Broadside Ballads and Chapbooks

Discover adventure stories from the early 16th-19th centuries featuring gender non-conforming characters

The Woman Warrier (1683/1716) by Charles BatesNational Library of Scotland

Rules upon rules

Throughout history, societies have always had rules on how men and women should dress. And throughout history there have always been those who have broken them. These broadsides and chapbooks show us fictionalised stories of these people.

The Maiden-Warrier (1672/1696) by Philip BrooksbyNational Library of Scotland

What are Broadside Ballads and Chapbooks?

Broadside Ballads and Chapbooks were the mass-produced popular culture of their day. A broadside is a sheet printed on one side and chapbooks were a sheet of paper folded to make a small booklet. They often contained short, entertaining stories.

The Woman Warrier (1683/1716) by Charles BatesNational Library of Scotland

Who was the gender non-conforming woman?

The figure of the gender non-conforming woman was a common trope in these items. It was often used to allow female characters to go on adventures, poke fun at the men in the stories, communicate a moral concept or display ‘masculine characteristics'.

How were their motives presented?

A key aspect of portraying the gender non-conforming woman was to present a motivation for her actions. She couldn’t just dress like a man simply because she enjoyed it. There had to be another underlying reason to make her behaviour acceptable.

The Female Sailor (1835) by Printed and published by J PittsNational Library of Scotland

What were the outcomes?

Women with acceptable motives often survived these narratives, while the few who died were honoured in death. However, women without such motives were often the subject of violence and humiliation. Let’s look at some examples of how women's behaviour was depicted in ballads.

The Famous Flower of Serving Men (1700/1730) by Philip Brooksby,Jonah Deacon, Josiah Blare, John BackNational Library of Scotland

For safety

After the death of her husband, this fictional Lady takes a gamble by dressing as a man to travel more safely and get a job at the King’s court. Luckily after the King finds out who she is, he falls in love with her and she becomes Queen of the Kingdom.

Five Excellent New Songs (1800) by Printed by J. MorrenNational Library of Scotland

For the nation

In this chapbook, a female drummer enlists in the army disguised as a man. Despite being discovered and settling down with a husband, she swears to re-join the army if Britain ever needs more men in its fight against the French.

The Pretty Green-Coat Boy's Garland (1790) by UnknownNational Library of Scotland

For love

This fictional farmer’s daughter dresses as a man to become a page (a kind of apprentice) and follow her lover after his father banishes him for falling in love outside his class. The story ends happily with them returning home and getting married with the father's blessing.

The Female Highway Hector (1690) by Charles BatesNational Library of Scotland

For money

This ballad follows its protagonist as she dresses up as a highwayman and robs the various characters she encounters. The story doesn’t end well though and she is attacked after another highwayman discovers her identity.

The Valarous Acts Performed by Gaunt (1681/1684)National Library of Scotland

For revenge

Mary Ambree was a common ballad subject. She was said to have fought in the battle to capture Ghent from the Spanish in the 16th century. Many ballads link her decision to fight with a desire to take revenge for the death of her lover who was killed by the Spanish.

Cheat upon Cheat (1664/1706) by Josiah BlareNational Library of Scotland

For unknown reasons

Some ballads do avoid the reasons behind their protagonist’s actions. This ballad never gives a proper answer as to why its protagonist took up a male identity and married a woman. Protagonists like this often suffer social humiliation in the story. 

The Valorous Acts performed [...] (1700) by Printed by and for W. O. and sold by C. Bates, in Pye[-corner]National Library of Scotland

Everything changes?

The details of societal rules for dress might have changed, however, their existence has not. While not written in a familiar style for us today, these stories prompt us to think about contemporary conventions and those who break them.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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