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Singing the News of Death
Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900

Across Europe, from the dawn of print until the early twentieth century, the news of crime and criminals' public executions was printed in song form on cheap broadsides and pamphlets to be sold in streets and marketplaces by ballad-singers. Singing the News of Death explores how this performative medium could frame and mediate the message of punishment and repentance. Ballads were frequently written in the first-person voice, and often purported to be the last words, confession or 'dying speech' of the condemned criminal, yet they were ironically on sale the day of the execution itself! Musical notation was generally not required as ballads were set to well-known tunes. Execution ballads were therefore a medium accessible to all, regardless of literacy, social class, age, gender or location.

Examining ballads in English, French, Dutch, German, and Italian across four centuries, Una McIlvenna offers the first multilingual and longue durée study of the complex and fascinating phenomenon of popular songs about brutal public death.

With an accompanying database of recordings, Singing the News of Death brings these centuries-old songs of death back to life.

Oxford University Press, 2022

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'This is a fantastic book, wide-ranging and authoritative, a landmark in the history of European print culture and balladeering.'
- Prof Andrew Pettegree, University of St Andrews

'A must-read for scholars and students of the ballad, and attractive for students interested in the development of horror as a genre, it is also an important resource for scholars working on the psychology of crime."
- Dr. Angela McShane, University of Warwick

'With extraordinary erudition, Una McIlvenna provides an original, ambitious, and fascinating investigation into a now-vanished genre of print—the execution ballad... Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of 'true' crime, public execution, and popular song.'
- Patricia Fumerton, Distinguished Professor of English, University of California, Santa Barbara

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Scandal and Reputation at the Court of Catherine de Medici

Scandal and Reputation at the Court of Catherine de Medici explores Catherine de Medici's 'flying squadron', the legendary ladies-in-waiting of the sixteenth-century French queen mother who were alleged to have been ordered to seduce politically influential men for their mistress's own Machiavellian purposes. Branded a 'cabal of cuckoldry' by a contemporary critic, these women were involved in scandals that have encouraged a perception, which continues in much academic literature, of the late Valois court as debauched and corrupt.

Routledge, 2016

'An important study that explores how rumour and reputation were carefully constructed, circulated and controlled in the high intensity environment of the Valois court of late sixteenth-century France'

- Susan Broomhall, University of Western Australia

'McIlvenna’s careful and textured excavations of scandalous episodes reveal much about how gender and power functioned in the tumultuous
years of the Wars of Religion'

- Katherine Crawford, Vanderbilt University

'Fondé avant tout sur la littérature imprimée du temps, le livre d’Una McIlvenna met en évidence le caractère extrêmement fragile de la réputation féminine à la Renaissance.'

- Nicolas Le Roux, Université Lumière Lyon 2



The Power of Music: the Significance of Contrafactum in Execution Ballads

Past & Present 229/1 (November 2015): 47-89

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Chanteurs de rues, or Street Singers in Early Modern France

Renaissance Studies 33/1 (2019), Special Issue: Street Singers in Renaissance Europe

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When the News Was Sung: Ballads as News Media in Early Modern Europe

Media History 22/3-4 (2016) Special Issue: ‘Managing the News in Early Modern Europe’, eds. Helmer Helmers and Michiel van Groesen: 1-17

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The Rich Merchant Man, or, What the Punishment of Greed Sounded Like in Early Modern English Ballads

Huntington Library Quarterly 79, no. 2 (Summer 2016) Special Issue: 'Living English Broadside Ballads, 1550-1750: Song, Art, Dance, Culture', eds. Patricia Fumerton and Megan Palmer-Browne: 279-299

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