Trained as a scholar of high-toned literary narrative, Mr. Friedman found himself unable to resist the proletarian bustle of the ballads, sung narratives that were composed and transmitted orally by generations of unlettered bards. “Ballads are songs or performances, not poems,” Mr. Friedman wrote in his introduction to “The Viking Book of Folk Ballads.” “They are not literature, but illiterature.” And gripping illiterature they are. Mothers murder newborns. Girlfriends poison sweethearts. Women are seduced by demons. There is a great deal of sex, and it almost always ends badly, as in “Lizie Wan,” in which a brother reacts excessively on learning he has impregnated his sister:
And he has drawn his gude braid sword
That hang down by his knee.
And he has cutted aff Lizie Wan’s head,
And her fair body in three.
Friedman is best known for editing the anthology The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World . Readers of this blog may be interested to know that, back in the day, many of my own research interests were propelled by The Weekly World News, a rag of a newspaper filled with pseudoscience, pseudoarcheology, and the most interesting fantasies about the past. But that newspaper had nothing on Lizie Wan's brother and his hacking broadsword. Then again, had the baby been born, this case of incest may have enabled oh, say, a pope like the mythical Gregory.*
*On Gregory and [maternal] incest see John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 373; Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) and Thomas Hahn, "The Medieval Oedipus," Comparative Literature 32 (1980), 225-37.