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Folklore: Oldest (even ancient) murder ballads

GUEST,D.A. Ward 07 Jun 24 - 07:21 PM
Robert B. Waltz 07 Jun 24 - 07:52 PM
Jack Campin 07 Jun 24 - 08:35 PM
Robert B. Waltz 08 Jun 24 - 05:12 AM
GUEST 09 Jun 24 - 02:21 PM
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Subject: Folklore: Oldest (even ancient) murder ballads
From: GUEST,D.A. Ward
Date: 07 Jun 24 - 07:21 PM

I am looking for references to or examples of the oldest of what we now call "murder ballads."

On the face of it, the murder ballad originated in the 1500s in Britain/Ireland/Scotland. There are some indications of Scandinavian songs of the like, though sources seem unclear.

This seems to me a very Western European lens through which to view the subject. I have to believe there are other examples, however well or not well documented, that go back to ancient times and include other continents and cultures.

Consider the Judeo-Christian tale of Cain and Abel. The very story lends itself to the rise of a murder ballad. While there have been numerous takes on this in the modern age, it's hard to believe someone didn't sing of this story in ancient times, even if there is only the faintest documentation of such a song.

So, I thought I would put the question to the many knowledgeable folks here on Mudcat to help with my research on this matter.

I thank you in advance for whatever information you all might be able to share.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Oldest (even ancient) murder ballads
From: Robert B. Waltz
Date: 07 Jun 24 - 07:52 PM

It really depends on your definition of "murder ballad."

In the Traditional Ballad Index, I have articles on seven different songs that have been proposed as "The Earliest English Ballad." Three of these, "Edward the Martyr" (c. 975), "Judas" [Child 23] (c. 1200), and "Sir Aldingar" [Child 59] (c. 1400). I personally would not consider "Edward the Martyr" a ballad. "Judas" involves a death by malice, but not directly, and there is argument about whether it's a ballad. I don't think there is much question but that "Sir Aldingar" counts.

Also from before 1500 are "The Gest of Robyn Hode" [Child 117], which ends with the murder of Robin, and "Robin Hood and the Monk" [Child 119] which features multiple murders.

If you want something with a precise date, it gets a lot harder. But you could try Steve Gardham's Earliest Reference database and decide for yourself which ones are murder ballads. It seems as if most of what he has is from the late eighteenth century, though, and we obviously have items older than that.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Oldest (even ancient) murder ballads
From: Jack Campin
Date: 07 Jun 24 - 08:35 PM

I have a ballad on the death of Thomas Becket on my website.

A lot of ballads seem to have started out as pieces of saga-length narratives, and in older ballads about killings the protagonists are either deities, royalty or proxies for warring polities. The idea that you might want to democratize death and make songs about ordinary people killing each other for purely personal reasons seems to be an early-modern idea.

Pitcairne's collection of criminal trial reports, "Ancient Criminal Trials of Scotland", makes for an illuminating comparison. Centuries of landed thugs conducting vendettas until the law couldn't tolerate the number of rapes, arsons and psychopathic killings they carried out. It's a brilliant piece of gutter journalism much like the true-crime and society gossip mags you see on supermarket shelves - and that was what the ballads of murder and feuding we now have were about. There probably were fair number of killings involving tenant farmers and donestic servants, but it was the elite thugs with family crests who got high-profile trials, ballads and beheadings.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Oldest (even ancient) murder ballads
From: Robert B. Waltz
Date: 08 Jun 24 - 05:12 AM

BTW, to correct my own post, I should have said that three of the seven "earliest ballads" involved death by malice. Typing too fast again....

Jack Campin wrote: I have a ballad on the death of Thomas Becket on my website.

Since you don't give a link, I can't know which Becket piece that is, but the several "ballads" on Becket from sources like Percy and Ritson don't give much evidence of being traditional. There is, without question, folklore about Becket, but traditional songs are another matter. This is the problem with most of the things I cited as "earliest ballads." They're earliest written narratives. But traditional as songs? Dubious....

There is folklore that "Young Beichan"/"Lord Bateman" is about Gilbert Becket, the father of Thomas, but I don't think anyone takes that seriously.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Oldest (even ancient) murder ballads
From: GUEST
Date: 09 Jun 24 - 02:21 PM

Knoxville Girl sources back to old English murder ballad of the 1680s.


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