Guest post: Norwich Entertainments – ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee

Brodie Waddell is a member of staff in Birkbeck’s history department: his research focuses on the social, economic and cultural history of England from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and he runs The Many-Headed Monster – a blog on the “history of ‘the unruly sort of clowns’ and other early modern peculiarities” – with Mark Hailwood, Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis. This post is the fifth in a series about Norwich entertainments – read the others here

The people of late seventeenth-century Norwich did not get their entertainment solely from hairy children and pieces of plays. They also amused themselves with the ever-growing numbers of printed works that were pouring from the presses at that time.

Ballad entitled ‘An Excellent New Sonnet On the Goddess Diana and Acteon’ (c.1725-69). EBBA.

In June 1680, for example, the Norwich Mayor’s court ordered that ‘Twoe Ballad singers haveing Lycence to Sell ballads, pamphlets small bookes & other bookes Lycensed from the Office of the Revells have leave to doe soe until Monday senight [?seven-night]’.1

These balladeers were just two of the hundreds that traipsed through the city streets and country lanes of early modern England, singing to advertise their wares. The exact contents of a peddler’s sack could be very diverse. In addition to all sorts of petty trinkets, they sold tales of drunken sailors, royal mistresses, industrious spinsters, and much else besides. Often these were in the form of broadside song sheets, but they might also be ‘pamphlets’ and ‘small books’, sometimes called chapbooks, written in prose to provide merriment or salvation for the price of penny or two. Margaret Spufford and Tessa Watt, among many others,  have discussed this ‘cheap print’ in much more detail, noting that ballad-sellers were often condemned by the authorities as vagrants. But in late seventeenth-century Norwich at least they seem to have been welcomed by both the townspeople and city officials.

Title-page of a chapbook titled ‘The Life and Death of Fayr Rosamond’ (1755). SF.

Rather more unusual, however, was the license issued to a man a year earlier. In November 1679, the court declared that ‘Lawrence White is allowed to reade & sell Pamphlets on Horsebacke untill Wednesday next’.2

Why was White on horseback? And why were only ‘pamphlets’ mentioned? Well, horses were expensive creatures, rarely owned by poorer individuals like ballad singers or other peddlers. This suggests that White was probably a man of ‘good credit’ rather than a poor tinker on the edge of vagrancy. Moreover the fact that the licence only refers to ‘pamphlets’ seems to me to indicate that his wares were somewhat different than those of the two anonymous ballad-singers. Although it is only speculation, I suspect that White was perhaps a carrier – delivering goods and letters between towns – who also sold short topical publications such as reports from London on political and religious affairs. So, it seems that the people of Norwich were interested in more than just merry songs and ‘pulp fiction’.

This interpretation is reinforced by another entry in the court book a few months later. In April 1680, there was an order ‘About the newsletters’. The court agreed to

send to anie publique house or Coffee-house & Booke seller for such newes letters as they have lately & doe for the future receive from London & upon perusal of such as they have already & shall have from any [of] the said houses, to collect thereout what they apprehend to be false or dangerous to the disturbance of the Peace of the Kingdom & to report the same to this Court and also to require such as doe receive such letter to discouver from whom they have them.3

A selection of early modern pamphlets. Via University of Leicester Special Collections.

So, not all the reading material arriving in Norwich was inoffensive ‘entertainment’. It seems that the inns and coffeehouses of the city had become sites of contentious political conversation thanks in part to the circulation of partisan ‘news letters’. These were essentially short newspapers – sometimes handwritten, sometimes printed – reporting the events in the royal court and parliament, normally with a strong political slant. The fact that this was occurring at the height of the Exclusion Crisis was hardly a mere coincidence.

This was neither the first nor the last time that the authorities sought to monitor and control the spread of news. Historians such as Joad Raymond, Steve Pincus, Mark Knights and Nick at Mercuius Politicus have studied how novel forms of communication influenced the political culture during the Civil Wars, the Interregnum and later Stuart period. Indeed, the role of coffee-drinking has been highlighted as a particularly important part of these developments, and the Norwich case supports this.

Ned Ward, ‘The CoffeeHous Mob’, frontispiece to Part IV of ‘Vulgus Britannicus, or the British Hudibras’ (London, 1710). Via Cabinet.

Clearly Norwich was not culturally isolated at all. The cheap amusement provided by travelling ballad singers linked even relatively poor townspeople to the wider circulation of ‘cheap print’ and the coffee-houses of the city offered potentially ‘dangerous news’ about the goings on in Westminster and elsewhere. The question, then, is whether these two cultural poles were linked. Were Lawrence White’s pamphlets perhaps the midpoint in a continuum that stretched from jolly balladry of the semi-literate poor to the politicised news of the educated coffee-drinkers?


1 Norwich Mayor’s Court, 1677-95: Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 68
2 Ibid., f. 57
3 Ibid., f. 65

Guest post 1: Sarah Emily Duff on why historians need to engage with public and national histories

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