Moral Education as a function of British Folklore in the Form of Late-medieval and Renaissance Ballads

Essay, 2012
10 Pages, Grade: 3,0


I. Introduction

In this Essay I shall argue that one can find aspects of moral education in virtually every subgenre of late medieval and renaissance ballads and that this is probably one of the main functions for the spreading of the ballads. Despite the fact that there are no real fixed and approved subgenres of ballads, I am going to divide the ballads I am working with into three different subgenres: religious ballads, supernatural ballads and romances, or to be precise, romance ballads. For each subgenre, I will present examples, which share common motifs of late medieval and renaissance ballads and can therefore be marked as traditional ballads from that specific period. Subsequently, I am going to emphasise on the particular aspect of moral education in the discussed ballad. Even though the content of most ballads is not bound to a specific country, respectively culture, but can be identified in various versions all over the world, mainly Europe and the United States, I will concentrate on the British versions of particular ballads, taken from “The Oxford Book of Ballads” edited by James Kinsley and published in 1970.

It has to be mentioned that ballads belong to a literary genre, which is commonly known as folklore or folk-tales. This fact is important to keep in mind, when, in the following, different British ballads are being analysed in terms of their morally and educational function. This is important, because, even if the content of a folk-tale or ballad can be compared cross-culturally, a distinction has to be made when it comes to its deeper meaning. That becomes obvious if one considers that folklore “'possessed by a particular folk varies from culture to culture even though historically related people share some folklore in common” (Dundes, p. 1501). Before starting with the actual presentation of examples to support my thesis, the term ballad as a component of the literary genre folklore or folk-tales needs some further explanation. An exact definition of the term is almost impossible to find, but there are, however, some features which help to distinguish ballads from other poetry and literature. According to the American scholar Henry Marvin Belden, the traditional ballad “differs from other poetry not simply in style, but in the way it is made. Not only is it anonymous, but it really has no author, at least no single author” (Belden , p. 213). Furthermore it needs to be said that ballads, as a part of a culture’s folklore, have an oral tradition as well as a written one. In terms of spreading folk-tales, the oral tradition is of much more importance. This is also an important feature, which helps to identify traditional ballads (Belden, p. 214). For the argument it is also important to deal with the question why folk-tales were told or, keeping in mind that the examined subgenre of folklore here is ballads, sung. Even though the meaning of the content of most ballads is not always easy to point out exactly (Dundes, p. 1504), there are some answers one can think of when it comes to their desired function. The common answer would be that they were ‘ first and foremost” were told for entertainment (Smith, p. 64).1 In this context they can be seen as the forerunner or the counterpart of today’s modern novel or fictional literature (Smith, p. 64). Based on that answer it can furthermore be said that ballads were sung to create emotions in its reader, respectively, in its listener or singer - positive as well as negative ones. Be that as it may, in my opinion it is much more important to recognise the function of late medieval and renaissance ballads as an educational one. The fact that ballads were widely spread and were passed on from generation to generation supports the conclusion that they not only had the function to entertain, but also to carry on some sort of moral education. To prove that thesis I will now start presenting examples from the above-mentioned subgenres of late medieval and renaissance ballads. As I mentioned earlier in this essay, my task will be to identify at least one motif in each ballad, which is considered to be typical for ballads of that period, to mark the particular ballad as a traditional one and it will be to explain what of its aspects can be seen as a sort of moral education for the contemporary culture. The essay will then be closed with a conclusion.

II. Moral Education in Late medieval and Renaissance Ballads

II. 1 Religious Ballads

Religious ballads from medieval and renaissance times are surely those, which are most expected to contain some kind of moral education. This is because they are commonly based on the bible, which means they have a literate background. One of those ballads is the one called Dives and Lazarus (Kinsley, p. 5-7). The tale with a biblical background is about the rich Dives and the poor Lazarus. In the first seven stanzas of the ballad, the latter asks Dives three times for something to eat or something to Drink:

“ Then Lazarus laid him dawn

and dawn And down at Dives ’ door:

Some meat, some drink, brother Dives,

Bestow upon the poor (Stanza 2).”

Wile the first three lines of Lazarus’ requests are always the same, the fourth differs each time. Dives, however, declines the beggar’s search for help. His answers are in the same form as Lazarus’ begging and follow the same pattern of repetition:

“Though art non of my brother, Lazarus,

That lies begging at my door,

Nor meat nor drink will I give thee

Nor bestow upon the poor (Stanza 3).”

In stanza eight and nine Dives even tries to get rid of Lazarus by sending out his “merry man ” and dogs to chase him away. Eventually, Lazarus dies in front of Dives’ house and he is than guided in to heaven “to sit on an angel’s knee” (Stanza 11). When Dives dies just one stanza later, he suffers a completely different fate. Instead of being guided to heaven, he goes to hell:

“Rise up, rise up, brother Dives,

And go with us to see

A dismal place prepared in hell

From which thou canst not flee (Stanza 13).”

In the last three stanzas, after Dives was guided into hell, he regrets that he was not willing to help the beggar Lazarus in his distress. The ballad is quite easy to identify as a traditional ballad from the middle ages. First of all, line two and four of every single stanza are linked with an alternate rhyme. A rhyme scheme is always an indicator to look out for. Another feature, which can be found quite often in traditional British ballads is the above mentioned sitting on an angel’s knee. Though it is not always the knee of an angel a character of a ballad sits on, the sitting or lying on somebody’s knee is a traditional motif of a ballad. In the case of Dives and Lazarus the aspect of moral education is also quite good to spot. The fact that the beggar Lazarus, who led a poor, but decent life, has the privilege to spent his afterlife in heaven, while Dives, who refuses to use his wealthiness to help someone less fortunate than himself is punished by everlasting damnation in hell. Obviously, the moral of the story is that those who are lucky enough to lead a wealthy life should be willing to help those who suffer from poverty, if they do not want to be punished for their greed after they have died.

II. 2 Supernatural Ballads

My first example for supernatural ballads with moral and educational function shall be The Laily Worm and the Machrel (Kinsley, p. 59-62). In this tale a young man tells the story of his life after his mother died when he was just seven years old. After her death his father married the worst (stanza 1 and 6) woman on the earth, who transformed him into a laily, or loathsome, worm and his sister Masery into a mackerel. From this day on, the mackerel visits the worm every Saturday to comb his hair. After some time the father asks his new wife where his children are and she lies to him by saying that his son is at the King’s and his daughter is at the Queen’s court. He convicts her of lying and forces her to transform his children back into humans. The retransformation works with the worm, who becomes the son again, but the mackerel refuses to be bewitched once more and stays away from her stepmother. Being furious because his wife’s deeds, the father burns her right away in the woods. Altogether, the ballad consists of fifteen stanzas, from which eleven are four lines long and four are six lines long. Each one of the shorter stanzas has an alternate rhyme linking the second and the fourth line, while the longer stanzas have an alternate rhyme linking the second, fourth and sixth line. Besides the rhyme scheme the ballad comes up with the motif of the cruel stepmother, which is often used in traditional ballads. In addition to that the motif of the knee, which was mentioned in the context of the ballad Dives and Lazarus, comes up again in stanza number three and eight:


1 Smith may be an expert on African folklore, but in his work ‘‘The Function of Folk-Tales ” he also refers to folk-tales in general.

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Moral Education as a function of British Folklore in the Form of Late-medieval and Renaissance Ballads
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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Medieval, Folklore, Folk Tales, Renaissance, Ballads, Late-medieval
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Julian Hatzig (Author), 2012, Moral Education as a function of British Folklore in the Form of Late-medieval and Renaissance Ballads, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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