The 335th meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium will be held on Tuesday, April 26, 2022 at 7pm EST. ONLINE PRESENTATION VIA ZOOM. Please email comicssymposium@gmail.com to register for this event. Free and open to the public.

Simone Chess : Broadside Ballad Woodcuts: Premodern Visual Culture, Popular Media, and Queer Coding

Broadside ballads—single sheet songs on all topics, often printed with woodcut images—were wildly popular in the early modern period, but these popular and prolific illustrations have only recently begun to be considered as significant media in their own right. This talk will briefly review the history and impact of broadside ballad woodcut images in general, and then zoom in on the woodcut’s iterative lives of increasing meaning through reproduction and reuse. As certain images were reprinted in new contexts, they took on significance and meaning beyond any one use, becoming what Katie Sisneros has called “Early Modern Memes.” Building on the idea of woodcut images as signifiers beyond any single use, I’ll argue that certain woodcuts took on queer connotations, coming to be used to signal and advertise content related to nonnormative genders and sexualities. Tracking the lives of these queer-coded broadside ballad woodcuts deepens what we know about premodern visual vocabularies and puts our own queer visual language in conversation with its possible past. 

Simone Chess is Associate Professor of English and Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. She is the author of Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations (Routledge, 2016) and co-editor, with Will Fisher and Colby Gordon, of a special issue on “Early Modern Trans Studies” in The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies (JEMCS, 2019). She is completing a book on Shakespeare and trans culture for the Routledge “Spotlight on Shakespeare” series; another book project in progress will be about early modern disability, queerness, and technologies of sex. 

Woodcut image from “Watten Towns-End,” c. 1672, National Library of Scotland Crawford EB.91, English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) 32833.