Singing the News of Death: Song in Early Modern European Execution (1500-1900)

This project looks at the use of ballads in accounts of executions across early modern Europe, revealing how their highly stylised form not only broadcast details of an execution but also encouraged the public's participation in the spectacle of punishment.

Singing the News of Death: Song in Early Modern European Execution (1500-1900)

Printed on cheap broadsides and pamphlets, and often in the first-person voice of the condemned prisoner, execution ballads detailed the crime as well as the punishment in highly emotive, moralising language and were often sold on the day of execution itself. As news ballads, they functioned as multi-purpose, multivalent texts: combining news, entertainment and moral lesson in a format designed for maximum dissemination. Sold by itinerant peddlers who would sing the contents of the broadsides, the performance and its power to stimulate emotion in the listener – whether horror, sympathy, fear or anger – was central to the marketability of the product. Furthermore, the purchaser of a ballad could learn the lyrics and re-perform the details to those not present at the execution, adding his/her own layer of meaning through performance. Musical notation was generally not required as the songs were set to well-known tunes. By examining how emotions associated with familiar tunes could be transferred to, or subverted by, the words of the new version, this project reveals how music, balladry and performance played an integral role in the public's perception of crime and punishment.


McIlvenna, U. ‘Singing of Executions: Ballads as News Media in Early Modern Europe’. In Singing Emotions: Voices from History. ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, 2012.

McIlvenna, U. Parergon 31.2. Special Issue: ‘Medieval and Early Modern Emotional Responses to Death and Dying’, co-edited with Rebecca McNamara (Dec 2014).

McIlvenna, U. ‘The Power of Music: the Significance of Contrafactum in Execution Ballads’. Past and Present 229.1 (2015): 47–89.

McIlvenna, U. ‘Ballads of Death and Disaster: The Role of Song in Early Modern News Transmission’.  In Disaster, Death and the Emotions in the Shadow of the Apocalypse, 1400–1700, edited by Charles Zika and Jenny Spinks, pp. 275–94. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Selected Presentations

McIlvenna, U. ‘Selling Ballads About Execution and Death in the Urban Environment’, ‘The Body and the City 1100–1800: Violence Workshop’, Monash University, 29 May 2017.