Glossary of Early Modern Popular Print Genres



Broadside ballad 'A Net for a Night-Raven; Or, A Trap for a Scold', 1663-1674. Oxford, Bodleian Library.

Other languages

  • Danish: skillingstrykk
  • Dutch: straatlied, ballade, liedblad, liedboek 
  • Finnish: Arkkiveisut 
  • French: chanson, cantique populaire, recueil de chansons, chansonnier, vaudeville, parolier 
  • German: Ballade, Lied, Bänkelsang 
  • Italian: ballata, cantare, canzone, capitolo, frottola, lamento, laude 
  • Norwegian: skillingstrykk 
  • Polish: pieśń, śpiewnik (song book)
  • Spanish: pliego suelto poético, romance, copla, trova, trovo, trobo, troba, glosa, seguidilla, paso (pasillo), canción, cancionero (song book), villancico  
  • Swedish: skillingtryck 

Material form



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A ballad was a popular song that had many subgenres such as the love ballad, the satirical ballad and the execution ballad. Ballads were common across Europe. They covered multiple themes, such as heroic tales, love stories, criminal stories, news items and political songs related to contemporary events. In their broadsheet form, which was particularly common in Britain, they appeared in roughly two categories. 

The black-letter ballad (referring to the gothic letter-type) was the most common type, with a wide range in subject matter and audience. It was generally printed on poor quality paper and on small sheets, and usually appears in a ‘landscape’ orientation. The ballads printed here were generally the length of three to five columns, though sometimes two separate ballads would be printed on one sheet. These were often cut and cold separately (as slip songs). They were among the cheapest types of print, yet they were relatively expensive still in comparison to white-letter ballads, presumably because they were often illustrated with woodcuts. Looking at the cost per page, the black-letter ballad was even expensive relative to pamphlets, for both the reader and the printer.  

The white-letter ballad referred to ballads printed with roman type, in portrait orientation and with an abundance of white space on the sheet instead of woodcut illustrations. The size and quality of the paper were generally better than those of the black-letter ballads. The subject range was considerably smaller, however. Until the 1670s the white-letter ballad form was used almost exclusively for songs that contained political satire.  

Oftentimes there was no strict relation between a particular song and a particular melody. Melodies were reused for new songs, sometimes because the tune was popular and sometimes to make an explicit reference to the content of an earlier (satirical) song. We can recognize most early modern songs through an indication of the tune, either in the form of musical notation or a note detailing that the song is to be sung to the tune of another particular song. Another possibility is through the layout in different verses, often indicated with an empty line between verses or a jump in the margins at the beginning of a new verse. 

In the Dutch Republic songs were printed in song books as well as broadsheets. Many of these song books had small formats (16mo; 12mo) and can be considered as cheap print as well. They covered a wide range of topics, including love songs, religious songs, political songs etc.  

Song books also occurred in Germany, France, England and Spain, but not all of them were aimed at a broad audience. German songs occurred both in a broadside form and as quarto pamphlets (containing a few songs). In Germany the ‘Bänkelsänger’ (‘Bench-singer’) was a popular, performative, phenomenon. These street singers used a big cloth with painted scenes on it, that illustrated the song. While the singer sang the song, his companions sold the printed sheets. French songs often appeared first as a single sheet to be included in cheap songbooks (‘recueils’) later. The term vaudeville also occurs in titles of early modern French song books, but this term has now come to be associated with the theatrical genre that emerged in the 19th century.  

In Italy, songs were printed in the form of small ‘books’ or ‘pamphlets’ (quarto format), usually containing one song. Printed on very poor paper and of poor typographical quality, most of them would have been sung or recited by cantastorie/cantimbanchi (‘story-singers/ bench singers’) and then sold. Sometimes the name of the melody to which the text can be sung is indicated, and sometimes there is a reference to the fact that it was ‘recited’. They cover a huge range of subjects/genres: from laments to celebrations or news of battles or weddings; witty dialogues and satires, moralising and pedagogical texts and so on. Many still survive in Italian libraries from the late 1520s-1530s and the ‘genre’ flourished throughout the century and into the next. Cantari were a specific subcategory of Italian ballads. It was a very popular form of oral poetry in Italy from the mid-14th century onward. These cantari were narrative texts in ottava rima, about forty stanzas long. They were orally performed in public by street singers, but they are also preserved in written and printed form. They cover many topics: chivalric tales, ancient and recent battles, current affairs, legends, religious stories, moral topics, novelle and fairy tales etc. They were also sung on the streets.  

In Spain, the equivalent of the European ballad is the romance, a form whose longevity spans the period from the fifteenth century until almost the present day. It is a type of song defined by its metre: a series of octosyllabic lines, with pairs of lines having assonant endings. Although many romances were printed from the sixteenth century onwards, the impact of oral delivery on their creation and transmission remained constant over the years: a vast number of them were unpublished and crossed the centuries through oral communication, and for those which were printed orality played a central role in the way they were written and performed. 

In Spain (as well as Portugal and colonial America), villancicos were a popular poetic and musical form from the late 15th to the 18th century. Initially profane in nature, they gained currency especially as devotional songs in the 17th century. They started to appear in print in the first half of that century. They were sung during matins of religious feasts (the term is still used in present-day Spanish to designate Christmas carols). 

Related terms

broadside ballad, song sheet, street song, slip song, song book, lament, criminal narrative, martyr story, libel/pasquil


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Modified on: 05/02/2024