The ballad

6 key features to recognize romance as a literary genre 

- Definition

- Origin

- Features

- Characters

- Themes

- Famous ballads


The ballad is a short narrative, told in verse.

The word ballad derives from ballare (a Latin word for to dance) 

  • from Old French ballade "dancing song" (13th century)
  • from Old Provençal ballada "(poem for a dance)
  • from Late Latin ballare "to dance"

Originally the ballad was a song intended to accompany a dance, later its definition became: "a short narrative poem suitable for singing" (17th century).


Ballads were very popular during the Middle Ages and are still. The English and Scottish ballads are mainly from the 15th and 16th centuries. When ballad production dwindled in the 15th century, ballads started to be printed and underwent transformations since they had been transmitted from verbal memory. Only some ballads were preserved and then recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The ballads were compositions meant for the common people. They were an important source of popular entertainment. They were transmitted by word of mouth. They were mainly about local heroes and battles.

We do not really know whether the ballads were composed by minstrels or were the result of a collective activity. What we may infer is that their production was the result of a rather unconscious literary process by people who shared common life habits.


Since the ballad was a popular artistic expression, its structure was quite simple and not rigid. It tended to imitate the the way of speaking of the common man.

It was used to tell a story in a simple language, usually an incomplete tragic story which involved death and a supernatural element. It left much to imagination in its simplicity.

The ballads had to be easy to memorize: they were arranged in four-line stanzas containing musical characteristics (rhyme, rhythm). They were very often in the form of a dialogue with repeated phrases and a very simple verse form consisting of four lines, commonly rhyming a b c b with three or four stresses per line, which allowed the audience to participate. They also contained a refrain.

The focus was on love, treachery and adventure.


All classes were represented, but we can trace some traditional characters such as the common man, the noble, the lover, the old woman, the little child.


While the epic poems presented situations affecting a nation or a clan, the ballad reported instead episodes that affected an individual or a family. It mainly dealt with love, local legends/ heroes, supernatural happenings, religious stories.

Famous ballads

Many ballads about Robin Hood and his Merry men have come down to us. They are idealized and described as imaginary emanations of the Anglo-Saxon common people. Those ballads belong to the Robin Hood Cycle.

Edward Edward is about a murder. It is a conversation between Edward and his mother. In each stanza she asks him to tell the truth about the blood on his sword. His answer is always that he murdered some animals. In the end he confesses he killed his father.

Lord Randal is a conversation between Lord Randall and his mother. It turns out that he went out hunting with his hawks and hounds, he met his true-love in the woods, he had dinner with her, she fed him eels. When he gets home, he is weary with hunting and wants to lie down. He is sick. His hawks and hounds that had eaten the leftovers died. The eels were poisoned. His mother understands he was poisoned too. Before dying Lord Randal leaves all his possessions to his relatives. There is even something for his true-love: "hell and fire."

How to recognize a ballad?

I found that a PPT presentation is an excellent  didactic tool to display the origins of ballad, its definition and features. The presentation also contains a  slide which sums the characteristics of the ballad up, all in one place. Some examples of ballad are provided.

A bibliography for further research is available.

Since the first step to analyze a poem is understanding its content, you should read it several times. 

LnT features texts and wordlists of two Medieval ballads for you:

Lord Randal

Edward Edward

LnT proposes a text analysis of the two ballads aforementioned as well:

Lord Randal

Edward Edward


LnT suggests

LnT  If you want to further explore the ballad as a genre Encyclopedia Britannica is a great choice. Albert B. Friedman writes about the ballad's  narrative basis, oral transmission, composition theories and much more (

LnT   The best way to learn recite a poem is to sing it. 

                                     Lord Randal sung and illustrated at (

                                     Edward Edward (

LnT   Bob Dylan adapted Lord Randal (

LnT   For your ears only: Fabrizio de André sings Geordie, an adaptation of an ancient English ballad (