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.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

11 Fascinating Facts About Tamagotchi

Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Tamagotchi is the toy that launched a thousand digital pet competitors.
Chesnot/Getty Images News

They blooped and beeped and ate, played, and pooped, and, for ‘90s kids, the egg-shaped Tamagotchi toys were magic. They taught the responsibility of tending to a “pet,” even though their shrill sounds were annoying to parents and teachers and school administrators. Nearly-real funerals were held for expired Tamagotchi, and they’ve even been immortalized in a museum (of sorts). Here are 11 things you should know about the keychain toy that was once stashed in every kid’s backpack.

1. The idea for the Tamagotchi came from a female office worker at Bandai.

Aki Maita was a 30-year-old “office lady” at the Japanese toy company Bandai when inspiration struck. She wanted to create a pet for kids—one that wouldn't bark or meow, make a mess in the house, or lead to large vet bills, according to Culture Trip. Maita took her idea to Akihiro Yokoi, a toy designer at another company, and the duo came up with a name and backstory for their toy: Tamagotchis were aliens, and their egg served as protection from the Earth’s atmosphere. They gave prototype Tamagotchis to high school girls in Shibuya, and tweaked and honed the design of the toy based on their feedback.

2. The name Tamagotchi is a blend of two Japanese words.

The name Tamagotchi is a mashup between the Japanese words tamago and tomodachi, or egg and friend, according to Culture Trip. (Other sources have the name meaning "cute little egg" or "loveable egg.")

3. Tamagotchis were released in Japan in 1996.

A picture of a tamagotchi toy.
Tamagotchis came from a faraway planet called "Planet Tamagotchi."
Museum Rotterdam, Wikimedia Commons//CC BY-SA 3.0

Bandai released the Tamagotchi in Japan in November 1996. The tiny plastic keychain egg was equipped with a monochrome LCD screen that contained a “digital pet,” which hatched from an egg and grew quickly from there—one day for a Tamagotchi was equivalent to one year for a human. Their owners used three buttons to feed, discipline, play with, give medicine to, and clean up after their digital pet. It would make its demands known at all hours of the day through bloops and bleeps, and owners would have to feed it or bathe it or entertain it.

Owners that successfully raised their Tamagotchi to adulthood would get one of seven characters, depending on how they'd raised it; owners that were less attentive faced a sadder scenario. “Leave one unattended for a few hours and you'll return to find that it has pooped on the floor or, worse, died,” Wired wrote. The digital pets would eventually die of old age at around the 28-day mark, and owners could start fresh with a new Tamagotchi.

4. Tamagotchis were an immediate hit.

The toys were a huge success—4 million units were reportedly sold in Japan during their first four months on shelves. By 1997, Tamagotchis had made their way to the United States. They sold for $17.99, or around $29 in today's dollars. One (adult) reviewer noted that while he was "drawn in by [the Tamagotchi's] cleverness," after several days with the toy, "the thrill faded quickly. I'm betting the Tamagotchi will be the Pet Rock of the 1990s—overwhelmingly popular for a few months, and then abandoned in the fickle rush to some even cuter toy."

The toy was, in fact, overwhelmingly popular: By June 1997, 10 million of the toys had been shipped around the world. And according to a 2017 NME article, a whopping 82 million Tamagotchi had been sold since their release into the market in 1997.

5. Aki Maita and Akihiro Yokoi won an award for inventing the Tamagotchi.

In 1997, the duo won an Ig Nobel Prize in economics, a satiric prize that’s nonetheless presented by Nobel laureates at Harvard, for "diverting millions of person-hours of work into the husbandry of virtual pets" by creating the Tamagotchi.

6. Tamagotchis weren't popular with teachers.

Some who grew up with Tamagotchi remember sneaking the toys into school in their book bags. The toys were eventually banned in some schools because they were too distracting and, in some cases, upsetting for students. In a 1997 Baltimore Sun article titled “The Tamagotchi Generation,” Andrew Ratner wrote that the principal at his son’s elementary school sent out a memo forbidding the toys “because some pupils got so despondent after their Tamagotchis died that they needed consoling, even care from the school nurse.”

7. One pet cemetery served as a burial ground for expired Tamagotchi.

Terry Squires set aside a small portion of his pet cemetery in southern England for dead Tamagotchi. He told CNN in 1998 that he had performed burials for Tamagotchi owners from Germany, Switzerland, France, the United States, and Canada, all of whom ostensibly shipped their dead by postal mail. CNN noted that "After the Tamagotchis are placed in their coffins, they are buried as mourners look on, their final resting places topped with flowers."

8. There were many copycat Tamagotchi.

The success of the Tamagotchi resulted in both spin-offs and copycat toys, leading PC Mag to dub the late ’90s “The Golden Age of Virtual Pets.” There was the Digimon, a Tamagotchi spin-off by Bandai that featured monsters and was marketed to boys. (There were also Tamagotchi video games.) And in 1997, Tiger Electronics launched Giga Pets, which featured real animals (and, later, dinosaurs and fictional pets from TV shows). According to PC Mag, Giga Pets were very popular in the United States but “never held the same mystique as the original Tamagotchi units.” Toymaker Playmates's Nano Pets were also a huge success, though PC Mag noted they were “some of the least satisfying to take care of."

9. Rare Tamagotchis can be worth a lot of money.

According to Business Insider, most vintage Tamagotchis won't fetch big bucks on the secondary market. (On eBay, most are priced at around $50.) The exception are rare editions like “Yasashii Blue” and “Tamagotchi Ocean,” which go for $300 to $450 on eBay. As Complex notes, "There were over 40 versions (lines) of Tamagotchi released, and each line featured a variety of colors and variations ... yours would have to be one of the rarest models to be worth the effort of resale."

10. A new generation of Tamagotchis were released in 2017 for the toy's 20th anniversary.

The 2017 re-release of the Tamagotchi in its packaging.
Bandai came to the aid of nostalgic '90s kids when it re-released a version of the original Tamagotchis for the toy's 20th anniversary.
Chesnot/Getty Images

In November 2017, Bandai released a 20th anniversary Tamagotchi that, according to a press release [PDF], was "a first-of-its-kind-anywhere exact replica of the original Tamagotchi handheld digital pet launched ... in 1996." However, as The Verge reported, the toys weren't an exact replica: "They're about half the size, the LCD display is square rather than rectangle, and those helpful icons on the top and bottom of the screen seem to be gone now." In 2019, new Tamagotchis were released; they were larger than the originals, featured full-color displays, and retailed for $60.

11. The original Tamagotchi’s sound has been immortalized in a virtual museum.

The Museum of Endangered Sounds is a website that seeks to immortalize the digital sounds that become extinct as we hurtle through the evolution of technology. “The crackle of a dial-up modem. The metallic clack of a 3.5-inch floppy slotting into a Macintosh disk drive. The squeal of the newborn Tamagotchi. They are vintage sounds that no oldies station is ever going to touch,” The Washington Post wrote in a 2012 profile of the museum. So, yes, the sound of that little Tamagotchi is forever preserved, should it someday, very sadly, cease to exist completely.