John Balshaw's Jigge
Dr Jenni Hyde | Lancaster University & Lancaster's Regional Heritage Centre
This month, Dr Jenni Hyde, in partnership with Lancaster’s Regional Heritage Centre, is staging a performance of John Balshaw’s Jigge. It will be performed in the small Lancashire village of Brindle – the same place where it was written 350 years ago. Drawing on her expertise of early modern musical culture, Dr Jenni Hyde is reconstructing the jig from a unique manuscript to bring it to audiences for what may be the first time.
EPOCH spoke to Jenni about her experience of bringing the Jigge to life, and the light it can shed on the culture of the north of England in the first few years of the Restoration.
Can you tell us a little about the Jigge? (What is a jig, and who was John Balshaw?)
Probably the best way to think of it is as a piece of early modern musical theatre. As a genre, the Jigge is a form of popular entertainment that combined singing, acting and sometimes dancing too. All of the ‘script’ is sung to ballad tunes, which would have been recognisable melodies in their day – lots of people would have been familiar with them.
The thing is that John Balshaw’s Jigge is the latest complete example that we have of this type of entertainment. Jigges were really popular in the Elizabethan period, but became rather outdated in the capital in the 17th century. We know, though, that they hung on in the north-west of England until at least the late 18th century.
John Balshaw’s Jigge seems to have been written in the early Restoration period. We can’t date it precisely, but my guess is that he composed it sometime in the early 1660s. It certainly can’t be from any earlier than that because it refers to the return of Charles II from exile and the end of the Interregnum.
But one of the reasons we can’t be sure of its date is that we don’t know anything much about John Balshaw himself. We know he lived in the small Lancashire village of Brindle, near Preston, and from the Jigge’s text we can infer that he was, like most of Brindle’s inhabitants, a royalist during the civil wars. There is some evidence that he might have been a Catholic recusant too, but it’s very difficult to be sure because the records from the period are so patchy.
How did you first come across the Jigge?
I found the Jigge in the British Library back in 2017 when I was on a fairly routine research trip. I was simply calling up any manuscript from the Tudor or Stuart period that had the word ‘ballad’ in their catalogue entry! I can remember being really taken with it when I saw it, as it’s such a tangible reflection of the amount of work that someone put into the piece – it’s quite obviously laid out on the page to look like a printed pamphlet – but it also struck a chord because it’s local to me. I live only a few miles as the crow flies from where it was written.
I was stunned when I realised later that it had never been worked on, despite it being acquired by the British Library in 1988. Not only was there no print edition, it only got a passing reference in a single book. But I was doing a lot of teaching at the time, and I didn’t get to sit down and really digest it until a couple of years later. When I did, I realised that although it had the flimsy plot and comedy that are often associated with Jigges, it also had some really strong underlying themes of social dislocation related to the civil war. The royalists are down on their luck, running out of money and facing the confiscation of their lands for their continued loyalty to the exiled king, while the parliamentarians have risen to wealth and power through service to Oliver Cromwell.
What are the challenges of reconstructing something not performed in hundreds of years?
The main problem we’ve had is that although the Jigge names the tunes to which it should be sung, not all of them survive. Because most of the tunes were passed on from person to person in the oral tradition, many tunes from the period were never written down and as they fell out of use, they disappeared. Even when they do survive, they can go by different names at different times. There are five tunes used in the Jigge, and only with two can I be confident that the tunes are the correct ones. For the other three, I looked for possible matches. The main thing here is to pick something that has the correct metre and that I know was in circulation at the time, but we can also look for other possible links.
Another challenge has been the fact that we simply don’t know whether or not it was ever performed, and if so, where it would have been. If it were put on, it would probably have been in the home of a local landowner – so what we would think of today as a country house or small stately home. But it’s quite possible that our performance is going to be the world premiere!
What can restaging historical performances offer as a research methodology?
Obviously there are all the practical things to think about. There are simple things, such as the way full skirts and petticoats need more space to get on and off stage, and indeed where that stage itself might have been – would the performers have been raised up on staging at all or would it have been performed ‘in the round’?
But I think the main thing that you get through performance is a sense of the emotional impact of the way that music and drama come together. Actually getting embodied human voices to interact with one another to sing the piece is very different to reading the script on the page.
In fact, one of the most interesting things has been to work out how some tunes, which were previously thought to be unsingable because the music appeared to be incomprehensible, actually turn out just to have simple mistakes such as missing bar lines in the music! That’s something that I’ve only discovered by preparing the Jigge for performance – I didn’t spot it when I put the musical scores together for the book. It really has led to new insights into the fallibility of early modern printers who were trying to print music that presumably they themselves couldn’t actually read. It makes a huge difference when you try to sing the piece right through, and have to work out how others might be able to make the words fit and the tune make sense, rather than just reading the words and looking at the music on a page. More than ever, it’s made me passionate about looking at songs as precisely that – a combination of words and music that were intended to be performed and heard by human beings who would have felt their emotional impact.
Tickets for John Balshaw’s Jigge are available here.
Dr Jenni Hyde is Lecturer in Early Modern History at Lancaster University. She is a Trustee and Fellow of the Historical Association and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Her first book, Singing the News: Ballads in Mid-Tudor England, was published in 2018 by Routledge while her critical edition of John Balshaw’s Jigge: Revelry and Royalism in Restoration Lancashire, appeared in 2021. Other work has appeared in Renaissance Studies, History, and the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. She is a former music teacher, a classically-trained soprano, and a keen folk singer.