This item is a two page broadside ballad called ‘The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow’, printed around 1670 (based on the active dates of the printer and seller).

‘The Mad Merry Pranks’ has the lyrics for a song in the voice of Robin Goodfellow. It opens: ‘From Obrion (sic) in Fairy Land, / the King of Ghosts and Shaddows there, / Mad Robin, I at his Command, / am sent to view the Night-sports here’. The lyrics seem to have been influenced by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with some echoes of the conversation between Robin and the Fairy in Act 2, Scene 1, and Robin’s speech while chasing the mechanicals in Act 3, Scene 1 just before he transforms Bottom. The ballad describes misleading wanderers, ‘Through Woods, through Lakes, / Through Bogs, through Brakes / O’re Bush and Bryer’, and shapeshifting: ‘Sometimes I meet them like Man, / sometimes an Ox, sometimes a Hound’. The same text is found in other broadsides (printed by other printers and with different woodcuts) from throughout the 17th century. These can be found on the University of California’s English Broadside Ballad Archive.

The ballad is set to the tune of ‘Dulcina’, which was a popular tune of the day. The broadside has three woodcuts depicting Robin Goodfellow: the first shows him as a Green Man or man of the woods, hairy and covered with leaves; the second shows him in a faun-like guise in a woodcut recycled from an earlier jestbook on Robin Goodfellow; the third woodcut shows him in a mystical costume decorated with stars and moons (or perhaps even naked and covered with star and moon tattoos).

What is a broadside ballad?

Broadside ballads are lively narrative verses or songs, printed cheaply on single sheets and often illustrated with woodcuts. They were recited and sung to familiar melodies in alehouses and public places, and were circulated widely in early modern Britain. 

The Bagford Ballads

This item is from the Bagford Ballads collection. John Bagford (1651–1716) was a shoemaker turned book-collector who was commissioned to collect ballads by Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford. Robert Harley was a great collector and patron of the arts and his collection is one of the foundation collections of the British Library.