballad scholars, ‘consigned […] to the special hell reserved for bad editors’, as Albert Friedman memorably put it, his literary historical project was to all intents and purposes taken over by Francis James Child and subsequent generations of ballad scholars. The alternative would have been to say that the ballads mostly come from early modern broadsides, or that they were written in the eighteenth century, or that the majority of the songs collected in the first decades of the twentieth century go back not much further than the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Much better, then, that they should belong with ‘a body of materials that were old and widely distributed and perhaps came from the “general stock of mediæval fiction”’.
The ballad to 1600
For ballad studies, however, ‘medieval’ or the ‘Middle Ages’ is a tricky designation, compounded by a paucity of evidence and a range of assumptions, some of which are the subject of this chapter and some of which are not. The Middle Ages is usually taken as that long period of European history that extends from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, c.500 ce, to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, or the ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492, or simply to the beginning of the Renaissance and the emergence of recognizably early modern societies by the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Historians justly question whether the period really does constitute a distinct middle, falling between two quite different ages, at all.