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About Execution Ballads

This page contains information about execution ballads, ballad sellers and the website itself including navigation and search parameters. 

Across Europe, from the sixteenth century until the early twentieth century, the news of the deeds of criminals and their subsequent executions was delivered via song, often printed on cheap, single-sheet broadsides or small, book-like pamphlets, as well as passed on orally or via manuscript. Songs were usually set to a familiar tune (often indicated at the top of the pamphlet), which allowed anyone to easily sing along. They were sold in busy streets and marketplaces by street singers, who usually sang the contents of the pamphlet in order to promote their wares.

Execution ballads could be graphically violent, usually compassionate, sometimes satirical, but always compelling.  

About Ballad Sellers

Execution ballads were sold on busy streets, bridges, and marketplaces by street singers, who often bought the songsheets and pamphlets wholesale and then sang them as a form of advertising.

These sellers often lived an itinerant, hand-to-mouth existence, turning their hands to whatever work they could find. We have some evidence for singers selling songs at the executions themselves, but they appear to have waited at least until the rope dropped!

For more on street singers of execution ballads see:

  • Una McIlvenna, ‘Chanteurs de rues, or Street Singers in Early Modern France’, Renaissance Studies 32/4 (2018), Special Issue: Street Singers in Renaissance Europe
  • Una McIlvenna, ‘When the News Was Sung: Ballads as News Media in Early Modern Europe’, Media History (2016) Special Issue: ‘Managing the News in Early Modern Europe’, eds. Helmer Helmers and Michiel van Groesen: 1-17

  

About this website

Ballads on this website are organised into collections based on language: Dutch, English, French, German and Italian. You can browse the collections using the navigation menu on the left, or search for a specific ballad. Advanced search options allow you to explore and find items by keywords and can be narrowed by specific fields such as date, execution or printing location, gender, collection, crime etc.

Ballads can also be explored by tags for gender, crime or method of punishment. The tag 'Audio recording' can be used to identify those with ballad recordings. 

In addition to execution ballads, this site contains collections of common tunes used, artworks related to the executions.