Titles can be so deceiving. This post is not about Medieval ballads at all, but about ballads from a book by that name. The oldest ballad in the book is fifteenth century (borderline Medieval) and most are much later.
The reason the introductions to ballads are interesting is because the themes in many of them occupy some of the same cultural turf as the chansons de geste did, rather earlier. Some, not all. Both genres are ways in which people could enjoy aspects of the past that meant a lot in the wider culture. Like speculative fiction or historical fiction today, the writer/composer/whatever of the work would draw upon themes and expand their meaning and help retain the currency of an idea, or reshape it to fit the time.
So all the ballads I am looking at refer to old events new-told. This is important in light of the discussion on crossing genres at deborahb
's blog. Choice of subject is one of the indicators of genre, and if you use material that is egregious to that genre then your introduction had better do something to get the readers interested or you will lose them. The subject matter proper to ballads in general was material with wide cultural currency, ranging from betrayed lovers, to Robin Hood tales, to highwaymen. Cool stuff. Fun stuff. Popular stuff.
Let's start with Robin Hood. "A Gest of Robin Hood" - despite the name - had not much in common with the chanson de geste. It is 459 lines long (lai long as opposed to yay long - and yes, that is my bad joke for the day) and has a strict verse form. Calling it a gest, though, suggests an action-tale based on history, and that is what we are given. The introduction reinforces this.
"Hearken and listen, gentlemen,
That be of freeborn blood:
I shall tell you of a good yeoman,
His name is Robin Hood."
The call is to listeners who are free and of a certain class. This is quite different to the seigneurs call in the chansons de geste, though still a "Sit right back and hear a tale" type intro. Not lords and ladies, but yeomen. 'Yeomen' is as much a keyword for what is to come as a reflection of audience. Maybe more a genre indicator, in fact, than an address to a specific crowd. The audience to these ballads ranged quite widely as far as I know. What this means is that the call in the introduction is a conscious flourish - recalling the ancient ways and saying "This is where my story belongs."
According to the introduction to the ballad, by Gwendolyn Morgan, this is one of the fifteenth century ballads. Chansons de geste were still known in the fifteenth century, but considered rather more literary than three hundred years earlier. So the Robin Hood writer was partly piggybacking on the chanson de geste to get its reputation. Morgan suggests that the writer was also using the form of Arthurian tales. The vocabulary is purely English and more modern, however. It tells the audience "I am borrowing from these roots, but my tale is modern and hip and you had better not miss it."
Another outlaw tale is "Adam Bell, Clim O' the Clough, and William of Cloudesly". Lots of derring do with bow and arrow. Compared with the Robin Hood tale, however, there is no harking back at the beginning. The introduction, in fact, uses the popular notion of outlawry and associations with the greenwood, when it says "Merry it was in the green forest,/Among the leaves so green/Where men walk both east and west/With bows and arrows keen."
I have to admit, as intros go, it is not exciting. It tells us what needs to be said - we know it is Robin Hoodlike and has archery and outlaws. They are such a strong combination that it is tempting to read on, just to find out how it is handled. The second stanza mentions yeomen, jut in case we haven't got the message. 'Yeoman' is a trigger word, just as much as 'green' is and 'bows' and 'arrows'. These keywords and this tale piggyback on Robin Hood the way the Gest of Robin Hood piggy backed on chansons de geste.
And that is the way of popular themes: you might be writing history's most innovative approach to that theme, but unless you let your readers clearly know that their favourite theme is the one you are using, you have lost some of their interest. And even a third rate work can get a bigger audience if it uses a popular theme. Yes, I have a book in mind. A best-seller, in fact. I am just not game to name it after recent blog-events. I am sure you can think of a massively popular book that gets a vast audience by effectively exploiting rabidly popular themes without needing to contain much of literary merit. (And I regret that last sentence in *so* many ways.)
The last ballad is an Arthur one. And it clearly tells us so. "King Arthur lives in fair Carlisle/ And seemly is to see". This is lovely. It tells us so directly that this is going to be a tale we already know that I find myself nodding every time I read - a few stanzas in - that Arthur wants to know what "a woman will most desire." The reader becomes the child in class who gets excited and says "I know, Miss!! Pick me!!" This is the great virtue of the well-known tales. The reader can nod and agree, or get angry, or amused, or act superior - they are emotionally involved in the story. By making this clear in the introduction, reader-involvement starts from line one.