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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 Binaries

Colton Saylor
The final portion of Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass’s essay “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text” proposes two very significant conclusions for the future study of the material text. The first is that in approaching the field of Shakespearean studies, one should disregard any attempts at arriving at an authentic Shakespearean text.  Instead, scholars should take up the far more relevant task of investigating how our current understanding of Shakespeare’s work is the product of various editorial revisions. In other words, we should approach the study of Shakespeare less as a search for a singular, authentic window into 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 study of the “mechanical” process that is typesetting and printing is a byproduct of this quest for the elusive “authentic” Shakespearean text, and thus distracts us from what should instead be a study of how individuals have categorized and responded to those same mechanical processes. Sifting through the various printed texts that these mechanical processes have wrought is what brings about the “social” element of Shakespearean study that the authors find so compelling.

I begin with De Grazia and Stallybrass not for what their argument says for the future of Shakespearean study but instead because of the implications it has for how we view the materiality of the text and the “mechanical reproductions” that create it. What their paper overlooks is the necessity of studying how these same mechanical reproductions interact with and ultimately influence the very texts that they create. Indeed, through the process of “Making the Broadside Ballad,” my colleagues and I have set out to explore just how the labor intensive steps that go into creating the ballad have large consequences for the future reading, performing, and overall understanding of these texts. By giving special attention to the act of material creation, what was at first purely “mechanical” and abstract takes on a much more ephemeral and collaborative form. In what follows, I apply such an attention to the act of printing in order to demonstrate how the category of the “social” that De Grazia and Stallybrass discuss can be expanded to include 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 by which efforts were made to give print back its capacity for reliable knowledge in the midst of distorting printing practices and copyright theft. Like Johns’s book, this paper takes seriously the effects of printing on the culture at large.  Additionally, I would argue that we must take up the question of how the printing process’s tendency towards the liminal, particularly in its blending of the organic and mechanical, has an impact on the nature of the text being printed.

The printing process can be described as liminal due to the way that printing, in any of its given steps, involves a folding of boundaries that in turn can be understood to have effects on the printed object. 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 involve elements of print, orality, visual media, and music. When observed with an eye toward the theoretical implications of its construction, however, the broadside ballad’s genre-defying complexity seems a by-product of its ability to collapse binary oppositions. The text and the printing press used to create it become linked through their tendency towards the liminal and through their ability to fuse the worlds 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 impresses upon the ballad not just in the literal sense of ink to page, but in the theoretical sense of crossing binaries and reflecting 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 proposes to bring the theory of printing to the forefront of our reading and analysis of ballads.

Loading the Composing Stick
An important first step in printing that also exhibits a fundamental binary-crossing of materiality/immaterialty 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 be handling the type needed for the desired line. As the type is placed onto the stick, the left thumb keeps 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; that is to say, 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 a more embodied material object. Writing – or type in this case – takes up space and is therefore something around which to be positioned.
As the printing process continues, the operator’s relation to the type and the printing press itself is vital to the success of the finished ballad, a fact that points to the collaborative effort between the individual and the mechanical. Important to this effort is a type of physical intimacy that develops between the two, an intimacy characterized by a sort of bodily familiarity that the printer must demonstrate towards both the type the and the printing press. The nimbleness and fluidity that the Bailey Films video suggests is needed for a skilled printer relies as much on muscle memory as it does on the quality of the equipment being used. Printing then entwines both the body and the text as integral parts whose relationship with each other helps determine how successful the act of printing is.

“How To Set Type.” Baily 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,” or “quadrats,” that are included on either side of the type serve as margins for the broadside ballad, as well as provide space in between the words. The step of implanting “slugs” represents another binary-collapsing moment in printing in which space, defined here 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 by either a piece of type, ornamentation, or spacers. Actual space, or the physical lack of something, is avoided by all means possible when loading the composing stick. The “lock up” process, in which the printer makes sure that her type is set as tightly as possible with no gaps in between sorts, serves to eliminate space by any means possible. Achieving such a definitive occlusion of space includes sliding pieces of thin paper or copper between the pieces (in addition to the already placed slugs), as well as larger wooden pieces referred to 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 is the fact that space during the type setting process is meant to support the text and keep it in place. 

A useful way to consider these two paradoxes of space is through Derrida’s discussion of différance, which he describes as “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” (Derrida, Positions 21). By taking Derrida’s words out of their semiotic context and into a far more literal sense, we are able to see how the slugs and quadrats of printing allow for, or support, the signification of the text being printed. Space’s duality as both “active and passive” signals its ability to eschew the binary of presence/absence. Of special significance here is the implication that the space within a broadside ballad is constantly active, separating out the words on the page from each other. Again the process of printing allows for an illustration of the abstract via corporeality as a way of suggesting the very physical consequences that something as intangible as space plays in the everyday.

The Asbern Press at UC Riverside

The Printing Press and Design
Once the type is locked into the printing bed with the slugs and furniture holding it firmly in place [insert image here of the “lock in” of our ballad], the printer begins the actual operation of the printing press. Since the early days of printing, the structure of the press has been noted for its intuitive design. For example, 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 same individual employed in a variety of what he considers “hands-on” (i.e., “handy-craft”) trades, such as smithing, carpentry, and brick-laying. That such an individual, who relies on the sense of touch and a general comfort with the physical, would find the press’s design “harmonious” enough so as to take “great satisfaction,” speaks to the printing press’s built-in feature of working alongside its human operator. 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 Subserveient to him” (7). Moxon attributes the printer not just with a physical expertise over the press, but also a deeper, more intimate connection with the machine that surpasses other workers involved with the process.
Although the design of printing presses has varied over the years, each press design instills a blurring of the organic and the machine in a way that momentarily 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 the concept famously presented by Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto.” In that seminal piece, Haraway envisions the cyborg figure as a chimeric blend of animal and machine to create a “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 fluidity of the human printer. This mirroring is sustained in part through the same physical intimacy that Moxon points to, an intimacy that results in a collaborative act in which the two bodies work both with and within each other, both separate and together.
Traces of this mirroring hybridity can be found in the Bailey Films video that promotes a machine-like efficiency (via the quickness with which the composing stick is loaded/distributed) while also encouraging a graceful fluidity (seen in the smooth action that the thumb holding the composing stick must perform). The German-made Asbern press (pictured above) 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 dual 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 mechanic. In this mirroring, the printer becomes both the writer and the writing tool and upsets any pre-supposed boundaries between author/text and human/machine. In thinking back to De Grazia and Stallybrass, their conceit of the impossibility of singular authorship within the printed Shakespearean text becomes even more difficult when giving the printing press its proper due. If we are to concede to the influence that the mechanical characteristics of the press has 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. By doing so, we extend Moxon’s concept of harmony during the use of the press by the printer to the product itself, an extension that occurs in the act of imprint.

Imprinting the Ink onto the Paper

The Common Press.

“Peine Forte Et Dure.”.

This sense of joyful, 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” action that leaves the ink imprinted onto the paper appear to mirror the simple machinery used to “press” individuals as a form of torture, shown above in a drawing depicting the crushing of Roman Catholic martyr St Margaret Clitherow. In both “presses,” the powerful act of crushing an object is used to coax out meaning, rather it be the printed text or a prisoner’s confession. Even within the slightly less violent operation of the Asbern press, the moment of imprinting comes in a smothering motion that requires the right amount of force to guarantee that the paper has an even coat of ink. Force and violence are important here in that they signify an amount of physicality that provides the ultimate transition between the blank page and the ballad. Similar to the lock-up phase and the tightening of the furniture with screws, we are left with another paradoxical instance: one of creation through the act of violence. Equally significant is the fact that both the printer and the press are complicit in this act of violence/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 that becomes the printing press’s calling card. For instance, in the “Firefly Press” video, Kristensen comments on how the press makes a “cut” into the paper, leaving behind an indented text that can be felt by the reader that denotes a certain kind of value over a handwritten or digitally printed document.
We can read this joining 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 1674-1679 that relates the process of brewing ale with the substitution of a human for the corn. By doing so, the ballad highlights the extremely violent process by which ale is created, a violence that, while necessary, is disturbing when placed in a different context. At one point the ballad reads, “And hired two with Holly-Clubs,/to beat at him at once,/Who thwackt so hard on Barley-corn,/the flesh fell from his bones” (English Broadside Ballad Archive). The violent verbs “beat” and “thwackt” represent verbs of both creation and destruction. Only by removing the kernels from the corn can the process of brewing continue; thus, as the human character Barley-corn’s flesh “[falls] from his bones,” the act of bodily annihilation is allowed to also be seen as an act of transformation, of creation anew. The Barley-corn ballad operates under the same binary-collapsing logic that we find in the operation of the printing press: in both instances, the lines between the bodily and the other (read here as decidedly not human) are blurred in order to tease at new meaning. For the ballad, such a blurring allows for the comprehension that our methods of pleasure (drinking ale at an ale-house) come from inherently violent origins that point to hard physical labor. If we substitute corn back into the place of Barley-corn, we come to sympathize with the workers themselves who are tasked with enacting these exhausting steps in order to brew ale. Similarly, in problematizing the barrier between the printer and the press, we are allowed a window into the intricate relationships and process enacted during the period of printing. In both cases, physical or mechanical labor is complicated to reveal a depth of critical meaning unseen upon first glance.
For a theoretical centering of this violence/creation paradox found in the act of printing, we can again look to a more literal reading of Derrida, this time in his Of Grammatology essay “The Violence of the Letter.” Derrida frames violence as an inherent consequence 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 written language, for Derrida, contains an element of violence that attempts to inscribe a unique presence that had “never been given and only dreamed of” (112). Similarly, by insisting on the legitimacy of the canyon between the printer and the press, we as scholars of materiality and the text induce another act of violence, one that attempts to create distance within the realm of the physical for the sake of categorization and logic (i.e. that which is mechanical and non-human must be kept separate from that which is organic and human). The printing process considerably more than writing literalizes this metaphysical violence, materializing the violence that is foundational to language as such. 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 bodily text.

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, we must look to 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 habit of ballad-readers to collect broadside ballads in order to decorate their domestic spaces in the fashion of wall-paper. Hyder E. Rollins describes such a custom as he writes, “The walls of inns, taverns, and dwelling-houses, those patronized or owned by the well-to-do no less than by the poor, 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). Opposite from the ephemeral nature that we so often prescribe to the ballad, this passage points towards a far different, more domestic afterlife for the text. In lining one’s walls with broadsides, the ballads are allowed intimate (here referring to closeness to the physical body) access to the reader’s homes. Such a continued collaboration has further effects upon the reader, 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, here by helping to further education through a mental (and physical) familiarity between reader and text. Important is the fact that closeness, intimacy continues beyond the printing process and continues to produce meaning and critical value.
Rollins offers us another example of the ballad’s sustained relationship with the reader via the act of mourning. He exclaims, “Apart from their educational value, ballads may have brought consolation to the grief-stricken!” (338). We understand the act of consolation not only as a psychic process of healing, but also as a partly physical one, in which one body offers comfort to another. Indeed, while detailing an account by Samuel Pepys, Rollins invites a way in which the ballad displays a capability for 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 account, retold by Rollins, gives us a demonstration of the ballad’s capacity for inciting social unison, here through the act of consoling a group of mourners as the dead body passes by. The ballad is pulled from the man’s pocket, at once a sign of the intimate closeness that the body and the text maintain from the process of printing. A similar sign of intimacy comes 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 feeds partly into 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 “we” in Pepys’s insistence that “very merry we were all” can apply not only to the mourners but the ballad itself. In effect, the ballad creates and becomes apart of the social act of consolation.
We can witness a analogous symptom of closeness and collaboration through 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 with or to others. The subject holds the ballad, passes it to others, hangs it up on her wall, folds it into her pocket. As it runs the gamut of personal and social uses, the ballad blurs the line between the public and private text, a blurring induced through the act of 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 the way in which it is received as a cultural text. Similar to the printer operating the printer press, furthermore, 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 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 in order to come into being.

Reconsidering the theoretical 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 instant it is performed in an alehouse, public market, or private home, we can witness how the methods that go into its construction predetermine any critical discussion of how scholars should categorize and otherwise perceive the broadside ballad. 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 goes on to discuss, “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 playing field in which our scholarly conversation can take place. Rather than trying to “move beyond” these binaries (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 strived to illustrate, every step of the ballad’s construction resists the idea that there is a need to separate from the human and machine or from the abstract and the corporeal. No such binaries exist. 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 simultaneously construct a new, better understanding of the unique social and cultural space inhabited by the broadside ballad.

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