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

Winner of the 2023 Katharine Briggs Award

from the Folklore Society

Judges' Comments:

‘A rich, meticulously researched and highly readable survey of execution ballads from England, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. Extensive primary source material is thoughtfully interpreted in order to highlight the role of song in communicating news, social values and shifting mores in early modern Western Europe.’

Shortlisted for the 2023 NSW Premier's General History Prize

Judges' Comments:

'Singing the News of Death is a masterful history of the purpose and persistence of execution ballads in western Europe from the 1500s into the late nineteenth century. In this definitive account, McIlvenna reveals how these ballads were published and performed to disseminate news about crime and punishment, as well as to tell listeners about the importance of faith, the dangers of sin and the need to adhere to authority. Readers experience the emotional texture and vicarious nature of the songs while learning how they transcended class, gender, literacy level and location during a time of sweeping change across Europe.  

Built on painstaking multilingual research in English, French, Italian, German and Dutch archives, McIlvenna expertly combines visual, textual and lyrical sources to bring to life these popular songs of (often brutal) death. Firmly grounded in broader histories of crime and print culture, Singing the News of Death offers an innovative comparative analysis of a cultural phenomenon that was intimately intertwined with European rituals of execution.'

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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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