The Genealogical Trajectory of the Folk-Ballad “Dives And Lazarus”

Garrett Shuler



The Genealogical Account of the Folk-Ballad “Dives and Lazarus”

Perhaps no artistic creation warrants an analytical “reception history” more so than the traditional folk-song or ballad; as scholar Cecil J. Sharp notes, “[whereas] art music is the work of the individual…Folk music, on the other hand, is the product of a race, and reflects feelings and tastes that are communal rather than personal; it is always in solution; its creation is never completed” (Sharp, 19-20). With this is mind, we can perhaps note the inherent similarities present in the medium of folk music and the portions of the New Testament containing Jesus’s parables; inasmuch both a folk song and a parable are both succinct and didactic elucidations of certain societal value systems. Therefore, one might contend that every prophetic folk-balladeer par excellence like Christ himself tells stories that do not merely reveal narrative content for the sake of the story itself; rather these troubadours often relay the normative moral tenets of their time, people, and locale. As such one may perhaps contend that folk-songs based on the parable of Christ that modify the narrative components do so for the sake of a moral attunement relative to the “modifier’s” social environment that they might either reinforce certain thematic elements of the original Biblical parable itself or suggest a new object of moral focus catalyzed by the latter social milieu in which reiteration was produced. Since the folk-song should be an honest reflection of a certain community’s stance espoused at the time of the work’s creation, one should be most apt to understand the nuance of the folk ballad “Dives and Lazarus” in the context of the 16th century Worcestershire setting in which it was created.

Before analyzing the specific ballad itself, a certain familiarity with the paradigms of folk music should better inform conclusions about its claims. Cecil J. Sharp contends that folk-music bifurcates into two general domains—the folk “song” and the folk ballad—of which a given work of folk-music is organized primarily in accordance with one specific quality that folk-music scholars find the most salient in their nomenclature—whether the song is framed as a subjective “regurgitation” of an experience and the mental state which it catalyzed in the subject or conversely the so-called “objective” delineation of a tale often found in the works of antiquarian bards and medieval minstrels. Most historians argue that the demarcation lying in the artistic perspective of either the subjective folk song or objective folk ballad is such a critical factor in determining the appropriate method in which one analyzes the work because the latter presupposes the individual auteur’s relative autonomy in the creation of the work whereas the former’s creation presupposes the subtle communal pressures of the culture on the artistic agent (Sharp 109-110) . The preeminent 19th century scholar of the English and Scottish folk ballad tradition, Dr. Francis James Child of Harvard University, determined that the ballad, “unlike other songs, does not purport to give utterance to the mood or feeling of the singer [or author]…[The singer] merely tells what happened and what people said…if it were possible to conceive of a tale telling itself, without the instrumentality of a conscious speaker, the ballad would be such a tale” (Child, xi). Yet I, in the company of more contemporary scholars such as Dr. David B. Gowler among others, find this conclusion inaccurate. Firstly, the artist, even if they consider their countenance of the tale to be the most objective narrative possible, have already committed an act that expresses their inherent subjectivity. In choosing the topic for the folk-ballad, the artist has either consciously or subconsciously been spurned on to creation by some aspect of the topic’s content whether they are aware of what that aspect is or not. That component will likely dominate their expression and aesthetic creation in such a subtle manner that they may perhaps be totally precluded from noticing the moments in which their “objective” folk-ballad reveals as much about the artist and their social pressures as it does about the original “objective” version’s intent.

The folk ballad of “the Ryche man and poor Lazarus” was first granted licensing rights to a John Wallye and Mistress Toye in 1557 in a transcript from the Register of the Company of Stationers of London as chronicled in Dr. Francis James Child’s preeminent catalogue of Anglican folk-songs English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I have analyzed this cardinal text as my primary document due to the nature of the work in which it is collected and Child’s elucidation of his method in finding the folk song lyrics. Child’s English and Popular Scottish Ballads, in which the folklorist traveled through the United Kingdom compiling folk songs from 1882-1898, is considered by most the preeminent work on the subject and his collection of folk songs is most consistently referenced by later scholars in the field e.g. Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughnan Williams, etc. However other works prior to Child’s publication have alluded to Wallye’s “ryche man and Lazarus” such as William Hone’s Ancient Mysteries Described and John Hotten’s A Garland of Christmas Carols albeit in a very passing, superficial manner, often only noting the comical nature of the oxymoronic lyric “bended upon a serpent’s knee”. However as William Husk expounds in Songs of the Nativity the Worcester (Wooster) lyric is as such because it illustrates that the “serpent’s knee was antithetical to the Angel’s knee on which Lazarus was to rest” (Husk, 94). However, Husk also notes that the folk song was so widely disseminated in the Anglican culture of the early 17th century that John Fletcher’s Jacobean era stage-play “Monsieur Thomas” includes a fiddler who references the specific song in his enumeration of those which he can play.

With reference to Child’s iteration of the folk song, it is of critical importance that we begin first in an analysis at the most foundational element of the song, the title itself. Of critical importance to note, the “rich man” is never named within the parable itself found in the Gospel of Luke 16:19-16:31. Instead Jesus begins the parable “there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day”. As such, the adjective “rich” is translated into “diversus” in Latin and furthermore when the adjective is used nominately Dives literally translates into “a rich man”. Dives is not the explicit name of the anonymous rich man of course, however it became a tradition to refer to him in the Latin designation and thus transcended the original Latin language itself in the English version of the folk song. Similarly the Latin “Lazarus” is derived from the Hebrew word Eleazar, which essentially means “God has helped” and thus Lazarus literally means in the Latin nominative case, “a man whom God has helped” (see Lazarus of Bethany).

Although Luke only explicated that the rich man “feasted sumptuously every day”, the folk song instead adds certain elements that introduce another thematic element that coincides with the association of the rich man with an elitist Jewish faction like the Sadduccees or Pharisees, yet is not immediately contained within the ecclesiastic text itself. Interestingly, whereas the biblical text focuses on the consequences of the action—the folk song focuses on the potential prevention of those consequences in the first place. The first verse of “Dives and Lazarus” begins with a specific feast in which Dives does not dine alone—as the New Testament may suggest—but rather dines with “all his friends and gentry of the best”. This highlights not merely an individual wealth disparity between the rich man and Lazarus but also notes a “class” disparity in which the societal elites lives a conspicuously privileged life of grandeur and abundance where food can literally “fall from the table” and it makes little difference in their lives. On the contrary, poor Lazarus is dying of malady and hunger at the gate while his antithesis in the rich man is so busy glutting himself on fine oeurdouvres that he pays little credence to the pauper at first. However in another manner in which the folk-ballad diverges from the original Gospel, Lazarus literally vocalizes his plight and exhorts Dives to “bestow upon the poor some meat, some drink, brother Dives”. Dives smugly rejects Lazarus’s admonishment by arguing “thou art none of my brother, Lazarus, that lies begging at my door” which indeed serves dual functions. Perhaps the allusion can first be attributed as simultaneous foreshadowing to Dives later plea of Abraham as he is punished in Hell, “Then father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them…” and thus Dives is hinting that there are many other societal elites that think similarly to himself and need to be forewarned of the consequences resulting from their frugal nature. Also, the “thou art none of my brother” reference may be an explicit rejection of Lazarus’s identification of Dives as brother Dives; in effect this would seem to indicate that Dives does not seem to be a humanist at all—rejecting any notion of a fraternity of man—and instead considers those fiscally deficient parties as subhuman entities not even deserving of recognition as a member of the same species. Both of these tie quite nicely with Lazarus’s later revision of his plea “Some meat, some drink Brother Dives, for Jesus Christ his sake” which also coincides with Abraham’s response to Dives request in Hell in the Luke version, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”, which is clearly an allusion to Jesus himself. In fact the English version is quite astute because it in fact argues that Rich “Christians” will be hypocrites like the rich man and argue “no meat nor drink will I give to thee for Jesus Christ his sake!” Even though Christ himself to be a charitable donator of wealth may admonish these Christians, it appears that the 16th century English peasantry knows all too well that many will ignore this mandate.

In 1557 when “the Ryche Man and poor Lazarus” was first licensed, the English social landscape is still in the midst of extreme parochial, economic, and political strife due to the changes consequent of the Reformation. After Henry VIII’s severance of ties with papal authority, the creation of the Anglican church, and the dissemination of Lutheran, Zwinglian, and Calvinist principles among the British Isles, Henry’s successor to the throne, Edward VI, ruled over a politically Protestant nation. However, the boy-king’s attempts to officially institute Protestantism among the people were countered by his Catholic half sister following his death and her accession to the throne. “Bloody Mary” Tudor attempted to enact a “Counter-Reformation” in England during her time as Queen which beyond merely reverting to certain Catholic service practice also involved the execution of the so-called Protestant heretics.

This ecclesiastic theocratic-political schism of the English Reformation was in many cases of little direct import for the “the parish clergy and their flocks in the English villages and towns [who] had not as yet been changed much one way or the other” during the time of Henry and Edward’s reign (Todd, 346). I posit that if anything, the English peasantry was most likely disillusioned with regards to the changes in the monarchy and religious organization because they were still plagued by poverty and for many in such a situation such religious discord would seem to be but a mere frivolity in relation with the effects of the economic disparity of the land on the impoverished. Yet I also would suggest that this religious division would be come immediately relevant to the layman and folk-balladeer during the reign of “Bloody Mary” because she punished the lower classes indirectly through her persecution of generous Protestant clergymen that acted as the respective caretakers of their community’s destitute regardless of their sacerdotal assignment. Although it is painstakingly evident that there are critiques of the attitudes of the miserly and lavish members of the English gentry, I also contend that there is also perhaps veiled prescriptive claims for the upper echelon of society by way of negative definition in that that which is the antipode of the Rich man’s actions would likely be considered the morally “correct” action by the folk balladeer.

In both the original text of Luke and “Dives and Lazarus”, the rich man feasts every day. For the impoverished Englishman of the 16th century, a daily feast would be a far cry from the dietary habits to which they were accustomed as most would only witness a feast on special religious holidays, if at all, for most were just fortunate enough to partake in one measly meal of vegetables and bread in a day. Moreover, the inclusion of meat in the diet was something reserved exclusively for the upper class of the society, but interestingly this was not merely a domestic norm dependent entirely on one’s economic status—it was an enforced law that only members of specific classes bases on the political hierarchies of the day consumed certain foods in a certain manner. For instance the Sumptuary Law of 1517 was legislation proposed by Henry VIII that determined the number of courses one could have at a meal, which foods could be served, and moreover what constituted a dish as a means of solidifying the status quo in economic classes (McFarnon). Thus when noted in conjunction with the explicit mention of gentry’s appearance at the banquet, it appears that the folk-balladeer intends to emphasize that the rich man of “Dives and Lazarus” is not merely a sole wealthy merchant who exists as an economic anomaly, but rather is an abstracted individual indicative of the attitudes and lifestyles of one blessed with that social status during the time period. With this in mind, we might look at the rich man of the folk song from two perspectives: functioning as a singular member of an elite economic class faced with certain moral decisions on the individual level while simultaneously serving as a narrative synecdoche, or symbolic representative of the ideologies and behaviors of the larger class as a whole.

When Lazarus “laid him down and down and down at Dives’ door”, it is indeed salient that the poor disabled beggar is expelled from the door of the house to the gate because these domestic locations have both symbolic biblical meaning and also could perhaps be an illusion to a priestly position within the Roman Catholic church. It is plausible that the original creator of the song did indeed have knowledge of specific Bible verses since the Tyndale translation of the Bible was available in every parish starting in 1539. Therefore, it appears that “Dives and Lazarus” may perhaps be explicitly referencing Luke 11:9-13 as a means of explicating the Rich Man as being antithetical to Christ in that Christ is a doorkeeper who bestows sanctuary indiscriminately to those who seek it:

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’                                                                    (Luke 11:9-13 NSRV)

Dives does not yield the salvation for Lazarus’s physical body because he is corrupted by the earthly vice of classism and discriminates not merely against the individual beggar Lazarus, but among poor. Perhaps though also functions as a veiled critique of the Catholic Church practices of the 16th century which following the Council of Trent created a minor order referred to as the Ostiarius, or porter. This position entailed that during the Eucharist the porter guarded the door so that no unbaptized persons may participate. Moreover, these doormen were also tasked de facto with expelling beggars and other undesirables during Mass procedures—even though this seems quite inconsistent with Christ’s teachings. If we perceive the rich man as a member of the Catholic clergy in this particular context, then it also follows that Lazarus’s objects of desire, the meat and drink of the rich man, are meant to also represent the Eucharistic flesh and blood of Christ being denied to him by the Church father due to his social status. Considering the Protestant undertones of the folk ballad, it might also follow that as in the tradition of Huldrych Zwingli the folk-song is denying the literal transubstantiation of Christ in the Eucharistic sacrament as a necessary condition for human salvation, but rather determines such religious rite to merely serve a symbolic function. However, the importance of Lazarus’s exit through a gate is also a symbolic act conspicuously tied to Jesus’s role as the good shepherd in the Gospel of John “9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9 NSRV).

One of the most interesting discoveries I made during my research concerning the origin of the folk-ballad’s lyrics were certain synchronicities in specific components of the folk-ballad’s lyrics and the historical accounts of the lives of two specific Oxford Martyrs, John Hooper and Hugh Latimer. Although perhaps nothing more than the product of serendipitous coincidence, an interesting consistency between the two narratives emerges. Although I would not confidently attribute “Dives and Lazarus” lyrics as causally dependent on those potential historical influences, I do postulate as to whether or not there might not be a certain positive correlation between the occurrences and the artistic creation. The folk-ballad originated in Worchester three years after the two especially well liked and prominent Protestant bishops of Worcester, John Hooper and Hugh Latimer, were martyred during the time of Bloody Mary’s reign when they refused to embrace Roman-Catholic religious doctrines. Although both the ballad and the historical events are products of a specific locale of the 16th century English landscape known as Worcestershire and there are no chronological incongruities, the most salient connection between the two respective narratives is the nexus in both parables concerning charitable welfare bestowed upon the poor or the lack thereof in the case of the folk-ballad and original parable itself.

William Urick, in a chapter appropriately titled “The Martyr Bishops of Worcester” as a portion of his longer historical work Nonconformity in Worcester pertaining to Latimer and Hooper exclusively, elucidated the good works performed by the two esteemed clergymen and religious martyrs. Urick notes about the Worcester bishop Hugh Latimer awarded his bishopric in 1535 :

“Latimer was very liberal in his diocese. He [Latimer] said: ‘I am more inclined to feed many grossly and necessarily than a few deliciously and voluptuously. I delight more to feed hungry bellies than to clothe dead walls…Latimer took the part of the poor against the oppression and injustice of the rich.”                                                                                                      (Urick, 10).


In a time when many clergymen refused the impoverished, Latimer was regarded by the poor and oppressed as “especially appointed by God for their protection” (DeMaus 428). Not only did the Bishop extend his charity on the individualistic level to the disenfranchised, Latimer also attempted to remedy the injustices he witnessed perpetrated against the defenseless on a societal level through sermons that targeted those committing such evils. Although during Edward VI’s reign there was indeed a “scandalous corruption of morals among the higher classes…[of which] such vices of high status often escape the condemnation which they deserve…[Latimer was] defender of the poor” and often secured court hearings for those that were not accustomed to justice being served. In one such instance Latimer condemns the corrupt English judges for their neglect of certain cases involving the destitute and in many ways echoes certain themes of the parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus:

“Nowadays the judges be afraid to hear the poor man against the rich…the greatest man in a realm cannot hurt a judge so much as a poor widow…She can bring the judge’s skin over his hears and never lay a hand on him. And how is that? ‘The tears of the poor fall down upon their cheeks and go up to heaven’ and cry for vengeance before God…God will hear the tears of the widows…                                     (DeMaus 429).

Beyond these acts of good will, Latimer was integral in the dissemination of the English Bibles in his diocese; since in the Roman Catholic tradition the Bible had been exclusively preserved in Latin, those disproportionately affected by the language barrier such as the uneducated English peasantry were able to read the Bible themselves for the first time. Unfortunately, Latimer’s decision to maintain his Anglican identity resulted in his eventual burning at the stake. In his acceptance of his fate, the prophetic tone of Latimer resonates quite clearly with the Lucan parable “’I thank God most heartily that he prolonged my life to this end…to which the prolocutor replied, ‘If you go to heaven in this faith, I will never come hither, as I am thus persuaded” (508). As such, the impassable chasm between the wicked and the righteous is unconsciously invoked once again—as in Luke’s gospel. Even though Latimer’s corporeal body was destined to be burned, his faith gave him strength because he knew such flames were fleeting—unlike those which awaited the wicked; hence, “he addressed to Ridley [a fellow martyr] in memorable words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day by God’s grace light such a candle in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” (Urick 14). In this sage reconciliation of his mortal destiny in the context of the eternal, Latimer alludes to another one of Jesus’s parables found also in the gospel of Luke:

‘No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.’

(NSRV, Luke 8:16-8:18)

This parable, as is often the case with Lucan text, presents a thematic reversal of roles that sounds almost identical with Abraham’s response to the Rich Man, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus in a like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in agony” (NSRV, Luke 8:16-8:18).

The other bishop of Worcester venerated for his grace towards toward the poor, John Hooper, was perhaps even more remarkable in his generosity than his predecessor Latimer and in many ways is a historical foil to the fictional character of the parable and folk-ballad, Dives.

The preeminent source of the information regarding Hooper is relayed by way of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, a Puritanical work chronicling Protestant martyrs and proto-martyrs that memorialized their deeds while also simultaneously serving as a de facto indictment of the Catholic Church’s practices during the time period. Typically considered a relatively accurate account by modern historians regarding the Reformation period, Fox lauds John Hooper to the utmost degree for his Christly stewardship and goodness:

“He employed his time with such diligence, as to be a spectacle (or pattern) to all bishops. So careful was he in his cure, that he left no pains untaken, nor ways unsought, how to train up the flock of Christ in the true word of salvation, continually labouring in the same. No father in his household, no gardener in his garden, nor husbandman in his vineyard, was more or better occupied than he in his diocese amongst his flock, going about his towns and villages, in teaching and preaching to the people there.

(2-3, Introduction to Writings of Dr. John Hooper)

John Hooper, a student of Bullinger and Zwingli, was appointed the bishopric of Gloucester and Worcester by Edward VI one year prior to the beginning of Mary I’s reign in 1552. Previously, he was most well known for his conflicts over the use of vestments in the Anglican church and considered such ornamentation to be superfluous. For the purposes of this critical reception however, one specific anecdote about Hooper seems quite relevant to an understanding of the folk-ballad Dives and Lazarus as chronicled again by John Fox:

“As for the revenues of his bishoprics, he pursed nothing, but bestowed it in hospitality. Twice I was at his house in Worcester, where in his common hall I saw a table spread with good store of meat, and set full of beggars and poor folk; and I asking the servants what this meant, they told me, that every day their lord and master’s custom was to have to dinner a certain number of the poor folk of the city by course, who were served with wholesome meats; and when they were served, after having been examined by him or his deputies in the Lord’s prayer, the articles of their faith, and ten commandments, he himself sat down to dinner, and not before.”

(3, Introduction to Writings of Dr. John Hooper)

This specific account of Hooper’s good works in which he held a sumptuous feast of meat and other such victuals for beggars and the poor folk is the direct antipode to Dives’s feast! Hooper did bestow some meat and drink upon the poor and was cherished by them all the more for it as a living saint. Urick notes that in a letter to some of his acquaintances in the Church, Hooper directly alludes to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in his exhortation:

“Read…[this portion that discusses] the sins of the richer sorts of people and also the poor both in this shire and others. The rich man so encroacheth, gathereth together, and obtaineth so much into his own hands, that he alone possesseth the earth and liveth nearby, and his poor neighbor [Lazarus] is ready to die for lack; so that he is brought into Tantalus’s pain. Meat and drink, cattle and corn enough on every side of him, yet he may rather die for lack…                                                         (Urick 20)

Again one may note the consistent use of certain phrases and allusions to the parable found in Hooper’s writings consistent with the specificities of the folk-ballad lyrics of “Dives and Lazarus”. It appears that in many ways Hooper was the paragon of the parable’s intended message; an exemplar of moral largesse Hooper likely served as a source of inspiration for nearly all that knew him in his diocese. Although as a bishop Hooper acted as a moral reincarnation of the Rich Man in his relations with the destitute members of his parish, Hooper also experienced the life of Lazarus as a prisoner of the queen Mary I. Hooper recounted his time in prison:

“the house hath infected me with sundry diseases. During which time I have been sick, and the doors, bars, hasps and chains, being all closed, and made fast upon me, I have mourned, called and cried for help. But the warden [like Dives], when he hath known me many times ready to die and when the poor men of the wards have called to help me, hath commanded the doors to be kept fast, and charged that none of his men should come at me saying, ‘Let him alone, it were good riddance of him.”

(4, Introduction to Writings of Dr. John Hooper)

Hooper like Lazarus is totally impotent as a result of his illness and yet the wicked warden, like Dives, considers his plight to be justified and instead of using his position of power to grant salvation chooses to watch as he is dying before his very eyes. Yet as Hooper is informed of his execution, the bishop rejoices because he understands that like Lazarus his worldly life is one of endless suffering and yet such suffering has only made his liberation all the more sweet—his eternal sanctuary in heaven a deserved reward. He remarks to a knight sympathetic to his unjust punishment, “consider that death [in eternal torment] to come is more bitter, and the life to come more sweet. Therefore, for the love and desire I have to the one…[I await] patientily to pass through the torments and the extremities of the fire now prepared for me” because eternal life awaits him (7). This contrasts quite vividly the inescapable torment and pain of the fire Dives faces in hell and the Lucan reversal of roles is again present in both the historical narrative and the folk-ballad. This reversal is only exacerbated in Hooper’s encounter with a “wicked man” on the eve of his death who feels sorry for him; Hooper instead tries to warn the man to prevent him from experiencing the fate of Dives in the last verse who regrets his former evils and thus Hooper says “be sorry for thyself, man…and lament thine own wickedness; for I am well, I thank God, and death to me, for Christ’s sake, is welcome” (9). Whereas Dives is attempting flee his punishment and torment, Hooper faced his fate with undeterred fortitude. In his final moments of divinely inspired martyrdom upon the stake, the reverend demanded, “For God’s love, good people, let me have more fire!” (14). Although it would be impossible to definitely attribute the consistency in the lyrics to these direct sources of historical inspiration, I do posit that the dissemination of these values of charitable giving on the behalf of the poor became intrinsic to the 16th century English society’s cultural make-up and thus these values became critical instruments in the artistic expression of that locale.

Works Cited

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Urwick, William. Nonconformity in Worcester: With an Account of the Congregational Church Meeting in Angel Street Chapel, and an Appendix of Lists of Ministers throughout the County, and Extracts from the Non-Parochial Registers. Simpkin, Marshall, Kent & Co., 1897. Print.

William Hone. Ancient Mysteries Described,: Including Notices of Ecclesiastical Shows … / by William Hone. Printed for William Hone , 45, Ludgate Hill. By J . M’Creery, Tooks Court., 1823. Internet Archive. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

“Writings of the Dr. John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester .. : Hooper, John, D. 1555 : Free Download & Streaming.” Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

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