The Medieval ballad
The word “ballad” derives from the Latin “ballare” and it was used to describe this kind of medieval poetry structured in rhymed meters that was recited or sung to a simple instrumental accompaniment by common people in beer halls or fairs.
Popular ballads were written between the 13th and 14th century and were anonymous. They were narrative poems that usually told of a single situation in a dramatic and impersonal way and were written in short stanzas of 2-4 lines. The story was not told as a continuous series of events but as consecutive rapid episodes. They often contained a lot of dialogues and used simple language so that everyone could understand it and focus on the story-line. They also used the “incremental repetition techniques” which means that each new stanza would repeat the one before but adding a piece of new information about the plot. The ballads were rich in the description of the heroes but they usual lacked happy endings and any didactic approach.
The ballads could develop different themes and so we can distinguish among ballads of magic, of love and of domestic tragedy, but also ballads of the outlaws (the most famous of which is the story of Robin Hood) and the border ballads which told about the enmity between the English and Scottish people.
The medieval popular ballads were collected and then published by Bishop Percy in the “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” in 1765.
Other types of ballads were the literary ones, which were imitations of the popular ones but written by learned poets, and modern popular ones in which traditional stories were fitted to contemporary conditions (such as in the US or in Australia).