It would be an error to suppose that most romantic folk-songs are vulgarizations of literary romance - a view to which Mr Courthope, in his History of English Poetry, and Mr Henderson in The Border Minstrelsy (1902), incline - and the opposite error would be to hold that this process of borrowing from and vulgarization of literary medieval romance never occurred. A good illustration of the true state of the case will be found in Child's introduction to the ballad of Young Beichan.
Gaston Paris, a great authority, holds that early popular poetry is "improvised and contemporary with its facts" (Histoire poétique de Charlemagne). If this dictum be applied to such ballads as "The Bonny Earl o' Murray," "Kinmont Willie," "Jamie Telfer" and "Jock o' the Side," it must appear that the contemporary poets often knew little of the events and knew that little wrong. We gather the true facts from contemporary letters and despatches. In the ballads the facts are confused and distorted to such a degree that we must suppose them to have been composed in a later generation on the basis of erroneous oral tradition; or, as in the case of The Queen's Marie, to have been later defaced by the fantastic interpolations of reciters. To prove this it is only necessary to compare the historical Border ballads (especially those of 1595-1600) with Bain's Border Papers (1894-1896). Even down to 1750, the ballads on Rob Roy's sons are more or less mythopoeic. It seems probable that the existing form of most of our border ballads is not earlier than the generation of 1603-1633, after the union of the crowns.
Even when the ballads have been taken from recitation, the reciter has sometimes been inspired by a "stall copy," or printed broadsheet.
The indispensable book for the student of ballads is Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in 1897-1898 (Boston, U.S.A.). Professor Child unfortunately died without summing up his ideas in a separate essay, and they must be sought in his introductions, which have never been analysed. He did not give much attention to such materials for the study of ancient poetry as exist copiously in anthropological treatises. In knowledge of the ballads of all European peoples he was unrivalled, and his bibliography of collections of ballads contains some four hundred titles, (Child, vol. v., pp. 455-468). The most copious ballad makers have been the Scots and English, the German, Slavic, Danish, French and Italian peoples; for the Gaelic there is but one entry, Campbell of Islay's Lea har na Feinne (London, 1872). The general bibliography occupies over sixty pages, and to this the reader must be referred, while Prof. Gummere's book, The Beginnings of Poetry, is an adequate introduction to the literature, mainly continental, of the ballad question, which has received but scanty attention in England. For the relation of ballad to epic there is no better guide than Comparetti's The Kalewala, of which there is an English translation.
For purely literary purposes the best collection of ballads is Scott's Border Minstrelsy in any complete edition. The best critical modern edition is that of Mr T. F. Henderson; his theory of ballad origins is not that which may be gathered from Professor Child's introductions.