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The Making of A Broadside Ballad

Patricia Fumerton, Andrew Griffin, Carl Stahmer, Authors

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Why Making?

It was the early 1990s when, once and for all, books became things. All other sorts of printed material, from broadside ballads, to pamphlets, to almanacs, to standardized forms, soon followed suit. Since this rise of the "New Textualismearly modern literary scholars have been acutely aware that the artifacts we read are, in fact, artifacts rather than timeless ideal works, something to be “looked at, rather than seen through” (De Grazia and Stallybrass 257). This sense of print’s material character has become so familiar to scholars working in the field that we might be struck by a sense of vertigo when returning to Margreta De Grazia and Peter Stallybrass’s seminal “Materiality of the Shakespearean Text” from 1993. There, they describe a critical status quo that is unrecognizable today:

Formalists call for exacting attention to the minutiae of literary language without giving thought to the printing-house practices that have in modern editions produced them. Historicists, tracing in Shakespeare's works the discursive structures specific to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, have ignored the extent to which these structures are eighteenth-century [editorial] constructs. (256)

We, of course, know better than these earlier formalists and historicists, thanks in part to scholarship like that of De Grazia and Stallybrass, which reminds us that the “meaning” of the texts we read, research, and teach is determined, in part, by their material features. Facilitated by the wide availability of databases such as EBBA, ECCO, and EEBO, all of which provide photostatic or photographic reproductions of early modern works, the field has become largely bibliophilic, or at least sensitive to the materiality of texts, to their “paper, ink, typefaces, layouts,” and to other features of the “bibliographical code” (McGann 13). By the end of the 1990s, this methodological transformation was so complete that David Scott Kastan could make a claim which still seems familiar to us today: “Never before has the materiality of the texts we study seemed so compelling, so unavoidable, and so exhilaratingly problematic” (159).

The New Textualism has become critical commonsense alongside, and often in tandem with, attempts by historians of the book to produce a more robust vision of “print culture.” This more robust vision of print culture emerges largely from the sociological impulse associated with the work of Michael Warner and Adrian Johns, both of whom respond to earlier, technologically deterministic narratives of print culture and its putatively emancipatory force.  Reflecting on his methods and distinguishing them from the methods of earlier historians of the book, Johns, for instance, asks whether “history couched in terms of print culture [is] really what we need.” Should we instead “seek something significantly different, giving causal weight to the representations, situations, and actions of participants? The latter might be called, by contrast, not a history of print culture but a cultural history of print” (“How To” 116). Johns spells out the implications of this distinction at length in The Nature of the Book, often in direct engagement with previous historians of the book such as Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, whose Printing Press as an Agent of Change treated the emergence of “print culture” as a natural extension of the printing press and its technological capacity. Where Eisenstein claims that the printing press inspired a previously “unacknowledged revolution,” establishing the culture of print that would underwrite the Reformation, the emergence of scientific culture, and modernity more broadly, sociologically-minded historians of the book such as Johns and Warner insist that the emergence of this print culture was effected by a broader transition in the operations of “culture.” Whereas Eisenstein’s notions of print culture and the "cultural meaning of printedness" are subtended by a faith in the standardization, fixity, public-ness, and authority of printed works, Johns and Warner would argue that these characteristics are not the necessary effect of the printing press but instead a result of professional, legal, and representational practices that ensure the broad perception of such legitimacy and epistemological credit. In a pointed attack on the technologically-deterministic account of print culture’s emergence, Warner sees the historical project associated with Eisenstein as fundamentally flawed at the level of method: “the appeal to the agency of print upon culture tends to reintroduce a privilege for technology, for the model of causation presupposes that printing and culture are distinct entities.” Warner adds, “at the very moment when historians draw their conclusions about the historical effects of printing, they bracket the political and symbolic constitution of print” (6).

By exploring the implementation, representation, and performance of various ideals, institutions, and processes — the control of censorship, the enforcement of copyright laws, the practice of printers, and the professional conventions that inform printing house practices — this broader sense of print culture reminds us that the source of “print culture” is “to be sought in civility as much as in technology, and in historical labours as much as in immediate cause and effect” (Johns, Nature 35). The materiality of the book — the possibilities for communication and thought that it inspires — merges with “material culture” in a more capacious sense, and we come to recognize that “the ‘printing revolution,’ if there was one, consisted of changes in the conventions of handling and investing credit in textual materials, as much as transformations in their manufacture” (Johns, Nature 35-36). To understand this revolution, Johns argues, we need certainly to trace where books were printed and travelled, how they looked and felt and were sold, but we also need to understand the precise character of the “domains” in which they were produced and consumed, the “dynamic localities defined by physical environment, work, and sociability”; included here are the “printing house and bookshop, but also the city square, courtroom, and coffee-house” (Johns, Nature 59). The character of print culture can only come to be after these “domains” work in tandem.

This more robust, comprehensive account of print culture insists that print culture results from material texts as well as from the practices, technologies, institutions, and representations surrounding their production and reception. But historians of the book also remind us that readers, the idiosyncratic users of printed works, inevitably disturb our sense of print culture’s homogeneity. By focusing on the actual practices of readers, book historians in the past three decades have begun a painstaking, inexact, and necessary project in which they account for the sorts of work that individuals undertook when they read. Earlier histories of reading traced the flow of knowledge throughout Europe by accounting for the print market at the broadest possible scale, as we see in Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book (1958). To understand the flow of knowledge in print culture, they argue, means understanding the quantity, type, and cost of printed materials, and then tracing the sale of “[c]alendars, almanacs, ABCs, prayer books, religious tracts and old chivalric romances [that] were read by everybody and made up the bulk of the bales of books transported from town to town” (216). Scholars continue to produce macro-scale accounts of the print market in works such as William St. Clair’s Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, which expands on the story of book markets to include ephemera, as well as including the complex stories of ephemera’s licensing, publication, and circulation. And yet, in recent decades, book historians have supplemented stories of markets and trade with stories about the individuals who sat down with printed matter. When they explore extant printed materials for traces of their previous owners, recent historians of the book replace “bulky bales of books” with individual copies that have been thumbed over, marked up, annotated, amended, expanded, and damaged by the individuals who owned them. Following on the histories of reading and reception produced by scholars such as Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton, scholars today take seriously not only the materiality of the printed text, but also the material practices in which that text was implicated. Such a project is daunting in part, as Chartier notes, because the object of inquiry is “a practice (reading) that only rarely leaves traces, that is scattered in an infinity of singular acts, and that easily shakes off all constraints” (Order 1).

Because evidence of early modern reading practices is difficult to find, most compelling research on the history of reading is characterized by creativity and ingenuity. Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio’s Book Use, Book Theory, for instance, divines various reading practices by attending to printed cues and to idiosyncratic traces left by readers. Describing the reading practices that are implied by prefaces, Ramist diagrams, indexes, and tables of contents, Cormack and Mazzio turn to the “artifactual nature of the book” to illustrate the various ways that a book’s “material forms are integral to their meaning” (6). But they also recognize that a book’s form will always run up against the practice of idiosyncratic readers (or “users”): books could be hollowed out and used for the storage of eye glasses, say, or anatomy manuals might be redeployed as makeshift pornography. Unsurprisingly, the marginalia and reading notes left by readers have been crucial to historians of reading as they attempt to divine what early modern readers made of the books they read. While such a project seems initially myopic, accounting only for the idiosyncrasy of individual readers, evidence suggests that early modern reading practices were frequently systematic and consistent between readers. Trained in humanistic schools that emphasized the didactic value of literature, many early modern readers, for instance, collected commonplace books and made marginal commonplacing marks, collecting for future use what William Briton, an early modern reader and commonplacer, calls “Pithie sentences and wise sayinges” (qtd. in Estill 199). From these traces left by commonplacers, we can ultimately divine the sort of reading practice that such readers employed: it is ultimately “discontinuous,” treating books as “modular” repositories of useful, well-phrased information (Estill 200).

Of course, as scholars dealing with broadside ballads and ballad culture realize, not all reading was performed by commonplacers and not all print objects were mined for sententiae. Turning an eye to the circulation of broadside ballads, scholars of the past 20 years have re-imagined the rich social networks constituting the print culture in which ballads played a uniquely multifaceted role. Featuring woodcut images, familiar tunes, and verse, ballads were art objects, works of literature, scripts for performance, and the objects around which groups might come together in ad hoc choruses. As Kevin D. Murphy and Sally O’Driscoll suggest, this multifaceted character of the broadside ballad inspired a wide variety of social, community-building practices:

When someone hears a ballad on the street, or sees the ballad sheet with its illustrations, and then pulls out a penny to buy it, that person is not experiencing print as an individual private reading moment: he or she is participating in a shared cultural moment. In this exchange, the ballad sheet functions as a commodity that enables a shared experience to take place.  . . . People bought ballads to share them, to display them, to make a point of community, not to put them away and read them in solitude. (21)

To turn to the “material text” here — to see its design and its status as a cheap commodity — is ultimately to imagine the broadside ballad’s “reader” in action, unpacking the various practices that the object affords.

The field of book history as it exists today, then, focuses considerable attention on materiality: material objects, material practices, material networks of exchange and communication. And yet this near-fetishization of “the material” has been limited to the archive, where we read the same objects and processes we’ve always read, but we read them differently. By treating printed objects as ends in themselves, that is, the critical tradition has largely ignored — or treated as “mere” bibliography — the sorts of questions that we foreground in The Making of a Broadside Ballad: questions not only about how material objects operate in the world, but also how they are made, from what they are made, how it feels to make them, how it feels to interact with the technologies required for their production, and how they are built from the pulp up. And, indeed, the focus on the materiality of the objects has, until this project, largely been matched by a blindness to our own bodies: the apparently immaterial scholar largely looms bodiless over printed works rather than getting his or her hands dirty.

This critical lacuna exists in part because of the structure of the university. Describing their home institution, Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Michael Shanks point out that “Stanford isn’t atypical of universities of its kind in publicly espousing the arts’ centrality to the life of the mind while promoting a de facto segregation” between art-making and the study of art objects (143). This segregation is a general condition of the modern university, they argue, because universities tacitly and explicitly insist on “the marginality of domains tainted by any whiff of work done by hand or of vocational labor” (143). “Knowledge workers” in the humanities and social sciences work apart from other members of the modern university who labor in studios rather than libraries, or who teach in labs rather than lecture halls. The geography of the university reinscribes this division and we ultimately find that each sphere begins speaking only to itself. “Arts education” – a shorthand that includes everything from drawing and sculpture to coding and performance – comes to serve an “upmarket commodity culture,” radically separate from “core knowledge production and reproduction functions” at the heart of the modern research university (143, 144); humanistic scholarship, on the other hand, becomes “at best complementary, at worst ornamental, but never integral to the arts education,” existing as a “preliminar[y] quickly moved beyond” (144, 145). From this institutional structure, a debased arts education instrumentalizes humanistic inquiry can be revived only by phronesis or by “knowledge integrated with practical reasoning” (146). With the combination of “[r]igor and discipline, imagination and technical skill” that characterizes the arts practices they aim to cultivate, student artists begin to augment technical knowledge with “research questions from other disciplines,” and they engage in rich new ways with the “knowledge economy” (148, 143). In such a practice, the humanities invigorate arts education and make it more historically and sociologically engaging.

The solution that Schnapp and Shanks offer to the problem of disciplinary segregation fits well with the practice at the Stanford Humanities Lab, where they combine humanistic inquiry with coding skills to produce new sorts of literary historical questions and answers.   The solution is a smart one that engages cannily with the “knowledge economy” centered on Palo Alto, and yet it remains decidedly partial: a humanistic supplement completes “arts education,” making it more robust. In The Making of the Broadside Ballad, however, we ask the different, occasionally inverse questions: What do humanists gain when we work with craft workers? What happens when we bridge not the gap between literary studies and digital culture, but between the humanities and studio art? And are the humanities somehow complete unto themselves in a way that the “arts” are incomplete? The Making of a Broadside Ballad attempts to answer these questions, and is consequently a foray into what we call the experimental humanities, where “experiment” appeals not to scientific forms of knowledge but to the exploratory, problem-solving experiments of the workshop. In this experiment, literary scholars and musicologists – graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, and faculty members – learned skills proper to various extramural workshops, asking what we might gain for criticism about broadside ballads when we expanded our critical toolbox to include the tools required to produce a ballad for ourselves. Specifically, we experimented with craftwork to see what it might do for humanistic inquiry, or what we can gain as scholars when we train as papermakers, printers, wood-block cutters, pop versifiers, and singers. If Schnapp and Shanks suggest that humanistic inquiry can supplement “arts education,” rounding it out and providing it with more substantial intellectual content, then we suggest the opposite: the questions asked by humanists can be better answered if we get an arts education of our own. In this sense, our experimental humanistic inquiry taps into the novel practice of  "critical making" that is familiar in the digital humanities.  Our project, however, is analog – even antiquarian – rather than digital; if, as “critical makers” suggest, one can gain new insight into digital objects after learning to code, then our project makes a similar argument around earlier technologies. By learning to make paper, set type, and print broadside ballads, we forged a new relationship with printed works that lets us understand those objects in novel ways.

As the essays in this collection attest, training in the papermaking workshop, the woodcutting studio, the printing house, and the makeshift recording studio has inspired critical observations that would have previously been unavailable to scholars working on the early modern broadside ballad. Where previous scholars such as Johns might turn to Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises to divine what it felt like to produce a ballad in a printing house (Nature 85-88), we have turned instead to our senses, and have put our bodies through the labors that other long-dead bodies have previously performed. We now know, for instance, how the art we engage is limited by the material affordances of the stuff and technology used in its production: a ballad is as long as a printing press will allow it to be; woodcuts are as precise (or imprecise) as the available tools and the specific wood, such as boxwood, will allow them to be. We also know that it is easy to shave a piece of type — changing a letter “s” into a comma or an “f” into a long “s” — and that when paper circulates, it carries with it the sweat, tears, and hair of papermakers, suggesting forms of intimacy between producers and consumers that we didn’t previously see. We have learned to know better the limits of our own discipline, and the sorts of knowledge that we are not imparting to our students when we teach using the tools that we were trained to use.

This critical practice produces a distinct sort of claim about the broadside ballads we study. Current scholarly practice tends to consider as evidence only facts drawn from critical reading or historical analysis. When studying early modern broadside ballads, we might read them closely; or we might turn to a play such as Bartholomew Fair and make claims, based on its representations of life in early modern London, about the diverse audience of early modern ballads (Marsh 262); or we might turn to Pepys’s diary to explore the culture surrounding early modern printed ephemera (Fumerton 26); or we might turn to the letters of a nobleman in order to make claims about the early modern culture of performance (Guerrini 115); or we might look to the regulation of printers and engravers if we want to understand the character of ballad imagery (St. Clair 342). The scholarship built from such an evidentiary regime ultimately appeals to historical context as the horizon of critical explanation: if we hope to understand the broadside ballad, we must understand it within the network of relations — economic, aesthetic, social, technological — that led to its original production and distribution. While contributors to this volume might make such historicizing claims, they are just as likely to make claims that are far more speculative, unpacking the character of the broadside ballad based on the experience of its production. When we want to understand the character of the cheap paper on which broadside ballads were first printed, for instance, we might turn to the feeling of the cold, pulpy slurry that — after a long series of steps — becomes paper. We might, too, learn how the broadside ballad should sound not by turning to historical records of musical training, but by singing and recording 400 of them, as did EBBA’s current music team leader, Erik Bell. With experience treated as an admissible form of evidence, we're able to produce knowledge that's not — or not only — historical in character, expanding beyond historicism to engage broadside ballads differently.

Of course, we also recognize the limits of the critical practice. When, based on their experience of production, contributors to the volume make claims about broadside ballads, they don't necessarily make claims about the early modern broadside ballad. When amateurs produce paper on the central coast of California in the twenty-first century, that is, they’re able to say very little about the exact experience of or character of papermaking when it was undertaken by professionals on the continent five centuries before. And yet the experimental practice has illuminated features of the ballad that would otherwise have remained, to us, obscure, and we might well share something of what it was like long ago to begin an apprenticeship in the trade, encountering the technology of the craft for the very first time. In this sense, our project is useful in the way that “original practices” productions are useful for research in theatre studies. While researchers involved in “original practices” claim to be researching “certain stage conventions of late sixteenth-century theatre” (Tiramani 58), they ignore, as Holger Schott Syme points out, that these original practices were originally imbricated in “a much larger system of cultural conventions and habits with which they partly, but only partly, overlap.” Because they are unable to reproduce these larger networks that determined the character of early modern theatrical practice, they are faced with a problem: “certain stage conventions” necessarily mean something different when disarticulated from the life world that determined their previous meanings. And yet, while we may learn only a little about early modern print culture when we undertake original creative practices, just as we may learn only a little about the early modern stage from original practices performances, a little knowledge is still something. Historical distance may complicate our claims about the early modern broadside ballad, and yet wrestling with the “stuff” of the broadside ballad produces novel forms of insight that make it paradoxically both stranger and more familiar. This combination of estrangement and intimacy is, we argue, the ultimate goal of the experimental humanities, and is the ultimate result of our critical making.

Works Cited

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