The oldest Danish ballad tradition

Denmark’s mediaeval ballads were committed to paper in the Renaissance. Hundreds of ballads are found in handwritten ballad books from 1550 to 1700.

The texts from the 9 oldest ballad books have been published on CD-ROM in volume III of the four-volume work Svøbt i mår.

In all the 9 oldest books of ballads the – at that time – most popular 18 ballads are represented. Svanings håndskrift I contains the greatest number (20 versions of 13 different top-18 ballads), followed by Karen Brahes folio, older part and Hjertebogen. The ballad Marsk Stig occurs the most times (11 versions in 7 of the ballad books), whereas the other ballads among the 18 most popular occur in between 5 and 7 times (see also the Top-18 list, where the ballads are sorted according to the number of occurrences in the ballad books).

Altogether, 106 versions of the ballads from the top-18 list are available online and versions of the less popular ballads are currently being added.

All of the ballad texts are recorded in the original wording of the manuscripts. The ballads have contributed to plays, ballad operas, and multiple poems of the Danish Golden Age. We find words and expressions from the ballads in Danish poetry during the next centuries and some are still in use in modern Danish as well – for instance ungersvend 'swain' and jomfrubur 'lady’s bower'.