Sure, there was no TV, and literacy was pretty thin on the ground, but the common folk of the late Middle Ages weren’t hurting for sensational entertainment. The songs that we’ve come to know as “traditional ballads” often had stories that would put the Syfy channel and the soaps to shame. They frequently preserved a “good parts” version of stories enjoyed and spread by the literate. And contrary to rumor, not everyone dies horribly.
The Old English geste of “King Horn” , which exists in a dizzying array of manuscripts dating from the 13th century onward, tells a pretty complicated story, and takes anywhere from 1200 to 10,000 lines to do it. The ballad “Hind Horn” (Child #17 ) preserves the good parts in a ballad of 20-30 couplets.
His name was called young Hind Horn
Seven long years he served the king
And all for the love of the king’s daughter Jean
The king an angry man was he
And sent Hind Horn away to sea
He gave to Jean a silver wand
That seven lavrocks  sat upon
She gave him back a gay gold ring
With seven diamonds glittering
“When this ring grows pale and wan
You will know my love is gone”
To the sea he’s gone away
And stayed seven years and a day
One day he looked his ring upon
And saw the diamonds pale and wan
He left the sea and came to land
And first he met an old beggar man
“What news, what news, old beggar man?
For it’s seven years since I’ve seen the land”
“No news,” said the beggar, “No news at all
But there is a wedding in the king’s great hall”
“Wilt thou give me thy beggars weeds?
I’ll give to thee my good grey steed”
The old beggar man was bound to ride
But young Hind Horn was bound for the bride
When he came to the royal gate
He begged a drink for Hind Horn’s sake
The bride came down with a cup of wine
He drank from the cup and dropped in the ring
“Oh got ye this by sea or land?
Or got ye this from a dead man’s hand?”
“Not by sea, but from the land
For I got this ring from your own hand”
“Oh, I’ll cast off my gowns of brown
And beg with you from town to town
Oh, I’ll cast off my gowns of red
And beg with you to win my bread.”
“You need not cast thy gowns of brown
I’ll make you lady of many a town
You need not cast thy gowns of red
By a trick I stand in a beggar’s stead.”
The bridegroom came tripping down the stair
But neither bride nor beggar was there
The bridegroom took Lady Jean to wed
But young Hind Horn took her to bed.
 The story is pretty pan-European; versions exist from 16th c. manuscripts in Scandinavia and broadside sheets in Germany ca. 1550.
 F.J. Child compulsively sorted and numbered all the ballads he recovered during his studies in the late 19th century. Since ballad titles tend to be fluid, it’s often more reliable to refer to a “Child ballad” by its number.
 A lavrock is a songbird, much like a lark.