WORLD Magazine / Central Ideas / Appendix A
16th-,17th-, and 18th-Century Moral Tales


Rise of the Corruption Story

Macrostories in Conflict

Breakthrough of the Oppression Story


16th-,17th-, and 18th-Century Moral Tales
Journalism Historians and Religion
Methodological Notes
Defending the Corruption Story

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Before newspapers were an everyday occurrence in England, many news ballads sensationally covered current events while communicating biblical morality. The "ballads"--quickly composed, event-oriented songs printed on single sheets of paper and sold in the streets-apparently were everywhere. In the words of one historian:
Ballads were not written for poetry. They were, in the main, the equivalent of modern newspapers, and it cannot well be denied that customarily they performed their function as creditably in verse as the average newspaper does in prose. Journalistic ballads outnumbered all other types .... In them are clearly reflected the lives and thoughts, the hopes and fears, the beliefs and amusements, of sixteenth and seventeenth century Englishmen.[1]
The ballads were on vastly different subjects, but they often had a common theological thrust. To cite a very early example, one report of a strange animal birth in 1562 first provided a description of the piglet whose head was shaped like that of a dolphin, and then gave "An Admonition unto the Reader":
Let us knowe by these ugly sights,/ And eke consider well,/ That our God is the Lord of mights,/ Who rules both heaven and hell./ By whose strong hand these monsters here/ Were formed as ye see,/ That it mighte to the world appere,/ Almightie him to bee/ Who might also us men have formde/ After a straunge device.[2]
The emphasis on God's sovereignty in that stanza was followed by the corollary story of man's sinfulness in the next:
And loke what great deformitie/ In bodies ye beholde;/ Much more is in our mindes truly,/ An hundred thousand folded So that we have great cause in deede,/ Our sinnes for to confesse,/ And eke to call to God with speede,/ The same for to redresse.
An account by another writer of that same incident drew a similar moral: "These straunge and monstrous thinges Almighty God sendeth amongest us, that we shuld not be forgetfull of his almighty power, nor unthankeful for his great mercies so plentifully poured upon us."[3]

Ballads frequently cited earthquakes as tokens of God's power. Within several days of an April 6, 1580 earthquake, five pamphlets or ballads about it were for sale on the streets. The titles tell the message: "A godly newe ballat moving us to repent by ye example of ye erthquake."[4] "Alarm for London and Londoners settinge forthe the thunderinge peales of Gods mercye." "A true and terrible example of Gods wrathe shewed by ye generall earthquake." (One title sounds as if it has rock 'n roll potential-"Quake, quake, it is tyme to quake. When towers and townes and all Doo shake.")

Fire reporting, then as now, was dramatic. In 1586 one report of a fire in the town of Beckles observed:

The flame whereof increasing still/ The blustering windes did blowe,/ And into divers buildings by/ Disperst it to and fro;/ So kindling in most grievous fort,/ It waxed huge and hie;/ The river then was frozen, so/ No water they could come by.[5]
The balladeer-reporter went on to write that the fire was part of God's providence. That did not imply that the fire was necessarily punishment for the townsfolks' sins. It did suggest that the fire was a warning, and that residents should "Seeke not your neighbors lasting spoyle/ By greedy sute in lawe;/ Live not in discord and debate,/ Which doth destruction draw." Beckle was "a mirrour to all such/ That doth in pleasure stay." God's judgment could come at any time, and Englishmen should have their spiritual affairs in order.

During this period, for the first time in English-language publications, "news" began to be organized. Networks of reporters and publishers emerged, and timeliness became significant: Many ballads and pamphlets were published 2 days after the events took place, and reports of some executions were prepared largely in advance, like obituaries today, with only last-minute (literally) details added. The emphasis on telling a moral tale continued, however. A typical account of spousal murder concerned an innkeeper's wife becoming friendly with "a Person of ill fame and very dissolute liver . . . in a more familiar manner, than was convenient," and then conspiring with him to murder her husband"; the murderess eventually was executed.[6]

Publications were not afraid to be sensational. In 1624 a newsbook entitled The crying Murther: Contayning the cruell and most horrible Butcher of Mr. Trat, told of how four murderers,

with their hands already smoking in his blood, did cut up his carcass, unbowel and quarter it; then did they bum his head and privy members, parboil his flesh and salt it up, that so the sudden stink and putrefaction being hindered, the murderers might the longer be free from [discovery].[7]
But the body was found "all saving the head and members, disposed in this manner and form following. His arms, legs, thighs, and bowels were powdered up into two earthen steens or pots in a lower room of the house . . ., the bulk of his carcass was placed in a vat or tub." The murderers were hanged, and "died obstinate and unrepenting sinners." The pamphlet's author was careful to say that his story was based on "intelligence which I have received from credible persons, engaged in their trial."

Writers saw an important purpose in such coverage. John Reynolds in 1622 had provided one of the fullest rationales for stories of crime and disaster when he wrote of his desire to help readers understand the dangers of "the bewitching World, the alluring Flesh, and the inticing Devill."[8] He listed items that should be viewed critically:

Wealth, Riches, Dignities, Honours, Preferments, Sumptuous houses, perfumed Beds, Vessels of gold and silver, pompous Apparell, Delicious fare . . . Perfuming, Powdering, Crisping, Painting, Amorous kisses, Sweet smiles, Sugared speeches, Wanton embracings, and Lascivious dalliance ....
Reynolds argued that Satan would take advantage of whatever tendencies his careless readers might possess:
Are we inclined to wantonnesse, and Lasciviousnesse, he will fit us with meanes and opportunity to accomplish our carnall desires: or are wee addicted to covetousness and honours, hee will either cause us to breake our hearts, or our necks, to obtaine it: for it is indifferent to him, either how or in what manner we inlarge and fill up the empty roomes of his vast and infemall kingdome . . . .[9]
Reynolds wrote of two ways to avoid citizenship in that infernal kingdom: Worshiping and praying to God, and learning from the errors of others. Journalism could play a crucial role in the latter task. Reynolds wrote that his accounts of evil thought leading to evil action were
for our detestation, not for our imitation: Since it is a poynt of (true and happy) wisdome in all men to beware by other mens harmes; Reade it then with a full intent to profit thy selfe thereby, and so thou mayest boldly, and safely rest assured, that the sight of their sinnes and punishments, will prove the reformation of thine owne.[10]
Reynolds, like other journalists of his time, stressed a condemnation of sin and a proclamation of the need for repentance and future avoidance. His writing was democratic in coverage and style but not at all in theology; early journalists proposed not that each man should be an oracle unto himself, but that sin was real, that all were ensnared in it, and some captured by it. He wanted readers to avoid entangling alliances of the kind depicted in a ballad, Murder upon Murder, in which "a man of honest parentage" married "a filthy whore," who "sotted" his mind so that they lived a "vile loose life" and were "bent to cruelty."[11]

Other ballads presented what their writers perceived as the general mood of early 17th-century England. One composition by John Barker-"A Balade declaryng how neybourhed, love, and trew dealyng is gone"-lugubriously stated:

Now straunge it is to men of age, The which they se before their face, This world to be in such outrage, It was never sene in so bad case. Neibourhed nor love is none, Trew dealyng now is fled and gone

Where shall one fynde a man to trust, Alwaye to stande in tyme of neede? The most pane now they are unjust, Fayre in wordes, but false indeede. Neybourhed nor love is none, True dealyng now is fled and gone [12]

The ballad went on that way for 19 verses, but in the 20th gave the hope:
Graunt, oh God, for thy mercyes sake, That neighbourhed and dealyng trewe May once agayne our spirites awake, That we our lyves may chaunge a-new; Then neybourhed and love alone May come agayne to every one.
Later in the century, the corruption story was carried on through ballads of domestic tragedy combined with pleas for repentance. For example, in 1661 the ballad "Misery to be lamented" reported that a man had been buried alive and was unable to get out of his coffin, but cried out so loud that people who heard his shouts dug up the coffin and opened it: "His Coffin opened was, wherein/ a dolefull sight they then beheld:/ With strugling he had bruis'd his skin,/ his head and eyes were sadly sweld." The conclusion was,
Now let us all with one consent/ turn to the Lord with heart and mind:/ And of our grievous sins repent,/ that so we may God's mercy find,/ And to conclude to God let's call,/ from such a death Lord keep us all.[13]
By the last third of the 17th century, specific genres of sensational reporting were emerging. For example, "The Bloody Butcher," a ballad broadside of 1667, began with an exclamation about "What horrid execrable Crimes/ Possess us in these latter Times;/Not Pestilence, nor Sword,-nor Fire,/ Will make us from our Sins retyre."[14] The report told of a husband and pregnant wife arguing about his adultery, and then:
With a strong long sharp-poynted knife,/ Into the back he stabs his wife:/ Flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone,/ With one dead-doing blow is gone.

She faltred, fainted, fell down dead,/ Upon the ground her bloud was shed;/ The little infant in the womb/ Received there both Life and Toomb.

Then was he Apprehended, by/ Some Neighbours that did hear her cry/ Out Murther, murther, and for this,/ He judg'd and Executed is.

Let this a warning be to those,/ Whose Passions are their greatest Foes . . ./ Return to God, reform your Lives,/ Men be not bitter to your wives.

The consistency of themes during this period is indicated by a similar story 30 years later, "The Murtherer Justly Condemned," that also spotlighted an adulterer who killed his wife:
He had long been absent which made her suspect,/ Both her and his business he did much neglect,/ Which put her in passion, that streightway she went,/ To know by this usage what to her he meant.

In Leaden-Hall Market she found him, and there/ The cause of her grief she did freely declare./ Though justly reproved, yet so Angry he grew,/ That at her with violence his Knife he then threw.[15]

The story continued with the man tried, found guilty, and awaiting hanging:
His Drunken Debauchries now swarm in his mind,/ And how he to her and himself was unkind,/ By spending his money so idley on those,/ That Lewdly had brought him to trouble and woes,/ And though for Repentance it is not too late,/ Yet death now looks terrible on life's short date.
Finally, the practical application was rammed home:
Thus let all Rash men well consider his fall,/ How innocence loudly for Vengeance do's call,/ And govern their passions that bring them to shame,/ For which when too late they themselves do much blame.

Consider how Rashness brings troubles and fears,/ Shame, Ruin, and death, it oft for them prepares,/ Then let all be warn'd how they rashly proceed,/ Least trouble and anguish for them be decreed.

Hundreds of similar crime ballads were sold in the streets during this period. They typically showed a strong faith in biblical right and wrong and a stress on God's sovereignty, while at the same time claiming accuracy of reporting. "Sad News from Salisbury," for example, presented tragedies "incredible to believe, but that some who were in the same Storm are alive to justify the truth thereof."[16] That stress on eyewitnesses was important because the purpose of the tale was not mere amusement, but testimony to be taken as important only if true; the story was to be a "warning to all,/ Least greater Judgments on this land befall." The specific detail, rather than emphasizing the plight of nobles or gentlefolk, was thoroughly democratic:
Collins the Taunton Carryer, people say,/ Upon the Douns did strangly loose his way,/ Two of his Passengers were starv'd with cold,/ A fearful Spectacle for to behold ....

And this for truth report us plainly tells,/ The Carryer that belong'd to Bath and Wells,' His own dear Son was frozen unto death;/ And on the Downs did loose his dearest breath ....

And thirty more in Sometshire were lost/ In this unusual Snow and cruel Frost,/ Who littel thought when they went out of door,/ Their wives & children they should see no more ....

Then came the crucial journalistic question, then as now-not just who, what, when, where, and how, but why:
This judgment came from god's almighty hand/ For sins committed in our native land,/ Lord grant that it to us a warning be/ And teach us how to shun iniquitie.

Our sins for vengeance do to Heaven cry,/ Yet we like sinners live in vanity,/ O grant that we our sinful lives may mend,/ That we may live with thee when life doth end.

From storms & tempests Lord preserve us still,/ Teach us they holy laws for to fulfill,/ So shall we gainers be by loosing breath,/ And ride triumphant o're the second death.

Fires often provided the fuel for disaster stories, including a typical one entitled "A Sad and True Relation of a great fire."[17] The story began, "Give thanks, reyoyce all, you that are secure,/ No man doth know how long life may indure/ Regard dear hearts, at the truth the authour aims,/ Concerning those that suffer in fiery flames." The author, with superior artistry, then switched to point-of-view from a neighboring woman who, while nursing at night a sick child, saw the fire: "In the Merchants lower Rooms she espied,/ The Violent flames and then aloud she cryed/ Fire, Fire . . ." Other stanzas vividly described what was found in the wreckage, and then returned to the great story:
four lumps of flesh was after found./ About the bigness of a man's hand were they,/ As black as a Coal, and a skul or two there lay;/ O little did they think over night being merry,/ That before mom in fiery flames to fry ....

All you that are Masters of a family,/ Govern well your house and fear the God on high,/ For when to sleep that we do close our eyes,/ The Lord doth know whither ever we shall rise.

The emphasis on God's sovereignty was accompanied by a stress on his mercy. That was a theme especially of prisoner stories, which were often told in the first person. "Luke Hutton's Lamentation" included details of the crime (a woodcut showed one man with a knife at the other's stomach) and the prisoner's hanging at York, and ended with a prayer: "Lord Jesus forgive me, with mercy relieve me,/ Receive O sweet Saviour, my spirit unto thee. "[18] Those dying of natural causes also had first-person accounts written about them. The title of one long one gave the essential detail: "The Godly Maid of Leicester. Being a true Relation of Elizabeth Streeton, who lying on her Death-bed, was wonderfully delivered from the Temptations of Satan, worth the noting of all that would live and die in the fear of God."[19] Her deathbed statement (assuming poetic license) was that
Christ doth net forsake his Flock,/ who evermore on him depend,/ He was my Fortress and my Rock/ and brought my troubles to an end . . . ./ For I have fought a happy Flight,/ and overcome, by God's good Grace,/ The Divel in his power and might,/ and run with Comfort now my Race.
Suicides, however, were treated very differently. The title/lead of one ballad was,
The Devil's cruelty to Mankind, BEING A true Relation of the Life and Death of George Gibbs, a Sawyer by his Trade, who being many times tempted by the Divill to destroy himselfe, did on Fryday being the 7 of March 1663. Most cruelly Ripp up his own Belly, and pull'd out his Bowells and Guts, and cut them in pieces: to the Amazement of all the Beholders, the sorrow of his Friends, and the great grief of his Wife, being not long married: and both young People.[20]
so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."[28]

Earthquakes, for example, received attention as-in the title of one ballad following a June, 1744, quake-Tokens of God's Power and Wrath. Through earthquakes, the ballad proposed, God showed power and then mercy: "Justly may we now stand amaz'd/ At GOD's abundant Grace,/ To think so base and vile a World/ Is not all on a Blaze."[29] When another earthquake struck in 1755, the Boston News-Letter reported 2 days after the quake that "the Inhabitants of the Town were, in general, put into great Consternation, fearing, every Moment, least they should be buried under their Houses; but, thro' the Divine Favour, no life was lost. "[30] A ballad called the earthquake "A Solemn Warning to the World" and reported how "In Depth of Sleep, or Scenes of Guilt,/ Sinners securely lay;/ When sudden shook the tott'ring Ground,/ And threatned to give Way.[31]

Fire coverage also was reinvigorated. One fire that destroyed over 300 buildings was covered as "the Rebuke of God's Hand." The reporter gave the basic news and then explicitly tried to deal with the "why," observing that God's

Judgments oftentimes he does retard,/ While we run on in Sin and don't regard;/ And when he sends them then we think He's hard:/ But pray examine, think on what's the Cause,/ Isn't it Contempt of his most righteous Laws?/ Then can we clear ourselves, aren't we to blame/ Who sin without Remorse, and cast off Shame/ And pay no Rev'rence to his holy Name?-/ This is the Cause He sent this Judgment down,/ This awful Desolation on the Town . . . ."[32]
Coverage of a crime story in 1756 and 1757 showed a tendency toward division of labor, with the newspapers increasingly providing short bits of news and the ballads presented more detail. The Boston News-Letter in 1756 succinctly reported that
a sorrowful Affair happened at Watertown, one John Herrington and Paul Learned, scuffling together, the former struck a long Knife in the other's Back, which gave him a mortal wound, and died within two Hours after. Herrington we hear surrendered himself up to Justice.
Ballads that covered the same crime and eventual execution of Herrington made it a pointed story of God's mercy, with the convicted man first wondering whether his guilt is so great that God will not hear his prayers. Soon, however, he was shown to be praying, with the particular request that his life not pass in vain, but that he might become a symbol of God's grace: "Dispell the Mists that cloud my Mind,/ And all my Pangs abate;/ Give this Example to Mankind,/ Of Love and Grace compleat." The final verse of that ballad showed the victory, just prior to Harrington's execution: "Then shall this Truth be ever known,/ While God sustains this Frame;/ In me his boundless Mercy shone,/ And Goodness is his Name.[33]

Right up to the American revolution, ballads continued to emphasize both God's anger with sin and his mercy toward repentant sinners. One man about to be executed was depicted as praying to Christ, "Thou who did'st suffer Death and Shame,/ Such Rebels to restore:/ O! for they great and glorious Name,/ Accept one Rebel more.[34]

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1. Hyder E. Rollins, ed., A Pepysian Garland: BlackLetter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595-1693 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), p. xi.

2. A Collection of Seventy Nine BlackLetter Ballads and Broadsides, Printed in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, Between the Years 1559 and 1597 (London: Joseph Lilly, 1867), pp. 4547.

3. Anon, The description of a monstrous pig, the which was farrowed at Hamsted (London: Garat Dewes, 1562).

4. This and other titles cited in M. A. Shaaber, Some Forerunners of the Newspaper in England (New York: Octagon, 1966), p. 164.

5. A Collection of Black-Letter Ballads, pp. 8184.

6. J. A. Sharpe, "Domestic Homicide in Early Modern England," Historical Journal 24, 1(1981), pp. 42-43; cited in Mitchell Stephens, A History ofNews (New York, 1988), p. 111. Sharpe's collection of 25 ballads of spousal murder-13 reporting the murder of husbands, 12 the murder of wives-shows that they were moral tales concerning the outcome of adultery.

7. Quoted in Stephens, p. 113.

8. John Reynolds, The Triumphs of Gods Revenge Against the crying and Execrable Sinne of (Wilfull and Premeditated) Murther (London: Edward Griffin/William Lee, 1640), 2nd ed., p. ii; first published in 1622.

9. Ibid., loc. cit.

10. Ibid., p. 211.

11. Quoted in Stephens, p. 115.

12. John Barker, "A Balade declaryng how neybourhed, loue, and trew dealyng is gone" in A Collection of Seventy-Nine Black-Letter Ballads and Broadsides (London, 1867), p. 134.

13. Hyder Rollins, ed, The Pack of Autolycus, or, Strange and Terrible News of Ghosts, Apparitions, Monstrous Births, Showers of Wheat, Judgments of God, and other Prodigious and Fearful Happenings as told in Broadside Ballads of the Years 1624-1693 (Cambridge, MA, 1927), pp. 6874.

14. The Euing Collection of English Broadside Ballads (Glasgow, 1971), pp. 26-27.

15. Ibid., p. 360. The murder took place May 5, 1697.

16. Ibid., pp. 251-252. The storm struck on December 23, 1684.

17. The Pack of Autolycus, pp. 103-106.

18. Euing, pp. 298-299.

19. Ibid., pp. 198-199.

20. The Pack of Autolycus, pp. 122-125.

21. One ballad, "The Trappand Virgin," had as its secondary headline, "Take my advice while you are free,/ and youngmen do not trust,/ They promise fare as fare can be,/ but mean what is unjust." The ballad began, "Come mourn with me you Leadies all,/ whom Young men have betrayed,/ I was belov'd of great and small,/ and thought a virtuous Maid:/ At length a Young-Man to me came/ and he did me much wrong,/ For he betray'd a harmless Maid/ with his deludeing Tongue./ Such vows and Protestations he did to me often use,/ With sights, and Sobs that pittyed me,/ so that I could not chose/ But condescend to his desire." Promises of marriage were not fulfilled, and the betrayed maid concluded, "Take warning by me Maidens fair . . . When they have got what they desire/ their passion's at an End." There was also a word for men: "False hearted men where e're you be/ think not for to Escape,/ For what you gain by Treachery/ is next kinn to a Rape." (Euing, p. 577).

22. Advice from the Dead to the Living; Or, a Solemn Warning to the World. Occasioned by the untimely Death of poor Julian, Who was Executed on Boston Neck, on Thursday the 22d of March, 1733, for the Murder of Mr. John Rogers of Pembroke, the 12th of September, 1733 (Boston, 1733).

23. Ibid.

24. A Mournful POEM on the Death of John Ormsby and Matthew Gushing, who were appointed to be executed on Boston Neck, the 17th of October, 1734 (Boston, 1734).

25. Ibid.

26. Narrative, or Poem, Giving an Account of the Hostile Actions of some Pagan Indians, in Ola Elizabeth Window, American Broadside Verse (New Haven, 1930), p. 115.

27. Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (New York, 1978 edition), p. 30.

28. Hart, p. 220.

29. Tokens of God's Power and Wrath (Boston, 1744).

30. Boston NewsLetter, November 20, 1755.

31. Jonathan Newland, Earthquakes Improved: Or Solemn Warning to the World; by the tremendous EARTHQUAKE which appeared on Tuesday Morning the 18th of November 1755, between four and five o'clock (Boston: 1755). The ballad continued vividly: "See! how poor Wretches from their Beds/ Affrightedly arise,/ And to their clatt'ring Windows run,/ With Horror in their Eyes!/ Around them crack their shatter'd Walls,/ The Beams and Timber creak;/ And the Inhabitants amaz'd/ With dismal Outcrys shreak./ Buildings leap up, the Joints give Way,/ The crumbling Chimney groans;/ The loos'ned Bricks cost from on high/ Come thund'ring on the Stones."

32. A Poem On the Rebuke of God's Hand In the Awful Desolation made by FIRE in the Town of Boston, On the 20th Day of March, 1760.

33. The Agonies of a Soul departing out of Time into Eternity (Boston, 1757).

34. The Dying Groans of Levi Ames (Boston, 1773).