The ballad

6 key features to recognize the ballad 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 meaning "to dance" [1].

  • from Old French ballade "dancing song" (13th century)
  • from Old Provençal ballada "(poem for a dance)
  • from Late Latin ballare "to dance"[1]

Originally, ballads were songs intended to accompany a dance. In the 17th century, the definition evolved to mean "a short narrative poem suitable for singing "[3].


Ballads were very popular during the Middle Ages and continue to be so today. The English and Scottish ballads from the 15th and 16th centuries are particularly well-known [2]. As ballad production decreased in the 15th century, ballads began to be printed and underwent changes as they were passed down through oral tradition. Only a select number of ballads were preserved and recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries [2].

Ballads were created for and by the common people and served as a significant source of popular entertainment. They were passed down through oral tradition. Many ballads were about local heroes and battles, but the origins of their composition remains uncertain [2].


Since the ballad was a popular artistic expression, its structure was quite simple and not rigid. It tends to imitate the way of speaking of the common people [3].

It was used to tell a story in a simple language, usually an incomplete tragic story which involved death and a supernatural element. They leave much to the imagination with their simplicity [3].

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 [3].

The focus of ballads is often 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, ballads instead focus on episodes that affect an individual or a family. It mainly dealt with love, local legends/ heroes, supernatural happenings, religious stories .[3]

Famous ballads

Many ballads about Robin Hood and his Merry men have come down to us. They are idealized and are believed to be an expression of the Anglo-Saxon common people. Those ballads belong to the Robin Hood Cycle .[3]

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 [4].

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".






List of vocabulary from the text with definitions:

  • Ballad: A short narrative poem, typically told in verse.
  • Ballare: A Latin word meaning "to dance."
  • Old French: A language spoken in France during the 14th-17th century.
  • Old Provençal: A Romance language spoken in the south of France in the Middle Ages.
  • Middle Ages: The period of European history between the 5th and 15th centuries.
  • Verbal memory: The act of remembering something through spoken or oral tradition.
  • Minstrel: A medieval poet-musician who composed and recited poetry and sang songs in a court or noble setting.
  • Collective activity: A group effort or undertaking.
  • Popular artistic expression: A form of art that is widely enjoyed or accepted by the general public.
  • Supernatural element: Something that is not natural, or not able to be explained by science or the laws of nature.
  • Refrain: A phrase or line that is repeated throughout a song or poem.
  • Love: A strong feeling of affection or attachment towards someone.
  • Treachery: Betrayal of trust or confidence.
  • Adventure: An exciting or dangerous experience.
  • Epic poem: A long narrative poem that tells the story of a great hero or event.
  • Nation: A large group of people who share the same culture, history, and language.
  • Clan: A group of people who are related by blood or marriage.
  • Local legends: Folktales or stories passed down through generations in a specific geographic area.
  • Religious stories: Narratives or tales that are based on religious beliefs or traditions.
  • Robin Hood: A legendary outlaw from English folklore.
  • Merry Men: The band of outlaws who assisted Robin Hood in his exploits.
  • Idealized: Represented in a way that is perfect or ideal, rather than as it is in reality.
  • Anglo-Saxon: An ethnic group that inhabited England before the Norman Conquest in 1066.
  • Cycle: A series of related works or events.
  • Lord Randal: The title of a traditional ballad from Scotland.
  • Poisoned: Made ill or killed by consuming a toxic substance.

A bibliography for further research:

Here is a list of some books that could be useful for further research on the topic of ballads:

  1. "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" by Francis James Child - This five-volume collection, first published in the late 19th century, is considered one of the most important works on the subject of ballads. It includes transcriptions and analysis of over 300 traditional ballads from England and Scotland.

  2. "The Ballad and the Folk" by T. M. Devine - This book provides a detailed examination of the ballad tradition in Scotland and its relationship to the development of the Scottish nation.

  3. "The Ballad and Oral Literature" by J. W. Childs - This book is a comprehensive introduction to the study of ballads and oral literature, exploring the history and development of the ballad form and its connection to oral tradition.

  4. "The Ballad as Song" by David Buchan - This book explores the relationship between ballads and song, examining how ballads have been adapted and performed in different musical contexts throughout history.

  5. "The Cambridge Companion to the Ballad" edited by Henry John Wrenn - This collection of essays by leading scholars covers the history, cultural significance, and literary merit of the ballad form, as well as its relationship to song, performance, and oral tradition.

These are just a few examples of the many books available on the topic of ballads. It's also worth checking out scholarly articles and journals, as well as online resources, for more information.

LnT suggests

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  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 

                                     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.

LnT The Unquiet Grave by Joan Baez

LnT   Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel

LnT   The Lament of the Blacksmith by Planxty

LnT   The Bonny Swans by Loreena McKennitt