British Ephemeral Literature Essay - Critical Essays

British Ephemeral Literature


British Ephemeral Literature

Ephemeral literature refers to published writing not intended to have any lasting significance; rather, such works were produced to address topical issues, narrow interests, or particular needs. British ephemeral literature comprises printed materials marketed primarily to less-educated readers, such as broadside ballads, chapbooks, abridged classics and legends, almanacs, jestbooks, and early versions of newspapers. These documents are studied today for their historical, social, and cultural interest. As records of “popular culture” from earlier periods, they provide invaluable insight into the lives and tastes of common English folk that may not be gleaned from works of “high” literary art.

During the Middle Ages the reproduction of books and other printed materials had been a time-consuming process of rewriting entire volumes by hand, page by page. Only the most valuable or useful texts, which were almost exclusively religious in nature, were copied. Few people could afford to buy books, and even fewer were literate. The introduction of the printing press in Britain in the 1470s had an enormous impact on the way people read. As printing became more common, the number of printed materials exploded. The concurrent increase in the availability of elementary education also began to create a more literate society. It is difficult to determine exactly what percentage of the population could read by the end of the fifteenth century, but certainly most English boys and some girls had at least a few years of schooling, and thus the majority of people were at least partially literate. Publishers soon began to produce and distribute reading material specially targeted to these members of society. Commoners, including rural peasants and urban laborers, who could not afford—or, indeed, understand—the leather-bound volumes of high culture, began purchasing for their entertainment cheaply produced and simply written works, including broadsheets with ballad lyrics, chapbooks, and small books containing, for example, bawdy jokes, prophesies, children's verse, and tales of heroic exploits. This ephemeral or “street” literature offers some of the greatest insights into the culture and mindset of middle- and lower-class English people in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, insights that are not available in the works of gentleman-poets and landed nobility of the same period.

The first popular printed materials were broadsides. These were single-sheet printed documents issued in response to specific popular or newsworthy events or were otherwise designed for short-lived purposes. Broadsides could be handbills, royal proclamations, advertisements, and so forth, but they were most widely used to print songs or ballads. Early broadsides were printed in black letter print, so are often called black-letter broadsides. The broadside sheets, often adorned with wood engravings or woodcuts, were sold in stalls or by travelling peddlers or singer-sellers. People pasted the sheets on walls to learn the lyrics, and discarded or pasted over them when the song was familiar. The earliest broadsides of popular tunes appeared in the 1500s and covered a variety of subjects. There were bawdy ballads such as “The Babes in the Wood,” those about female warriors such as “Mary Ambree,” and hundreds of other songs dealing with every topic from love and courtship to political events. The broadside ballad gave expression, in simple and clear terms, to the everyday human experience of the lower and middle classes to whom it was mainly directed. However, it is also likely that it was not only the lower classes who were reading these texts, but the gentry and the literary-minded as well. William Shakespeare knew street ballads intimately, and in his plays seem to both delight in them and revel in denouncing their authors as hacks. In the late eighteenth century, however, the Romantic poets took an interest in the ballad form and transformed it into respectable, “high” art.

In the seventeenth century readers turned away from reading broadsides in favor of chapbooks. One of the reasons for the movement toward these longer, more complex works may have been that the proliferation of pamphlet literature during the English Civil War gave readers a taste for more substantial works. In terms of its physical characteristics, the chapbook was a single sheet of paper that was printed on both sides and then folded so as to make a book of twelve leaves or twenty-four pages. It often contained engravings or woodcuts and, like most ephemeral literature, was fragile and printed on paper of inferior quality. The derivation of the word “chapbook” is unclear. It may be a corruption of the word “cheap” or a derivation of the old English word “ceap,” which means trade. These small books, which were also called “penny histories,” were sold by peddlers, or chapmen, who traveled between towns with their wares. As with broadsides, chapbooks covered a wide array of subjects. There were tales of murder and intrigue, children's stories, fairy tales, folktales, medieval romances, and retellings of classics such as the Faust legend. Few chapbooks contained original material, and stories appeared in various permutations in different books. Some of the most popular chapbooks were those that told of the exploits of Guy of Warwick, a hero who displayed during his many adventures a particular brand of English virtue. Collections of songs and ballads in chapbooks were known as “garlands.” Samuel Pepys, a devoted collector of ephemera of various sorts, collected a number of chapbooks, including many that were compilations of ballads. Chapbooks remained popular throughout the 1700s and continued to flourish into the next century.

The styles and types of British ephemeral literature are not limited to broadside ballads and chapbooks, although those seem to have been the two most popular forms between the early 1500s and 1800. Other examples of the many forms of popular ephemeral literature include the “Penny Dreadfuls,” jestbooks, and popular books on religion. The Penny Dreadfuls were novelettes, short stories, and serial novels—again cheaply printed and usually read once and discarded by their readers—that featured gruesome stories, gallows tales, and adventures in foreign lands. There were special stories for women included in these books. Jestbooks were usually concerned with sex, music, and scatological jokes while small religious books often emphasized fear of death and the wrath of God. These and the many popular publications that are not generally examined by scholars of English literature offer the contemporary reader a glimpse into a world that looks much different from that portrayed by acknowledged “literary masters.” As literary continue to widen the literary canon to include works of artists representing a greater range of human social and cultural experience, ephemeral literature will likely be examined in greater depth. Those scholars who have already begun to explore these texts point out that they can promote a better understanding of the development of English literature and that they offer insights into aesthetic values and beliefs held by common citizens.

Representative Works

“The Babes in the Wood” (ballad) original date unknown

“Francis' New Jig” (song) 1595

Guy of Warwick (chapbook) date unknown

“Mary Ambree” (ballad) 1590?

Robyn Hood (chapbook) date unknown

Valentine and Orson (chapbook) date unknown

Robert Armin
A Nest of Ninnies (jestbook) 1608

Archee Armstrong
A Banquet of Jests (jestbook) 1633

Thomas Deloney
The Queenes visiting of the Campe at Tilsburie with her entertainment there (journalism) 1588

Robert Greene
Greene's Groats-worth of Wit (pamphlet) 1592

Richard Johnson
The Seven Champions of Christendom (chapbook) 1608

Thomas Nashe
Pierce Penniless His Supplication to the Devil (pamphlet) 1592

Samuel Pepys
The Diary of Samuel Pepys (diary) 1667
Penny Merriments (collection of chapbooks by various authors) date unknown

Thomas Percy
Reliques of Ancient Poetry (collection of ballads by various authors) 1765

George Wilkins and Thomas Dekker
Jests to Make You Merry (jestbook) 1607

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Hyder E. Rollins (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: Preface to A Pepsyian Garland: Black Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595-1639, Chiefly from the Collection of Samuel Pepys, edited by Hyder E. Rollins, Cambridge University Press, 1922, pp. vii-xxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Rollins explains that a great many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century broadsides, ballads, and jigs served not only as popular entertainments but as journalism and social commentary as well.]

Perhaps the most important of all the treasures—apart from the inimitable Diary—in the library bequeathed by Samuel Pepys to Magdalene College, Cambridge, is his collection of broadside ballads. These were grouped loosely according...

(The entire section is 5004 words.)

Roger Thompson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Introduction to Samuel Pepys' Penny Merriments, Being a Collection of Chapbooks, full of Histories, Jests, Magic, Amorous Tales of Courtship, Marriage and Infidelity, Accounts of Rogues and Fools, together with Comments on the Times, edited by Roger Thompson, Columbia University Press, 1977, pp. 11-23.

[In the following excerpt, Thompson argues that Samuel Pepys's collection of seventeenth-century ballads and chapbooks are invaluable aids to understanding the lives and tastes of ordinary English people of the period.]

Two months before he died in 1703, Samuel Pepys made his will. Being childless, he left his treasured library of three thousand volumes to his...

(The entire section is 1768 words.)

Criticism: Broadside Ballads

M. J. C. Hodgart (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “The Ballads and Literature,” in The Ballads, W. W. Norton and Company, 1962, pp. 140-50.

[In the following excerpt, Hodgart examines how broadside ballads went from being considered “low art” in the seventeenth century to being a form that was embraced by British literary masters such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge by the end of the eighteenth century.]

The ballads have taken a great deal from learned literature, and … many of them show the hand of skilled poets. Throughout Europe there has been a continual movement of motifs and forms from the poetry of the élite into folk tradition. But there has also been a...

(The entire section is 3649 words.)

Diane Dugaw (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Prologue” and “The fashion for Female Warrior ballads: new ‘hits’ and old favorites, 1600-1650,” in Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 1-14; 43-64.

[In the following excerpts, Dugaw examines the popular appeal of Mary Ambree, an early seventeenth-century ballad about a transvestite warrior woman, a story that appeared in various manifestations in chapbooks for over two hundred years.]

The Anglo-American Female Warrior is a high-mettled heroine of popular ballads who masquerades as a man and ventures off to war for love and for glory. Songs celebrating such women flourished as lower-class...

(The entire section is 9534 words.)

Natascha Würzbach (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Literary and social conditions for the rise, distribution and textual structure of the street ballad,” in The Rise of the English Street Ballad, 1550-1650, translated by Gayna Walls, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 1-27.

[In the following excerpt, Würzbach analyzes the relationship between English ballads, theater, and commerce between 1550 and 1650.]


The text of the street ballad, available to us in broadsides and in edited collections, some of which are annotated, was usually sung and sometimes read to the audience of the time as part of the selling process. Performance and sale were closely...

(The entire section is 8615 words.)

Tessa Watt (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Introduction to Cheap Print and Popular Piety, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 1-8.

[In the following excerpt, Watt rejects critical studies that portray the broadside ballad as appealing only to lower-class sensibilities, and argues that the ballads also made their way into “respected” culture as they served important social and cultural needs.]

My decision to begin research in early modern English history was inspired by studies published over the past fifteen years which are loosely described as works on ‘popular culture’.1 Margaret Spufford's work on the late seventeenth-century chapbook trade, in particular, raised a challenging...

(The entire section is 4380 words.)

Criticism: Chapbooks, Jestbooks, Pamphlets, And Newspapers

Matthias A. Shaaber (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: “Personal News,” in Some Forerunners of the Newspaper in England, 1476-1622, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1929, pp. 13-34.

[In the following excerpt, Shaaber shows that broadside ballads and other inexpensive verse often served as a means of disseminating news about the British royalty and popular heroes, and he notes that these publications eventually evolved into newspapers.]

Personal news, as we may call it, is probably the oldest kind. It is a record or, more often, merely a celebration of the achievements of a personage of importance, from the sovereign himself to a prominent London merchant, written by one of his liegemen, retainers, or clients,...

(The entire section is 7093 words.)

P. M. Zall (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “The Blending of Wit and Jest: An Introduction,” in “A Nest of Ninnies” and Other English Jestbooks of the Seventeenth Century, edited by P. M. Zall, University of Nebraska Press, 1970, pp. ix-xvii.

[In the following excerpt, Zall traces the evolution of jests and puns in English printed materials beginning in the 1400s, examining in detail works from the seventeenth century.]


… [The] making of jestbooks became an industry in the seventeenth century, expanding with the development of a larger reading public. Jestbooks flourished throughout the land, feeding one upon another in a happy...

(The entire section is 3141 words.)

Stephen S. Hilliard (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Devil's Orator: Pierce Penniless,” in The Singularity of Thomas Nashe, University of Nebraska Press, 1986, pp. 62-89.

[In the following excerpt, Hilliard examines why Thomas Nashe's 1592 pamphlet Pierce Penniless, with its satire of Elizabethan ideals, opened the author up to widespread criticism.]

A suggestion of how Nashe's career appeared to his contemporaries exists in a fictionalized portrait in The Three Parnassus Plays, a sequence of comedies performed at Cambridge around the turn of the century. Ingenioso, who barely survives on the fees he collects from his printer John Danter (Nashe's printer), alternately fawns and rails...

(The entire section is 10387 words.)

John Simons (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Introduction: Why Read Chapbooks,” in Guy of Warwick and Other Chapbook Romances, edited by John Simons, University of Exeter Press, 1998, pp. 1-18.

[In the following excerpt, Simons discusses how broadsides were created and produced and illustrates how they slowly changed the social aspirations of English commoners.]

[Chapbooks were] the flimsy and often poorly printed booklets which were a major source of literature for the English poor in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.1 There is a full discussion of the nature and form of chapbooks below as well as some analysis of their history and readership, but here I wish to set out...

(The entire section is 7864 words.)

Further Reading


“Introduction.” In Black-Letter Ballads and Broadsides, Printed in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, Between the Years 1559 and 1597. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968, pp. v-xxxi.

Analysis of British chapbooks and broadside ballads published in the last half of the sixteenth century. The critic distinguishes between those works with literary merit and others concerned with more topical issues like politics and everyday life.

Bryant, Frank Egbert. A History of English Balladry and Other Studies. Boston: The Gorman Press, 1913, 222 p.

Comprehensive discussion of English ballads from 1400 to the end of the...

(The entire section is 877 words.)