Seventeenth and nineteenth century broadside ballad collections are nowadays largely easily accessible to researchers, but unfortunately many of those of the eighteenth century are not, mainly due to their original publication formats. Those printed in white letter as three or four column ballads on one side of a single sheet are well represented in major collections like the Bodleian, but those folded into songsters and those that were printed in chapbooks, common formats in the eighteenth century, are often quite rightly considered too fragile to be handled or copied. It is therefore possible that many scarce ballads of this period have not yet come to the notice of ballad researchers. In hunting through those archives which are accessible I have on several occasions come across scarce early versions of later ballads such as an early version of William Taylor (Roud 158) with many more stanzas than those printed on slips and broadsides.
With this in mind I am convinced that the ballad found in oral tradition in North America and Southern England and known in England as Bruton Town is one such ballad, and that the original printing may still exist in an obscure archive somewhere.
Ballad researchers have on occasions presented lists of ballads not included in the Child canon which they deem ought to have been included, and Bruton Town is usually somewhere near the top of these lists. Having examined the evidence closely I would disagree with this. That it derives directly from one of the many English translations of Boccaccio's Isabella and the Pot of Basil is surely unquestionable. As long ago as 1918 H M Belden, in his influential study Boccaccio, Hans Sachs, and The Bramble Briar (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, XXXIII ,1918, 3, p.327f), went into great detail to refute Lucy Broadwood's assertion (in Sharp's Folk Songs from Somerset, First Series, 1905, p.62) that 'the same ballad is to be found in a collection of songs by Hans Sachs with a versification very similar to that of Bruton Town'. In fact The Bridgewater Merchant corresponds point by point with the story in The Decameron right up to the 'severing of the lover's head' motif and is sufficiently different to Sachs's many sixteenth century versions of the story, both in verse and in dramatic form, to conclude that the ballad most likely derives directly from Boccaccio's translated story. It is possible that the story has been handed down as an oral folk-tale and the ballad derives from this, but I am not aware of a British version of it in folk-tale form.
Belden dates the ballad to the early eighteenth century and I would certainly agree that a date pre-1750 is very likely, although seventeenth century is not beyond possibility. The only real point of the hypothesis where I disagree with Belden is in the likely author of the piece and its early dissemination. He states ' its appearance only in remote country places, on both sides of the ocean, and the diversified, corrupt, and often defective character of the texts are arguments, so far as they go, against its having been disseminated as a stall ballad.'(p.371) He then goes further to promote the theory that an ' itinerant entertainerblind fiddler, street singer, roaming tinker, gypsy,' etc. 'has long been and still is a feature of the social life of rural communities If we imagine such an entertainer, sufficiently lettered to read a translation of the Decameron and sufficiently of the vulgar to see the possibilities of this story for vulgar balladry, we have a conceivable origin for our ballad.' To be fair, writing in 1918 Belden did not have access to the vast stores of broadside texts we have today, and he didn't have the benefit of being able to consult the two very full, less corrupted and obviously earlier texts that we now have access to, the Douglass Manuscript text published by Harold Thompson in A Pioneer Songster p.63f, and the text in Ballads and Songs of Southern Michigan edited by Gardner and Chickering, 1939, p.59. Later in the article I hope to present evidence to demonstrate that the ballad is much more likely to be an eighteenth century stall ballad, and also to attempt a reconstruction of something close to the original using these two versions and small additions from other versions.
The only difference in plot of any consequence between Boccaccio's story and the ballad is that the ballad has lost the 'lover's head in the pot of basil' ending. Anyone who has studied the ballads of the early-eighteenth century will have noted the penchant for realism and localization, i.e., the plot must be believable, contemporary or at least timeless, and set in a location familiar to the prospective ballad purchasers. Fabulous songs of impossible events were printed but these were not part of the standard narrative murder ballad genre, and therefore the author simply left out this implausible event and fitted a new conclusion. Belden puts this very well, ' the ballad has rejected this element by instinct, because it is not consonant with ballad feeling.' He takes this even further, ' the union of the pot of basil story with the murder story is probably a piece of literary artistry, a conscious invention of Boccaccio's.' I don't fully agree with 'rejected this element by instinct'; the printer's hack knew his market well for his readers / listeners would not accept a grieving lover cutting off the head of her sweetheart's corpse and placing it in a plant pot. The lover's ghost arriving at the bedside and relating where his corpse could be found, yes, a standard motif, and quite plausible to those at the lower end of the social scale in this period.
Having established that the ballad, like most of the longer ballads of this period, is pure fiction, we can now examine the poet's few additions to make the story more saleable. As already stated the setting is important, it needs to be familiar and not too remote from the point of sale. Until evidence to the contrary surfaces we have to assume the ballad was written, printed and sold in the south of England. Most of the American editors, e.gs,. Thompson (see above) and Laws (American Balladry from British Broadsides, 1957, p.196) present the ballad as British. Although at least two of the American texts undoubtedly predate any surviving British texts, the possibility that the ballad originated in America and then was brought to England is remote, but not impossible. Only one very influential text locates the ballad in Bruton. The most common actual placename (occurring in both of the early texts) is Bridgewater. The temptation here is obviously to take this to mean Bridgwater in Somerset, some twenty miles west of Bruton, as most of the British texts were found in Somerset or Hampshire not very far away. However one version was found in Hertfordshire where there are lots of Bridgewater connections, the Earldom of Bridgewater originating here. It is also possible that 'Bridgewater' survived as a setting in many American versions as practically every state on the eastern seaboard (and Michigan) has a Bridgewater city or town, as does Nova Scotia, Canada. One can easily explain away the substitution of fictitious or descriptive placenames such as 'Seaport' for Bridgewater in the versions found in remote mountain communities and more central states where the name Bridgewater would mean nothing and would therefore soon be substituted with something more appropriate to the brothers crossing the sea.
Another alteration due to oral tradition is to the occupation of the father. In the earlier versions he is a merchant, but in the rural communities of southern England he has naturally become a farmer, yet another example which demonstrates the desirability of familiarity.
In Boccaccio's version there are three sons and only one version of the ballad I have seen corresponds with this, probably by coincidence. Only two brothers are essential to the plot and so either the poet reduced it to two or oral tradition has done so in its ever-increasing economy. In folklore unless there is a fixed reason for a specific number then that number can be notoriously variable. For example the early ballad The Three Ravens can evolve into The Twa Corbies and then Three/Two Old Crows, or Henry Martin can be one of two or three brothers, or The Twa Sisters can occasionally be three sisters.
Similarly the variation in the amount of the girl's portion runs from £500 in Missouri to £10,000 in most versions, and the earliest text has £3,000. All English versions have lost this element of the story. Such monetary amounts are very susceptible to change in oral tradition.
The great majority of broadside ballads that survived in oral tradition on both sides of the Atlantic, as one would expect, can be traced back to texts printed in the period 1770-1840. By this time fashions were changing, the market for the ballads was changing, and printers were looking to make economies in their printing methods. With the spread of literacy and greater competition to the broadsides from other media such as newspapers there was a need for printers to produce shorter ballads and fit more ballads on the sheet, which are main reasons why ballads of this period tend to be easily distinguished from those of earlier periods. Twenty-three stanzas, frequently many more, was much more typical of the broadside ballads of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. One can easily picture this ballad printed white letter in four columns, with a woodcut, on a broadside of c1750 by one of the Aldermary Churchyard printers such as William and Cluer Dicey. This aside, the characters and the language used were also more typical of the earlier period. It has points in common with the longer ballads of this period such as The Yarmouth Tragedy (Roud 187, Laws M38). The motif of a wealthy girl falling for a servant and subsequent family opposition resulting in tragedy for all concerned, turned up in the later tradition, but more often as a reprint or reduction of an earlier ballad. Other clues to its age are the use of the word 'factor' common in earlier ballads, and the abab rhyming pattern is also much more common in earlier ballads, later hacks being content with the abcb pattern adequate for the lower end of the market, by then the main share of the market.
Many of the more popular ballads of the earlier period were adapted to suit the new market. This usually meant reduction in length, and occasionally the longer ballad was split up into several shorter ones if the story allowed for this. The simplest way to shorten the ballads was to omit stanzas not essential to the plot, but almost as common was the practice of splicing two stanzas into one, usually the first two lines of the first stanza onto the last two lines of the second stanza. Sometimes as many as three stanzas were spliced into one. Scholars in the past have often credited this to oral tradition and no doubt this did happen, but it occurred much more frequently at the hands of printers' hacks. There is some evidence of this in The Bridgewater Merchant, some of which must be put down to oral tradition, but certain pairs of stanzas have been spliced in this way, i.e., two into one, in a consistent way in many versions. Most of the stanzas in the ballad appear to go together in pairs and they may even have been printed in double stanzas in the original ballad. In the twenty-eight versions examined stanzas 5 and 6 had been spliced together the most (nineteen), then stanzas 20 and 21 (fifteen). Stanzas 7 and 9, and 10 and 11 both had been spliced ten times each pair, and stanzas 22 and 23 six times. Other pairs just occurred once or twice. The opening stanza in oral versions comprised of a combination of lines from the first three stanzas in as many versions as it had kept its opening stanza fairly true to the conjectured original.
To me most of this would suggest the prior existence of a shortened broadside version or versions, possibly on both sides of the Atlantic. The very fact that many broadside ballads have survived only in a single version means that a sizable number very likely did not survive in print at all. MacEdward Leach in The Ballad Book, p.705 states, 'Though it must have existed as a broadside in England, none has been found. The only printed version is an American broadside which seems to derive from tradition rather than from an earlier printed version.' It's a pity he didn't include it considering the kudos which has been attached to this ballad.
The later period broadside ballad, much reprinted, which tells the same story The Merchant's Daughter and Constant Farmer's Son was quite likely based on our ballad, but has no phrasing in common and must be considered a separate ballad.
Before Malcolm Douglas first brought my attention to the Douglass text (A7) I had attempted the reconstruction using mainly the Michigan text (A8) but even with this it was obvious that the abab rhyming pattern had been consistent throughout in the original, even though not a single version retained this in every stanza, so this made selecting the probable closest version of a line to the original much more evident. Even the A7 text did not retain the abab in the first stanza. Therefore I decided to use A8's first line which maintained the pattern and A7's first line was only a rewording of A8's in any case.
In stanza 2 A8's second line simply scanned better than A7's, this being obviously corrupt, 'All for to bring, bring back their gain'.
Stanza 4's second line was altered simply because the majority of texts used either the word 'comely' or a corruption of it and A1's second line was the closest of these to A7's.
Stanza 5 had little difference between the A7 and A8 texts but I felt A8's scanned a little better and the sentence structure was more typical of the period, likewise the last line of stanza 11.
Stanza 8 occurs only in one other text, J H Cox's B version in Folk Songs of the South, p.306, a West Virginia text.
Stanza 14 is not in A7 or A8 at all but as A7 stands, without it the last line of stanza 13 does not make sense, and, whilst this stanza does not exist as a whole stanza in any version I have seen, there is enough evidence from a number of versions to assume that something similar probably existed in the original. I have therefore, using phrasing from three different versions, remade the stanza conjecturing the word 'wind' to rhyme with 'find'.
Texts B2, B3 and B4 contain a stanza that is probably an oral corruption of stanza 16 so I have not included it or tried to reconstruct it. The B2 stanza 7 runs:
She took her handkerchief from her pocket,For the first line of stanza 17 I have used B2/3 simply because it scans slightly better and fits the metre better.
And wiped his eyes though he was blind,
Because he was some true lover,
Some true lover a friend of mine.
I have chosen to follow A8 for most of stanza 18 because A7 does not have A8's stanza 19 and this is a continuation of stanza 18 which is quite different in A8. I am not happy with A8's stanza 19. Changes of heart like this are very rare in traditional ballads and thus far the ballad has followed standard traditional patterns. For the girl at first to pledge to stay with him till she dies and then because of hunger go back on this is not something I've seen in ballads before. I give here A7's equivalent of stanza 18 (17 in A7) for comparison:
Three days and nights she there sat weepingStanza 19, unique to A8, to me seems to be an expansion of stanza 18 and may not be original. Either way it is easy to see why this stanza has been dropped from later versions if it was ever there in the first place.
'Til seemed her heart would burst with woe
Feeling sharp hunger on her creeping
Homeward she was forced to go.
The first line of stanza 20 I have conjectured simply to retain the abab rhyme, the A7 line being 'When she returned to her brothers'. Line 2 scans better in A8.
As often happens in longer ballads in oral tradition, the ending in A7 has become garbled and stanza 22 is much better in A8, although I have had to conjecture the first line to keep to the abab pattern lacking in A8. The final verse, where it is present, is mostly garbled, but it has been possible to reconstruct the best fit from those few versions that retain it.
A9 and two English versions not used in this reconstruction have the brothers tried, condemned and hung rather than drowned at sea, although the American version of this has no text in common with the English versions, which probably indicates that they were altered independently of each other.
A1 H G Shearin in The Swanee Review, xix, p.321; reprinted in The Ballad Book, MacEdward Leach, p.705
A2 Ballads and Songs from Ohio, Mary O Eddie, p.85
A3 Journal of American Folklore, 20, p.259 (not used)
A4 H M Belden in The Swanee Review, xix, p.222, H M Belden; reprinted in Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society, p.109
A5 Sent to Belden by Cecil Sharp in 1917, from the Southern Appalachians (not used)
A6 Sent to Belden by Cecil Sharp in 1917, from the Southern Appalachians (not used)
A7 A Pioneer Songster, Harold Thompson, p.63
A8 Ballads and Songs of Southern Michigan, Gardner and Chickering, p.59
A9 Folk Songs of the South, J H Cox, p.306
A10 Journal of American Folk Lore, 46, p.25
B1 Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol 5, p.123
B2 Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol 5, p.126
B3 Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol 2, p.42
B4 Songs of the Open Road, Alice E Gillington, p.10 (not used)
B5 Vaughan Williams Ms 8vo E 5, VWML; printed in Everyman's Book of English Country Songs, p.111
In reconstructing the ballad as it might have originated I have appended to each line the source of the line. I have retained the title of the earliest known version, A7.
The Bridgewater Merchant
'Twas near Bridgewater a rich man lived
Who had two sons and a daughter fair;
Of life by death they were bereaved,
Which filled these children's hearts with care.
'Twas o'er the seas their sons did venture
For to bring home their rightful gain;
They had an apprentice by firm indenture;
They sent him factor o'er the main.
This young man was of a fair complexion,
Straight and complete in every limb;
Their sister placed her whole affection
On this young man, and courted him.
Three thousand pounds it was her portion;
She was a fair and a comely dame;
On this young man that crossed the ocean
She was resolved to bestow the same.
By chance one day her younger brother
Happened to see them sport and play;
The secret told he to the other;
These very words to him did say.
“Of parents mean he has descended,
And thinks our sister for to have;
But their courtship shall soon be ended;
We'll send him headlong to the grave.”
Now to contrive this cruel matter
They did conclude it should be so;
That this young man they both would flatter,
With them a hunting for to go.
In a small wood not much frequented,
Where harmless lambs did sport and play;
These villains could not be contented,
His precious life must take away.
In a (dry) ditch where there was no water,
Where thorns and briars had overgrown;
There for to hide their bloody slaughter,
There this young man was killed and thrown.
Then they returned to their sister,
Who asked, “Where is your servant man?
I ask because you seem to whisper,
Dear brothers, tell me if you can.”
"We lost him in our game of hunting
And nothing more of him could see;
To tell you plain I am affronted,
That you do thus examine me."
That very night as she lay sleeping
This young man he came and stood;
By her bedside he stood a weeping,
All covered o'er in gore of blood.
“It is in vain,” says he, “my jewel,
For you to murmur and repine;
You brothers killed me, being so cruel;
In such a place you may me find.”
“If you rise early in the morning,
And over lofty mountains wind,
Go straightway to yon brake of briars,
And in the ditch my body find.”
Next morning to the woods retired,
With many a sigh and a bitter groan,
And there she found whom she admired,
In that same place was killed and thrown.
Although his lips with blood were dyed,
Her tears as salt as any brine,
She ofttimes kissed him and cried,
“Alas! Thou bosom friend of mine.”
“And since my brothers have been so cruel
To take your precious life away,
One grave shall serve for both, my jewel,
While I have breath I will by thee stay.”
Three days and nights there she was weeping,
All down upon her bended knees,
Until fierce hunger came a creeping,
She uttered forth such words as these.
“Although for you my love is tender,
Yet I shall be obliged to yield,
Or unto death I must surrender;
Oh, like one conquered I'll quit the field.”
Then to her brothers she soon retired.
As soon as ever they did her see,
With blushes they of her inquired,
“What makes you blush so mournfully?”
“Oh! my brothers, thou knowest the reason;
That makes your sister look so wan
Against the law you have acted treason
By killing of your servant man.”
Then to conceal their shame and sorrow
These villains did on shipboard go;
But oh, believe me, on the morrow,
The bitter storms and winds did blow.
The wind it blew, it was no wonder,
And tost among the crashing waves,
Then by the flood they were dragged under,
The roaring sea proved both their graves.
Conjecture & A7
I am much indebted to Malcolm Douglas of Sheffield for making me aware of, and sending copies of, the Belden article and the Douglass Manuscript version, without which this article would have been much the poorer.
Dungbeetle - 22.7.06
Whilst we are relatively familiar with material of this period printed in some urban areas like London, Newcastle and Glasgow, apart from a few well-known cases, Bristol seems to have largely escaped notice. I am not aware of any collections of this material in Bristol itself and would be very pleased to be proved wrong on this. However a fair number of ballads of the period are set in Bristol, including at least 4 different Bristol Tragedies, at least 3 different Bristol Garlands, and a Bristol Wedding.
It is to one of these Bristol Garlands that I draw your attention here. This one survives in the Robert White Collection in the Robinson Library, University of Newcastle (Shelf No. 20.36). It has no imprint or date, but it seems reasonable to suppose that at some point a version would have been printed in Bristol itself. The type and style of printing of this issue would suggest the second half of the eighteenth century. Here is the title and a brief summary of the first part:
How two Brothers, to prevent Marriage between their Sister and their 'Prentice, agreed with a Captain to carry him to Sea, and make away with him, which he promised to do. Tune of 'Admiral Ponty, &c. (I have failed to identify this tune)
Whilst the majority of this story has very little in common with The Bridgwater Merchant, their beginnings are remarkably similar, and not just in terms of plot, as there are textual similarities also, as follow.
|The Bristol Garland||The Bridgwater Merchant|
| stanza 1.|
In Bristol fair City an old 'Squire liv'd there
He had two Sons and a Daughter bright and fair
This father he died, as it will appear
And left them possess'd of a thousand a year
Upon his Death bed as he there sighing lay
He then made a will, that the Brothers should pay,
Ten thousand pound Portion, as I understand,
To the sister, when pleased this Sum to command.
| stanza 1.|
'Twas near Bridgwater a rich man lived
Who had two sons and a daughter fair
Of life by death they were bereaved
stanza 4, line 1.
Three thousand pounds it was her portion
|The Bristol Garland|
Two Virginia Merchants these Brothers were
And they had a 'Prentice, who as I understand,
Their Sister lov'd so well, in Marriage to join
At which Thing the Merchants were disturb'd in Mind.
They said nothing to her, their minds to content,
To cut this Young man off, a way did invent…..
|The Bridgwater Merchant|
'Twas o'er the seas their sons did venture
For to bring home their rightful gain;
They had an apprentice by firm indenture;
They sent him factor o'er the main.
Their sister placed her whole affection
On this young man and courted him.
stanza 5, line 4
These very words to him did say,
'Of parents mean he has descended
And thinks our sister for to have;
But their courtship shall soon be ended
We'll send him headlong to the grave.
Now to contrive this cruel matter…..
The remainder of The Bristol Garland has nothing in common with The Bridgwater Merchant, the apprentice is shanghaied, by dreaming a premonition foils being murdered, returns to England and they marry after he rescues her from Bedlam. Even the 2 brothers get off lightly, being made to give the sister her portion.
Whilst there are significant differences between the 2 ballads, such as different metre and rhyming pattern, there are sufficient points of similarity to suggest some connection that goes beyond the realms of pure coincidence. Perhaps they were by the same writer, or perhaps one had some influence upon the other. Where they were printed one can only conjecture, but their settings being only 30 miles apart is significant.
Malcolm Douglas supplied me with this copy.
The Wehman version appears to have been rewritten by a printer's hack or amateur poet, perhaps from the recitation of a source singer who had some of the verses intact but only remembered the outline of others so they needed to be rewritten. What is perhaps curious is that the rewriter has taken note that some verses in the source version have the abab rhyming pattern, and has attempted to follow this, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully and sometimes not at all.
The poet or the printer has decided to present the ballad in double verses and there is some evidence in the longer version in the Stevens-Douglass Manuscript that this is the original form, but as all other versions are presented in quatrains I will deal with the verses individually in this way. However, because the Wehman version has 17 verses, either the printer or the poet has indicated that there is a missing quatrain before the final quatrain to make up the 9 double verses. If this was the choice of the rewriter it begs the question, why didn't he also make up a penultimate verse. The answer to this is probably that the source had insufficient material on the plot at this point and so the poet was happy to leave the gap.
The first 3 verses follow closely enough the majority of other versions:
The following 2 verses are completely rewritten but still follow the story using none of the phraseology of other versions.
This idea is backed up in the next verse, the victim's description of the attack, which is almost word for word the description by the narrator of the actual attack earlier in the Stevens-Douglass version.
Having looked closely at the evolution of many ballads over several centuries and their interaction in print and oral tradition, I have come to the conclusion that in most cases where there is significant textual difference between versions, i.e., whole sentences being reworded in many instances in the text, this can be put down to deliberate rewriting. Furthermore the most likely candidates for the rewriting are those best placed to do so, the amateur poets who supplied the texts to the printers. I use the term amateur very loosely because of course they were usually paid for their work. In the British Isles in the nineteenth century the average reward was a shilling per ballad.
What appears to be the original title of our ballad as given above, whilst it is typical of the genre, the merchant only gets a mention in the first verse. A better title would perhaps have been 'The Bridgwater Tragedy' or even 'The Bridgwater Merchants'. I have therefore chosen the title 'Isabella's Tragedy' for my ballad, although 'Isabella and Lorenzo's Tragedy' would perhaps have been more accurate. I'm aware that there is already an old ballad 'Lady Isabella's Tragedy' but this has nothing in common with 'Isabella and the Pot of Basil'. So that I could stick to the translated text as closely as possible I have opted not to fully attempt the more difficult abab rhyme scheme adopted by the supposed garland ballad.
Dungbeetle - 22.10.14