Magrini ballads: women in Nigra's texts

last update 2 June 1995 by Karl Signell
Nigra's collection of Italian ballads can be considered the Italian equivalent of Child's collection of English ballads. [Tullia: in what sense are they "equivalent"? Size of collection? Comprehensiveness? Authenticity of documentation?] Unlike North-European ballads, the Italian repertoire has no magic elements (1), or episodes from epic literature. There are 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.

Women's topics

Most ballads widespread in Northern Italy [Tullia: In the Nigra collection?] were stories of women and usually about the relationship between women and men. Women's topics can be categorized into five groups.

1. Violence done by a man to a woman

The most narrated type of violence is abduction, often followed by suicide of the girl to avoid rape, for example, nos. 13-16, 32, 40, 43, 44, 49, 50, 53 (2). Other plots deal with men raping (nos. 4, 51, 79) and killing girls (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 content resembles that 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 girl 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 boy and a girl and the story usually ends with death of one or both lovers. This common plot typically describes the conflict of a girl with authority, generally represented by the father, because of love (nos. 7, 8, 18, 19, 20, 37, 41, 45, 46, 49, 57, 63, 73, 99) (4). An alternative 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 girls

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." Other famous ballads about lawbreakers tell of girls [Tullia: I'm not sure whether you intend a difference between "women" and "girls" throughout the manuscript. American feminists consider "girls" applied to grown women a belittling term.] who kill their illegitimate children (nos. 9, 10). Sometimes a girl murders her father, who has forbidden love (no. 11). In all cases, the girls are put to death.
Narrative ballads deal with other topics, but these are the main ones. 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. [Tullia: This paragraph seems repetitious. Delete?]

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:

This worldview is expressed through the representation of women's lives. Ballads represent and interpret events which happen or may happen in the world, and point out what seemed the principal dangers and faults in women's lives in past peasant society. Ballads showed their possible consequences and showed model behavior for honest women. While recognizing the miserable condition of women in peasant society, helped to maintain this condition [Tullia: Did you already establish this miserable condition? How was their life more miserable than the lives of their male counterparts?]. Some aspects of the worldview espressed in ballads, especially those of honor and transgression, were shared by men (Duby and Perrot 1993) [Tullia: You also cite Gisela Bock et al. as author of the same title in this series.], but the ballads show a female perspective, where men are often dangerous and never heroes.


Alternative happy endings for usually tragic plots introduced the element of fantasy. In the countryside, women lived essentially within the boundaries of the household and farm. Men travelled, made war, dealt with the landowner and authorities, frequented taverns. Women thus favored imagination to counterbalance a miserable and burdensome way of life, and to interpret scanty information from the outside world. [Tullia: Even for speculation, this seems weak. If fantasy were so important to the 19th century peasant woman, why would it appear only in alternative versions of ballads? Modern women, or men for that matter, have no craving for fantasy (movies, daytime TV dramas)? Is the modern woman's life also miserable and burdensome? If so, the case needs to be made.] But this function of the ballad, strictly connected to women's role in the 19th and early 20th century, would disappear with the disappearance of that way of life.

Return to Magrini Ballads table of contents