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The Representation of Old Age in Early Modern Ballads

Hannah Johnson

The study of old age in the early-modern period is an area that has received less attention that many others, though recent studies have helped fill the gap. Importantly, an awareness has emerged of how the different ways of defining old age, chronologically, functionally and culturally, have an impact on the understanding of ageing in the early-modern period. There are now many works covering the socio- economic history of old age, but few of these have contributed to our understanding of the popular perceptions of old age. This study uses early modern broadside ballads as a source of ‘popular’ opinion on the subject of old age. Eighty-eight ballads from the late seventeenth-century were examined to identify any patterns in the representations of old age. Analysis was divided into three parts: an investigation of the narrative storylines associated with the old; a comparison of the characteristics of old age in ballads with those found in the conduct literature; and an analysis of the woodcut imagery of the old in the context of the ballad texts. The study found that the old were represented in a limited number of ways and often negatively, especially in the groups of narratives that had similar, repetitive themes, here termed ‘stock narratives’. The main thematic narrative groupings were the ‘May- December marriage’, the remarrying old woman, and parent-child conflicts. These stock narratives often involve ‘stock’ characters, such as the doting old man, the lusty widow and the old miser. There are also other, more specific narratives and characters that are not so restricted in their behaviour or characteristics, here termed ‘non-stock’, and these often represent the old more positively and are more likely to end happily. The images revealed a limited range of representations, especially for women, though a previous suggestion that all old women were represented as witches is questioned in this analysis. The study suggests that ‘stock’ woodcut images may have more to offer than previously thought, as a pattern in the use of one particular stock image has been identified. This study has used ballads to illuminate early-modern perceptions of age and has demonstrated the importance of further systematic analysis of ballads as a vital source of information about the early-modern period.

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