Tragic Tunes: Execution Ballads Were the Crime Reports of the Middle Ages

 Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Whatever your elders might tell you, violence in popular entertainment is nothing new. The people of early modern Europe frequently wove blood-soaked tales of murder, rape, and other crimes into popular songs that were sung merrily in the streets, at markets, and at fairs. In Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, historian Harold Schechter notes eight better-known examples that have been collected in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, including tales of family members beating each other to death, women murdering their children, poisonings, drownings, necrophilia, and "a trio of carrion birds contemplating the bloody remains of a slain knight” (in a ballad known as “The Three Ravens”). 

And it didn’t take long after printing was invented for these crime ballads to be set into type. Schechter notes that by Shakespeare's day, traveling peddlers had begun selling printed versions of popular ballads set onto large sheets of paper known as broadsides, which were often adorned with woodcuts depicting scenes from the crimes. (Not all broadsides were bloody: others related political events or strange and wondrous occurrences, functioning as a sort of Elizabethan version of The Weekly World News.) The most gruesome ballads were always the best-sellers—reflecting an early example of today’s saying in journalism, “If it bleeds, it leads.” 

One particularly interesting subsection of the crime or murder ballad genre is the execution ballad—detailed, gory stories of rape and murder that end with the criminal dying at the scaffold (or by other state-sanctioned means), and were often sold on the day of the execution. In a recent post on The Conversation, Una McIlvenna, a lecturer in Early Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London, notes that execution ballads were meant as a warning to the public: “If you’re going to practice capital punishment as a deterrent,” she writes, “…  there’s no point doing it unless as many people as possible can find out about it.” But, she notes, “In the early modern period, the majority of the European population was illiterate, and so more creative ways of broadcasting the horror were needed.” Enter the execution ballad.

Execution ballads were often set to well-known tunes, McIlvenna notes, since familiarity increased the likelihood that people would pay attention and perhaps even sing along. Familiar rhythms and melodies also helped the ballads to be memorized, which was part of the point of these tragic tunes in general—they were much easier to remember than an entire news article. McIlvenna notes the example of Edward Coleman, a courtier executed for his supposed role in a fabricated plot to murder Charles II. Coleman’s ballad was set to the popular tune of “Packington’s Pound,” and one of its verses went as follows: 

To the place of Destruction t’encounter grim death,
And there by a Cord to resign half his breath:
His Bowels rip’d out, in the flames to be cast,
His Members dissever'd on Poles to be plac'd:
A sight full of horror, but yet it's most just
That they shou'd first bleed, that after blood thirst.

Another cheery ballad, this time set to a country dance tune, concerned Catholic heretic John Felton, who was quartered (chopped into four pieces) and had his severed limbs displayed on the gates of London: 

His quarters stand not all together
But ye mai hap to ring them thether
In place where you wold have them be
Then might you doe as pleaseth ye.
For whye? they hang,
Unshryned each one upon a stang:
Thus standes, the case,
On London gates they have a place.
His head upon a pole
Stands wavering in ye wherling wynd 

If this seems uncommonly gruesome, remember that these were the days when executions were basically a street party. As McIlvenna notes, "Not only would crowds gather at the gallows, but spectators would gather all along the journey from the prison to the execution site to jeer at, pray for, and sing with the condemned." Printed execution ballads might have functioned as something of a souvenir. 

Not surprisingly, the execution ballads often included a strong element of moralizing. The condemned was always portrayed as guilty, and in British ballads at least, there was a heavy emphasis on their tortured inner life (German ballads tended to focus more on the piteous pleas of the victims). Often, the ballad would include a brief recounting of the criminal’s life story, beginning with “gateway sins”—such as not attending church or gambling—before leading up to the more serious travesties. 

Many execution ballads also adopted a kind of ventriloquism, and were narrated in the voice of the murderer. These could promote a kind of sympathy for the criminal, presumably meant to help one better to absorb their message of repentance. As scholar Joy Wiltenbug notes, the first-person ploy was particularly effective if the ballad was written as a kind of farewell from the condemned in between their sentencing and execution, a “last good-night.” Several ballads related to the infamous Red Barn Murder in England (in which a man shot his lover in cold blood in a barn) took this format, including ballads known as Wm. Corder and The Murder of Maria Marten. 

Whether written from the point of view of the criminal or from the third person, the execution scene was always the ballad’s crowning moment. It was a time for recounting and reflection, anguish and grief—for the victims, for the condemned, and for the shame of their situation. Often these emotions would culminate in an overwhelming display of repentance, with the condemned crying, begging God for mercy and warning others not to follow their own mistakes into a life of sin and crime. The ballad of “Mournful Murderer” George Gadesby, executed for killing his wife in 1697, is one example of such repentance: "Good Lord, I sigh and grieve/No tongue is able to express/my mournful misery/With melting tears do I confess/tis just that I should die.”

The more general murder ballad format eventually migrated to America and went on to influence the popular music of the 20th century, from 1950s hits to Nick Cave. But the more stylized and specific execution ballads are particularly interesting for what they tell us about historical crime, punishment, and the wages of sin. Whether poignant or comic, the message was always the same: be good, because evil will be punished.

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

20 Memorable Virginia Woolf Quotes

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Getty Images

Born on January 25, 1882, Virginia Woolf was a true writer’s writer. With flowing prose and a courageous pen, she dissected every topic from the idiocy of warfare to the joys of sex. We've picked 20 lines that rank among her all-time best—which is no easy feat.

1. On recorded history

“Nothing has really happened until it has been described.”

— Said to a young acquaintance,Nigel Nicholson, who later became a successful publisher, memoirist, and politician

2. On writing about nature

“Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.”

— From her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography

3. On translating comedy

“Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.”

—From the essay collectionThe Common Reader, First Series (1925)

4. On time

“Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

5. On being an honest writer

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

From The Moment and Other Essays (1947)

6. On sexism

“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

7. On writing fiction

“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

—From her seminal 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”

8. On questioning the status quo

“Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilisation’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them?”

— From her anti-war essay “Three Guineas” (1938)

9. On fashion

“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

10. On food

virginia woolf

A photo of author Virginia Woolf, who was famous for writing To The Lighthouse and Orlando.

George Charles Beresford, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

11. On getting older

“I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

—From her diary (entry dated October 2, 1932)

12. On artistic integrity

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.”

— From “A Room of One’s Own”

13. On the universe

“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

—From the novel Night and Day (1919)

14. On personal growth

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

—From her 1931 novel The Waves

15. On society

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

—From Orlando: A Biography

16. On evaluating literature

“The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities… into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions—there we have none.”

—From The Common Reader, Second Series (1935)

17. On passion

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang—there is no getting over the fact that this desire seizes us pretty often.”

—From the novel Jacob’s Room (1922)

18. On the past

“Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”

—From Jacob’s Room

19. On words

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

“Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Anthony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

—From “Craftsmanship,” a BBC radio address Woolf delivered on April 20, 1937 (listen to a portion of it here)

20. On life and its interruptions

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

— From her diary (entry dated February 17, 1922)

bonus: a common misquote

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

These wise words are often mistakenly cited as Woolf’s. In reality, another writer came along and gave them to her—57 years after she died! Here’s what went down: In 1998, author Michael Cunningham released his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. This story includes a fictionalized version of Virginia Woolf, who delivers the above line.