Expensive and laborious to produce, a single woodcut could be recycled to illustrate scores of different ballads, each new home imbuing the same image with often wildly diverse meanings. Katie Sisneros explores this interplay of repetition, context, and meaning, and how in it can be seen a parallel to meme culture of today.
In a dramatic 1609 news pamphlet entitled Newes from Sea, of two notorious Pyrates Ward the Englishman and Danseker the Dutchman, one particularly thrilling story about two of the most infamous pirates in Early Modern Europe unfolds from the perspective of the English merchants who witnessed it. John Ward and Simon Danseker were household names in England: the two pirates served as mercenaries on Turkish ships that ransacked trading ships from Christian nations like England, Spain, and France. In this printed account, English traders aboard the ship Charity watched with horror as a Turkish ship, captained by John Ward, overtook a French ship on the high seas. The account states: “our eies were made witnesses that they tooke the Merchant and the Master, and hanged them uppe at their yard armes…the pittifulnesse of which spectacle, we being in the view of beholding, would have compelled any but such hated villaines, even with teares for to have lamented.”
Featured prominently on the title page of the pamphlet is that very scene: an English ship nose-to-nose with a Turkish ship (evidenced by the crescent moon flags and turban-wearing men) and two unfortunate human figures hanging gruesomely by their necks from the mast of the ship. The image perfectly encapsulates the harrowing moment.
In all likelihood, the woodblock that produced the imprint featured on the pamphlet was created specifically for that text. But it was far from a one time use illustration. Between 1609 and 1617 the woodblock either changed hands or was lent, from Edward Allde to George Eld, who employed it in 1617 in another news pamphlet that told a similarly harrowing tale of English merchants battling bravely against a horde of Turkish pirate ships. Although A fight at sea, famously fought by the Dolphin of London against fiue of the Turkes men of warre, and a satty the 12. Of Ianuary last 1616 does not mention a grisly double hanging in its text, the reuse of the woodcut was perfectly logical and thematically appropriate. As the century drew on, however, this woodblock would go through some dramatic changes. Its representational function would morph over time as it changed owners and began to be used primarily to illustrate broadside ballads. These two ships would reemerge time and time again on printed ballads, each time in a different context and performing a different representational function.