updated 13 November 1995

EOL: Magrini article

2. The Narrative Function of Ballads

Topics of Italian ballads
Narrative characteristics

Ballads tell a story. "A story describes a sequence of actions and experiences of a certain number of characters, whether real or imaginary. These characters are represented in situations which change or to the changes of which they react. These changes, in turn, reveal hidden aspects of the situation and the characters, giving rise to a new predicament which calls for thought or action or both. The response to this predicament brings the story to its conclusion" (Ricoeur 1981:277). Since narrative is so essential to ballads, it deserves careful attention, since "narrative is one of the most widespread and powerful forms of speech in human communication" (Bruner 1992:81).

Narratives are the best means to express and communicate one's perception of oneself, others, and external reality. Recalling Wittgenstein's vocabulary, Ricoeur suggests that, "if narrating is a unique 'language-game,' and if a language game 'is part of an activity or a form of life,' then we must ask to which form of life narrative discourse as a whole is bound" (Ricoeur 1981: 274). Ricoeur says that any narrative is endowed with an episodic dimension, the dimension of time, which is expressed in the succession of events; and a non-chronological dimension, which constructs "meaningful totalities out of scattered events." An essential aspect, "the art of narrating, as well as the corresponding art of following a story, ... require that we are able to extract a configuration from a succession" (ibid:278).

Narrative may be considered as the outcome of an act of interpretation which gives meaning to a sequence of actions. In ballads, narrative is essential and emphasizes above all a skeleton of events which are connected and describe patterns of behavior related to events. These patterns help the narrator and audience to perceive reality by describing what a certain type of man or woman would do in certain situations. Female ballad singers emphasize the value of patterns assigned to ballad narratives by taking a detached view, denying emotional involvement through verbal choices and singing style. This impersonal performance style seems related to the impersonality of ballad narratives. They are not dependent on ordinary chronicles or anecdotes as in Italian broadside ballads, for example.

Narrative ballads are emblematic rather than historical. But fictional narratives assist us to be "in history" and emphasize our need to cope imaginatively with reality. "By its mimetic intention, the world of fiction leads us to the heart of the real world of action" (Ricoeur:298).

Topics of Italian ballads

One can examine the topics of the Italian ballads, referring to the comprehensive and celebrated Nigra's collection, which includes most ballads actually sung in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unlike North-European ballads, the Italian repertoire has no magic elements (1), or episodes from epic literature. Nigra has only a few stories about men and most of those men are social undesirables: a deserter, no. 27; card-players, no. 22; violent students, no. 5; prisoners, no. 47, for example.

Most ballads widespread in Northern Italy cited in Nigra were stories of women and usually about the relationship between women and men.

Topics can be categorized into five main groups.

1. Violence done by a man to a woman
The most narrated type of violence is abduction, e.g., nos. 14-16, 32, 40, 43, 44, 50, 53, often followed by suicide of the woman to avoid rape (2). Other plots deal with men raping (nos. 4, 51, 79) and killing women (no. 12), or with jealous husbands or lovers murdering innocent women (nos. 6, 29, 36). In others, husbands mistreat their wives and waste their dowry (nos. 35, 95, 96, 55) (3). In this group, we can include also "Un'eroina" ("A heroine"), no.13, whose lyrics resemble those of the English ballad, "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight," although no supernatural being appears in the Italian version. Unlike other narratives in this group, "Un'eroina" has a happy ending. The woman marries a man who then reveals his will to murder her, but succeeds in killing her husband.
2. Women betrayed
A woman is betrayed and/or abandoned by her lover (nos. 24, 93), husband (no. 42), or by an authority, such as no. 3, the well known and widespread "Cecilia," in which the woman tries to save her prisoner husband. She is betrayed by the captain, who first promises to save the husband in exchange for a night with her, but then murders him.
3. Forbidden love The family forbids love between a young man and a young woman (nos. 7, 8, 18, 19, 20, 37, 41, 45, 46, 49, 63, 99) and the story usually ends with death of one or both lovers. This common plot typically describes the conflict of a young woman with authority, generally represented by the father, because of love (4). A happy ending of this kind of story appears, for example, in "Il genovese" (no. 41), where the lovers succeed in getting married by deceiving their parents (5).
4. Virtuous women
Men try to seduce girls, who virtuously refuse them (nos. 69-72, 78, 90, 101), sometimes making fun of the man (nos. 52, 75, 76, 77). Exceptionally, as an alternative ending, the girl accepts the offer of love (nos. 66, 67).
5. Women who break the law
The most widespread ballad about lawbreakers is "Donna Lombarda," no.1, in which a woman betrays and tries to kill her husband, is discovered and is murdered by him. Another well-known ballad is "Il testamento dell'avvelenato," no. 26, similar in content to "Lord Randal." In "La parricida", no.11, a young woman murders her father, who has forbidden love. Generally, the women are put to death.

Narrative ballads deal with other topics, but these are the main ones. All in all, ballads are mainly concerned with stories of women and in particular with the representation of the dangers coming from men (abduction, rape, murder, betrayal, mistreatment, abandonment), with the terrible consequences coming from a conflict with family or authority for questions of love (imprisonment, death) or from breaking the law, and virtuous female behavior.

Narrative characteristics

Italian balladry has four basic narrative features (Bruner:81-82): The narrator's perspective in Italian balladry is the woman's worldview in a peasant society, and seems to stress three elements: It seems an essentially female worldview, where men are often dangerous and never heroes. This worldview is expressed through the representation of women's emblematic cases of lives. Most ballads deal with the variety of situations occurring in a relationship between a woman and a man, depicting different characters and different behaviors, and pointing out a wide range of possible events. Family is often a third important element in the narrative, but has a minor role. Female characters are above all young women, then wives or, quite seldom, mothers, and they may be depicted either as positive or negative characters. Ballads narrate how these characters react to a wide range of situations mainly connected with love (and related feelings, e.g. jealousy), sex, marriage. In any case the relation woman-man lies generally on the background of the narrative and is the source of the different stories: no ballad deals with a relation among women or among men. By dealing with this theme, ballads represent and interpret a wide range of events which happen or may happen in the world and describe different patterns of behavior. In this way, they express and communicate the women's perception of themselves, men, and the possible developments of their relations. The stories have an emblematic character: they do not describe a particular occurrence or a particular person, but paradigmatic sequences of events which may stem from a relation. No interest is payed to the psychology of the different characters: what is important is what they do, how they behave. The way ballads are narrated tends sometimes to stress the fantastic side of the stories, mentioning kings, princesses and castles. But ballads represent and interpret events which happen or may happen in the real world, helping one in picturing to oneself their dynamics and meaning .

Italian ballads as a whole represent a sort of comprehensive survey of the possible events originating in a relation and connected models of behavior. From this point of view, ballads manifest different functions. They reveal a prominent educational value, by showing model behavior for honest women and the dangers coming from breaking morals or the law. Actually, the values manifested in ballads, especially the importance of honor and the condemnation of transgression, were shared by the whole society. Moreover, ballads had another function: singing ballads was an occasion for women to develop imaginative activity, which has an extremely important role at the psychological level. Finally, singing and creating ballads meant to work out a representation of the world and life, or better, of those aspects of the world and life that women knew better and in which they were more interested. We cannot omit considering that women in the countryside lived essentially within the boundaries of the household and farm and had limited contacts with the external world, while men travelled, made war, dealt with the landowner and authorities, frequented taverns. In this situation, women's creative imagination focused necessarily on the cases of life that they could experience and imagine and on the problem of the relation with men, which had a paramount importance in women's life, since it determined its course. While recognizing the fundamental dependence of women's fate on the relation with men, ballads helped to maintain this condition, by transmitting this worldview. But this and the other functions of the ballad, strictly connected to women's way of life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, was bound to disappear.

JPG photo of 1880 house, 87 kB

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