The Matter of Religion in English and Scottish Popular Ballads
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The aim of the dissertation was to establish in what ways the form of English and Scottish popular ballads determines and moulds their religious contents. The thesis offers a systematic and holistic approach to the problem of the religiousness of the ballads, moving beyond the traditional understanding of the label of “religious literature” ascribed to a limited set of texts belonging to the genre and acknowledging the ballads’ multifaceted engagement with the Christian background that informs them. Investigating the genre’s incompatibility with certain modes of expressing religious content that prevail in what literary criticism traditionally terms “religious poetry” (such as expressing or invoking religious experience or being a vehicle for formal religious and moral instruction), the thesis demonstrates that ballads can, nonetheless, successfully manifest and participate in religion in its social dimension. It is argued that the participation of the genre in popular religiosity is facilitated by its flexibility in adopting and adapting religious content on various planes, that is, on the level of phraseology, structure and narrative. The ballad variation renders the religious references relatable for singers, listeners or ballad collectors. In this sense, ballads bind participants of the tradition with other members of the interpretive community who share the understanding of the meaning and function of religious elements within the ballad story and thus further consolidate those elements in the tradition.