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The Making of A Broadside Ballad

Patricia Fumerton, Andrew Griffin, Carl Stahmer, Authors

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Printing Outside the Lines: The Printing Press, Broadside Ballads, and Collapsing Binary Oppositions

The final portion of Margreta De Grazia and Peter Stallybrass’s essay “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text” draws two very significant conclusions for the future study of the material text. The first is that in approaching the field of Shakespeare studies, one should disregard any attempts at accessing the authentic Shakespearean text and instead take up the far more relevant task of investigating how our current understanding of Shakespeare’s work is the product of various editorial interventions, all of which create a historical field of textuality that allows us to situate ourselves in the “space of historical difference” (De Grazia and Stallybrass 283). In other words, we should approach the study of Shakespeare less as a search for a singular, authentic window to the author himself and more as a field of “complex social practices that shaped, and still shape, the absorbent surface of the Shakespearean text” (283). The second conclusion – very much a consequence of the first – is that the “mechanical” process of typesetting and printing is part of what complicates this quest for the elusive “authentic” Shakespearean text, reminding us of the various material and social mediations that stand between the plays we read and the work Shakespeare imagined. 

I begin with De Grazia and Stallybrass not in order to address their argument about the future of Shakespeare scholarship but instead because of the implications that this argument has for how we view the materiality of the text and the mechanical processes that create it. But where they attend to the materiality of the texts, our project here involves the experience of production and the ways that the "machinery" surrounding the material text informs textual possibilities. Indeed, through the process of “Making the Broadside Ballad,” my colleagues and I have set out to explore just how the labor-intensive steps of creating the ballad have significant consequences for the future reading, performance, and overall comprehension of these texts. By giving special attention to the act of material creation, what at first was purely “mechanical” and abstract helps us to better understand the ways that texts make meaning. In what follows, I attend to such an attention to the act of printing in order to demonstrate how the category of the “social,” per De Grazia and Stallybrass, includes the mechanical objects that are used to create the texts themselves. Through such a gaze, the act of “collaboration” extends from merely an editorial (read as human) process to one that includes the collaborative efforts of the printer and the printing press. This task owes much to Adrian Johns’s The Nature of the Book, which seeks to trace the cultural significance of efforts to restore the legitimacy of print in the wake of disruptions such as distorting printing practices and copyright theft. Like Johns's work, this essay takes seriously the effects of printing on the culture at large; additionally, I insist, we must take up the question of how the tendency of the printing process towards the liminal, mostly via its blending of the organic and mechanical, has an impact on the character of the text being printed.

When pointing to the “liminality” of printing, I mean to indicate the curious folding of boundaries – between human and machine or ideas and matter or presence and absence – that affects the character of the printed object and the meanings it makes. In the case of the broadside ballad, such effects are readily apparent in the inherent complexity of the multimedia document. Ballads are difficult to categorize and catalogue because they combine print, poetry, visual media, and music. In this sense, the broadside ballad’s genre-defying complexity seems to be a byproduct of its equally binary-collapsing creation process. By attending to the practice of making, the text and the printing press used to create it become linked by way of a tendency towards the liminal and by a characteristic fusion of the abstract and corporeal, the ideal text with the material object. To study the ephemeral and category-defying nature of the broadside ballad is to look “behind the curtain” and examine how the act of printing presses upon the ballad not just in the literal sense of ink to page, but also in the ontological sense, where it collapses binary oppositions and reflects the complexities of a human experience that rarely fits into neat categories. By exploring each step in the production of a ballad, we recognize not only the craft involved, but also the ballad’s fundamental character. This essay brings the theory of printing to the forefront of how we read and analyze ballads.

Loading the Composing Stick

An important first step in printing that also exhibits a fundamental crossing of the opposition between materiality and immateriality is the act of loading the composing stick. Touch plays an important role in this act: not only does one’s left thumb (for the right-handed operator) need to be carefully holding the set type in place on the stick, but the other hand must handle the small lead type needed for the desired line. As the type is placed onto the stick, the left thumb holds it upright while feeling that the notch on the type is lined up with the rest of the type. Both hands’ actions involve the body’s interaction with typesetting that is inherently corporeal, which means that in loading the composing stick, one’s physical intimacy with the type is crucial. The Bailey Films instructional video "How To Set Type" underscores this corporeality not only through its insistence on the use of the thumb as a place holder, but also in its imperative that the operator’s posture – back straight and elbows out in order to promote optimal reach over the type drawer – is integral to the loading process. All of these allusions to touch and body posture work towards pulling writing down from a level of high abstraction towards the materiality of little bits of lead. Writing – or type in this case – takes up space and is therefore an object around which the typesetter must be positioned.

As the printing process continues, the operator’s relation to the type and the printing press itself is vital to the successful production of a ballad, a fact that points to the collaborative effort between the human and the mechanical. Important to this effort is a type of physical intimacy that develops between the two, an intimacy characterized by a bodily familiarity and discipline that the printer must demonstrate towards both the type and the printing press. As the Bailey Films video makes clear, a skilled printer relies as much on muscle memory as on high-quality equipment. Printing then entwines both the body and the text as integral parts whose relationship with each other helps to determine the success of the product.

“How To Set Type.” Bailey Films.
When printing a ballad, one recognizes the paradoxical presence of absence, or the material objects that produce blank spaces on a page. For instance, before setting type onto the composing stick, one must first place a “slug” at the bottom of the stick; this slug, as well the other “spacers” and “quadrats” included on either side of the type, serve as margins for the broadside ballad, as well as provide space in between the words. These things provide the nothing that makes the ballad legible. The step of implanting “slugs” represents another binary-collapsing moment in the printing process where space – as an absence on the page – is represented by actual physical objects on the printing bed. Every inch of the ballad’s page, in fact, is accounted for either by a piece of type, an ornamental element, or a spacer. Actual space, or the physical lack of something, is avoided by all means possible when loading the composing stick. And the subsequent “lock up” process, during which the printer ensures that type is set tightly with no gaps between pieces of type or woodcuts, eliminates space by any means possible. Achieving such a definitive exclusion of space requires printers to slide pieces of thin paper or copper between the pieces (in addition to the already placed slugs), as well as the larger wooden elements known as furniture. The paradox here is that the enemy of space within the finished broadside ballad is actual space itself, occupied with furniture. Perhaps even more paradoxical, the absence that renders words and images legible on the broadside ballad can only exist because of the stuff that is very carefully locked into place.

Derrida’s discussion of différance in “Cogito and the History of Madness” provides a language through which we can consider this paradox.  Derrida describes “the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive… production of the intervals without which the ‘full’ terms would not signify, would not function” (Positions 21). By taking Derrida’s words literally – or by moving them from the realm of semiotics to them space of the printing house – we are able to see how the slugs and quadrats of printing allow for, or support, the signification of the text being printed. Space is both “active and passive,” and it troubles the distinction between presence and absence. Of special significance here is the implication that the space within a broadside ballad is constantly active, separating the words on the page from each other. The process of printing makes the abstract idea accessible by materializing it, and it draws our attention to the physical role that something as intangible as space plays in the everyday.

An image of our ballad “locked-up” on the bed of the printing press. (Photo: Zach Horton)
The Printing Press and Design

Once the type is locked into the printing bed with the slugs and furniture holding it firmly in place, the printer begins to operate the printing press. Since the early days of printing, the structure of the press has been noted for its intuitive design. Joseph Moxon, a seventeenth-century English printer, writes in the preface to his Meckanick Exercises: Or. the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Pressman’s Trade (1896):

The Printing-Press that a Press-man works at, is a Machine invented upon mature consideration of Mechanick Powers, deducted from Geometrick Principles; and therefore a Press man endowed with a competency of the Inventers Genius, will not only find great satisfaction in the contemplation of the harmonious design and Make of a press, but as often as any Member, or part of it is out of order, he will know how to remedy any deficiency in it (269).

The “Mechanick” that Moxon mentions is the individual employed in a variety of “hands-on” or handicraft trades, such as smithing, carpentry, and bricklaying. That such a person, who relies on the sense of touch and a general comfort with the physical world, would find the press’s design “harmonious” enough so as to take “great satisfaction” speaks to the printing press’s human-oriented design. The press was designed to work harmoniously with the human body. Moxon doubles down on this notion of harmony by referring to the master printer as “the Soul of Printing; and all the Work-men as members of the Body governed by that Soul Subservient to him” (7). Moxon attributes to the printer not only a physical expertise concerning the press, but also a deeper, more intimate connection, turning the whole printing house and all its occupants into a machine that the master printer animates.

Although the design of printing presses has varied over the years, each press design blurs the organic and the machine in a way that transforms the printer into a sort of cyborg figure. It should be noted that by invoking the figure of cyborg, I do so with a slight twist on Donna Haraway's famous formulation of the figure. In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway envisions the cyborg as a chimeric blend of animal and machine: “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism” (149). What occurs during the printing process is less a blending or fusing of mechanical and organic as it is a mirroring. In other words, the bodies of the press and the printer, during various parts of the act of printing, work together by taking from each other, resulting in a process that requires both the efficiency of the machine and the quasi-mechanical fluidity of the human printer. This mirroring is sustained in part through the same physical intimacy that Moxon notes, an intimacy that results in a collaborative act, in which two bodies work both with and within and against one other, separate and unified.

The Asbern Press at UC Riverside.
Traces of this mirroring hybridity can be found in the Bailey Films video, which promotes a machine-like efficiency via the celerity with which compositors load and distribute type combined with the graceful fluidity they demonstrate as their thumbs, holding the composing stick, adjust to new pieces of type. The German-made Asbern press includes a rolling cylinder that rotates down the printing bed, pressing the loaded paper onto the ink-covered type. Again the press’s design presents a need for the machine and the operator to work with each other in a fluid and almost dance-like way. In order to print on the Asbern, the printer must roll the cylinder while nimbly working her way down the length of the press. Congruently, the “devil” – a second person waiting at the end of the press – must quickly but carefully remove the printed sheet before the operator can roll the cylinder all the way back to the head of the press. Both individuals must exercise a linked sense of grace and precision that is as elegant as it is mechanical.

In the printing process, then, the printing press mirrors human-ness and the human printer becomes mechanical. In this mirroring, the printer becomes both the writer and the writing tool, and upsets any pre-supposed boundaries between author and text, and between human and machine. In thinking back to De Grazia and Stallybrass, their notion of the impossibility of singular authorship within the printed Shakespearean text becomes even more complicated if one gives the printing press its proper due. If we are to concede to the influence that the mechanical characteristics of the press have on the creation of the text, than we must also be open to the idea of expanding the notion of authorship to include that same machine.

The Common Press. (Photo: Zach Horton)

“Peine Forte Et Dure.”.
Pushing Ink into Paper; Making Paper Absorb Ink
This sense of the creative dance between printer and press might also be read contrarily, in terms of the violence of printing. Presses such as the Common Press that rely on a “crushing” motion that mirrors the simple machinery used to “press” individuals, a form of torture reserved for defendants who refused to plea, shown above in a drawing depicting the crushing of the Roman Catholic martyr St. Margaret Clitherow. In both sorts of press, the powerful act of crushing an object is used to coax out meaning, whether it be the meaning of a printed text or a prisoner’s confession. Even in the slightly less violent operation of the Asbern press, the moment of imprinting comes in a smothering motion that requires the application of the correct amount of force in order to guarantee that the paper has an even coat of ink. Force and violence are important here in that they signify an element of physicality that provides the ultimate transition between a blank page and a broadside ballad. As in the lock-up phase and the tightening of the furniture with screws, we are left with another paradoxical moment in the process of print: creation is made possible by violence. Equally significant is the fact that both the printer and the press are complicit in this act of violent creation; both work in tandem to cut or smother the paper in order to create the text. This “cutting” action results in a violent trace left on the paper, which becomes the printing press’s calling card. For instance, in a short documentary discussing the Firefly Press, printer John Kristensen notes that the press makes a “cut” into the paper, leaving behind an indented text that can be felt by the reader.  This indentation denotes a certain kind of value, differentiating a printed text from a handwritten or digitally-printed document.

We can further read this alignment between violence and creation in the subject matter of broadside ballads themselves. “A Pleasant New Ballad to sing Evening and morn, Of the Bloody murder of Sir John Barley-corn” is a broadside ballad published sometime between 1674 and 1679 that uses the process of brewing ale as an analogy for human conflict by substituting a human body for the corn used in brewing. By doing so, the ballad highlights the violence required to make beer, a violence that, while necessary, is disturbing when placed in a different context. At one point, the men brewing the ale (or dismembering Sir John Barley-corn) hire two men with “holly-clubs” to “thwackt so hard on Barley-corn,/the flesh fell from his bones” (English Broadside Ballad Archive). The violence of “beat” and “thwackt” points to the violence underlying creation: only by removing the kernels from the corn can the brewing process take place. As the human character Barley-corn’s flesh “[falls] from his bones,” the act of bodily annihilation becomes as an act of transformation, of creation anew. Such a blurring of the line between destroying and making allows for the comprehension that ale, a source of pleasure, is in fact the site of a series of arduous and violent processes that allow for its existence. Within that same comprehension, ale ceases to exist as a simple means of entertainment and instead comes to stand for the labor and craft that it took to make it. Taking this understanding of violence and work from the content of the “Barley-corn” ballad and applying it to the printing of the ballad itself induces a similar effect in which the broadside ballad is always both a finished textual object and product of (violent) labor. Any reading of the ballad, in other words, must also take into account the combined efforts of the printer and the printing press.    

For a theoretical centering of this violence/creation paradox in the act of printing, we can again look to Derrida's “The Violence of the Letter.” Derrida frames violence as an inherent feature of writing, particularly on the level of classifying or naming: “To name, to give names . . . is the originary violence of language which consists in inscribing within a difference, in classifying, in suspending the vocative absolute. To think the unique within the system, to inscribe it there, such is the gesture of the arche-writing” (112). Any act of language, for Derrida, contains an element of violence that elides the unique or singular by inscribing it into a system of meaning. Similarly, by insisting on the legitimacy of the gulf between the printer and the press, we as scholars of “material texts” enact another sort of violence, one that attempts to create distance within the realm of the physical for the sake of categorization and logic, for the sake of keeping the mechanical and non-human separate from the organic and human. The printing process, to a larger extent than the writing process, literalizes this metaphysical violence, materializing the violence that is foundational to language in its status as an act of inscription. Again the theory of writing finds a physical counterpart in the printing press, a machine that allows for the concrete realization of language via the creation of a physical text.

The finished version of our ballad, “The Ballad-Makers Complaint." (Photo: Patricia Fumerton)
Life of the Broadside Ballad after Printing

The category-scuttling nature of the printing process, which troubles familiar oppositions between the idealization of language and the brute fact of matter, still leaves the lingering question of what all this duality means for the form of the broadside ballad. In answering this question, we must examine how ballads were actually used, read, or performed by the consuming public. After the printing process is complete and the ballad is sent out into the world, the collaborative intimacy from which the text was created continues. Part of this continuing intimacy can be seen in the practice of collecting broadside ballads in order to decorate domestic spaces in the fashion of wallpaper. Hyder E. Rollins describes such a custom where he describes the "walls of inns, taverns, and dwelling-houses, those patronized or owned by the well-to-do no less than by the poor" that "were commonly lined with broadsheets, which not only helped to supply the absence of wall-paper and tapestry, but gave to the rooms a picturesque, if bizarre, appearance” (336). Rather than pointing to the ballad's ephemerality, Rollions points towards a different, more domestic afterlife for the text, one that militates against this sense of ephemerality. In lining their walls with broadsides, ballad readers build the ballads into their homes. This long-term relationship with a ballad has powerful effects upon readers, as Rollins explains: “Fifty years later Thomas Holcroft confessed that his education had been furthered by a study of cottage and ale-house walls, from which, he said, he had learned 'Death and the Lady,' 'Margaret’s Ghost,' 'Lamentable Tragedies,' and 'King Charles Golden Rules'" (338). The favored position that ballads are given in the reader’s domestic space allows for the texts to continue to influence and collaborate with their human partners.  Proximity and intimacy between text and context persist beyond the printing process and continue to produce meaning and critical value.

Rollins offers another example of the ballad’s sustained relationship with the reader: he describes the ballad's occasional role in the act of mourning. He exclaims, surprised by the notion, that apart "from their educational value, ballads may have brought consolation to the grief-stricken!” (338). Consolation is not only a psychic process of healing, but also a physical process, in which one body offers comfort to another. Indeed, while detailing an account by Samuel Pepys, Rollins demonstrates the ballad's ability to offer both psychic and physical consolation: “At Sir Thomas Teddiman’s funeral, May 16, 1668, one of the company took ‘some ballads out of his pocket, which,’ Pepys says, ‘I read, and the rest come about me to hear! And there very merry we were all, they being new ballets. By and by the corpse went’” (339). Pepys's account, retold by Rollins, gives us a demonstration of the ballad’s capacity for encouraging sociality, here by consoling a group of mourners as the corpse passes by. The ballad is pulled from the man’s pocket, another sign of the intimacy between ballad and ballad owner. A similar sign of intimacy appears in the detail that the mourners “come about” both Pepys and the ballad. Just as we noted the importance of the position that the printer takes with the press while operating it, here too the ballad’s physical position contributes to its ability to reach and console the crowd. To read, perform, or enjoy the ballad is in part a social act, with the ballad as much included as any of the readers: the size of the ballad and the size of its type require bodies to assemble around it closely if they hope to participate in the singing, or the practice of audition is one that brings bodies together. In effect, the ballad creates and becomes a part of the social act of consolation.

We witness an analogous phenomenon that ties proximity and collaboration to the ballad when we consider the act of ballad-singing. The performance of a broadside ballad by a ballad-singer involves the act of reading the words on the page while at the same time orating or singing these ballads to a tune, either with others or to others. The subject holds the ballad, passes it to others, hangs it up on her wall, folds it into her pocketAs it runs the gamut of personal and social uses, the ballad blurs the line between the public and private text, a blurring created through touch. For example, the same broadside ballad used to begin a rousing drinking song at a local alehouse could also be a private keepsake kept at a person’s dwelling. In either case the location of the ballad in reference to an individual body or a collection of bodies determines how it is understood as a cultural text. Furthermore, like the body of the printer operating the printing press, the ballad performer’s body, not simply his or her voice, is integral to the performance process in that it works in tandem with the signifying text, woodcut illustrations, and performer's voice in order to enact the broadside ballad. A broadside ballad in action, in other words, is no different than a printing press in operation: both require the melding of a human operator with the object it operates.


Reconsidering the forces at play during the ballad printing process offers potential new insights into how we approach a critical discussion of the broadside ballad. By tracing the ballad’s liminal nature from the moment the type is set on the composing stick to the moment when the ballad is performed in an alehouse, public market, or private home, we can witness how the methods that go into the ballad's construction shape any informed critical discussion of the ballad and its character. As Paula McDowell explains in her essay “‘The Art of Printing was Fatal’: Print Commerce and the Idea of Oral Tradition in Long Eighteenth-Century Ballad Discourse,” ballad critics today, for the most part, “reject binary (or tripartite) models of balladry” (37). However, as McDowell notes, “it is easier for [critics] to agree that rigid binary (or tripartite) models of transmission are unsatisfactory than to move beyond them” (37). The tripartite that McDowell refers to consists of categorization of ballads as objects of “oral, scribal, or print culture” (37). It is precisely at this moment that the theoretical examination of the printing press and its operation opens up or, more accurately, broadens the field in which critical conversation can take place. Rather than trying to “move beyond” these binary oppositions (which implies a sense of acceptance and resulting growth), we must move backwards and undo the notion that any such binary belongs in the study of broadside ballads. Indeed as this paper has attempted to illustrate, every step of the ballad’s construction resists the idea that there is a need to separate the human from the machine or the abstract from the corporeal. Only by studying the poetics of printing and the way in which it melds together a number of worlds in the name of creation can we hope to “move beyond” the tripartite of “oral, scribal, or print culture” (37). In the act of deconstructing this process, we are able to construct a new, better understanding of the unique social and cultural space inhabited by the broadside ballad.

Works Cited

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