Sarah F. Williams, Damnable Practises: Witches, Dangerous Women, and Music in Seventeenth-Century English Broadside Ballads, Ashgate, 2015.

Sarah F. Williams, Damnable Practises: Witches, Dangerous Women, and Music in Seventeenth-Century English Broadside Ballads, Ashgate, 2015. £60, ISBN 978-1-4724-2082-4 (hardback), pp. xiii + 225.


Reviewed by: Laura Davies, University of Southampton, September 2015

Starting from the simple but often overlooked fact that ‘Singing, hearing, and seeing ballads was a shared daily experience for most English citizens’ (i), in this book Sarah Williams draws on critical tools from a number of disciplines, including musical analysis, gender studies, performance studies, and the history of print culture and theatre (p. 12), to make a series of persuasive arguments regarding their characteristics and influence. Concerned particularly with a subset of broadside ballads produced in seventeenth-century London, which represent female witchcraft and malfeasance, she builds a conceptual case that the broadside ballad should be understood as ‘a multimedia artifact reliant upon embodied performance and image working in concert’ (p. 16), whilst concurrently demonstrating that ‘London’s broadside publishers shaped a musico-acoustic stereotype of female transgression’ (p. 13). As Williams’ herself explains, this volume draws on existing work on early modern witchcraft, drama, and popular culture, and follows Bruce R. Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (Chicago, 1999) in its attempt to imagine, if not fully ‘reconstruct’, the ‘cacophonous experience’ (p. 146) of broadside ballad production, performance, and reception. Her expertise in music history, however, brings a genuinely new, and productive, dimension to this field of scholarship, illuminating not only additional material but also generating new research questions with respect to the functioning of communal memory, and the interactions between ballad tunes, texts, visual images, and performers.

The volume is organized into five wonderfully titled chapters, each of which adopts a different methodological approach. In the first, ‘Witches, Catholics, Scolds and Wives: Noisy Women in Context’, the aim is to establish the historical context of a ‘widespread mistrust of vain, discordant music and its associations with feminine disorder’ and to demonstrate how this ‘filtered down through popular literature to the ballad trade’ (p. 7). Here Williams draws on a wide range of textual and visual source materials, including trial accounts, pamphlets, demonological treatises, folkloric traditions, and the imagery of the Elizabethan and Jacobean grotesque, to reveal the extent and variety of misogynist beliefs circulating in early modern culture, and the ways in which fears relating to women, witchcraft and disorder, were interrelated. In the second, and longest, chapter, ‘The Hanging Tune: Feminising and Stigmatizing Broadside Trade Melodies’, there is a sustained focus on musical analysis, with the presentation of an argument that ballads on female malfeasance are strategically set to a small set of tunes (including ‘Fortune my Foe’, ‘The Ladies Fall’ and ‘Bragandary’) and that these tunes ‘build a portrait of and shape attitudes about women, disorder, magic and malfeasance through music’ (p. 86). The profiles that Williams offers here of the multiple manifestations of these tunes and the different ways in which they generate and perpetuate stereotypes of female transgression—from witchcraft to domestic scolds, blaspheming wives, to lascivious women—are fascinating and meticulously researched. For those readers who might perhaps not have a specific interest in the particular subset of ballads under consideration, this work remains noteworthy in its insistence on the fact that these ballad texts, tunes, and even titles, were an important means of communicating a ‘web’ of powerfully ‘efficacious cultural referents’ through a ‘collective musical memory’ that cut across all levels of society and the boundaries between ‘street, home, alehouse and theatre’ (p. 87).

In the shorter chapter that follows, ‘A Swearing and Blaspheming Wretch: Acoustic Disorder and Verbal Excess in Ballad texts’, the approach is more conventionally drawn from literary studies, with a view to charting the ‘cultural conceptions of excess in early modern England and their connections to the female sex in general and female disorderly behaviors in particular in broadside ballads texts’ (p. 90). Here we reach somewhat more commonly traversed ground, including a survey of medical and philosophical sources ranging from Aristotle to Galen and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a discussion of the predisposition of the female to excess, and an examination of the cultural conceptions of the dangerous female voice. This being said, again there is useful new attention to the significance of the structural rules regarding meter and rhythm in broadside ballads, as well as to a mapping of recurrent textual tropes across a range of ballads. The conclusion that ‘To operate, acoustically, outside the bounds of controlled and measured sound coded as deviant for early modern ears’ (p. 109) also seems to me a valuable starting point for further very productive interdisciplinary work.

The fourth chapter, ‘Auditories are like Fairies: Seeing, Hearing, Selling and Singing Ballads’ takes a different turn again, examining both the imagery and typography of the broadside ballads, and performance and consumption practices, with a view to building a complete picture out of the various components examined earlier in the volume. There is much fascinating material here, including discussion of the ‘iconography’ of woodblock images (p. 117) and the tracing of recurrent images, such as those of the woman burning at the stake, as well as observations regarding the different symbolic effects created by the use of roman type compared with black-letter font. But the chapter is very much one of two halves, because attention shifts midway to the physical environments in which ballads could be heard and by whom. The relationship between the ‘public theatres and the ballad trade’, we learn, was one of ‘concert’ but also of ‘competition’, and the balladeer is cast as essentially an actor who ‘would have drawn on the array of performative devices available to them’ (p. 144). The multiple terms in the title of this chapter are indicative of a certain degree of compression at this stage, leaving a sense that more could have been said about many of the interesting ideas that are gestured towards. For instance, the drawing together of Austin’s speech act theory with the critical lenses of the embodied dramatic performance and the musical dimension of the ballad tunes is surely fertile ground.

The concluding chapter, ’”Chronicled in Ditty”: Ephemera, Permanence, and the Broadside Ballad’s Legacy into the Eighteenth Century’, concentrates determinedly on the future by discussing the ‘metamorphoses’ of the ballad form and trade ‘around the 1680s’ (p. 148) and then reflecting on potential directions for future research. This is useful in terms of historical scene-setting and in opening up further lines of enquiry, but again, a further opportunity was missed here to draw together and to offer more extensive critical analysis of the various conceptual frameworks with which Williams’ research engages: the notion of the performative, for example, and that of the pattern, the ‘acoustic profile’ (p. 89), and of ‘infiltration’ (p. 9). All this being said, as the extensive footnotes, appendices, and bibliography all indicate, this volume is the product of very thorough research, and represents a valuable resource for scholars across a number of fields with an interest in early modern popular culture, the history of attitudes towards and representations of women, and in the intersections of the spheres of orality, literacy, music and drama.