Tabloid journalism, circa 1640

Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions differs from most of the other studies of the rise of the novel that I have read in being much more interested in form than content. It asks, in essence, how did the novel get to be the novel? In one chapter, Davis deals with the role played by ballads in the 16th and 17th centuries, presenting them as an early form of news broadcast, a way in which word of various events was disseminated amongst the population at large with unprecedented rapidity and immediacy. Criminal lives and deaths were a particularly popular subject, and the more gruesome the details, the better. Here* is an account of the execution of a man convicted of treason:

    His Belly ripped open wide, his Bowel all he gat.
    And to the fire he straight
         them threwe which ready there was made:
    And there consumed all to dust, as is the fire’s trade.
    His head cut off, the Hangman then, did take it up
        in hand:
    And up alofte he did showe, to all that there did stand.
    And then his body in four parts was quartered in that
      place:
    More pity that his traitorous heart, could take no
      better grace.

It doesn’t seem that this particular branch of journalism has changed much in the last 400 years. You can almost hear the ballad-seller, can’t you? “Our ballads get you closer than ever before! As if YOU were one of those that there did stand!”

(*Davis reproduces this ballad from Ballads And Broadsides, edited by Herbert Collman [1912])

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