This carol appears to have first been collected in Britain in the seventeenth century. Francis James Child printed three versions, calling the song The Cherry-Tree Carol, and publishing it as Child Ballad 54. It was collected previously, and subsequently, in versions from all over the British isles, and from America’s Appalachia region, where Jean Ritchie popularized The Cherry Tree Carol, in a version memorialized by Joan Baez and others.
O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.”
O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
“Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.”
In 1992 the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols (after James Child) described the carol as one of several “doubting Joseph” carols, including The Cherry Tree Carols, Joseph Being An Aged Man, Joseph Being An Old Man Truly, and Joseph Was An Old Man (Keyte and Parrott, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Carol #129, pp. 446-8).
The basic motifs include the context of the “flight into Egypt,” when Joseph and Mary fleeing Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” after an angel warns Joseph via a dream that Herod intends to kill all first born male children (Matthew 2:13), fruit miraculously appearing and offering itself to Mary, and Joseph’s repentance for casting doubt on Mary’s chastity (Joseph’s jealousy is referenced in Matthew 1:18 1:25).
The story is an old one, appearing in Chapter 20 of the Apocryphal Pseudo Matthew, written sometime in the ninth century, wherein the fleeing Joseph and Mary are in the Egyptian dessert, and Mary, hungry and thirsty, wishes she might consume some of the unreachable dates on the date palm.
And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast.
And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle.
Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop.
Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.
Sometime in the fifteenth century in slightly revised form of the story appears in the anonymous cycle drama known as either Ludus Coventriae, or the N-Town Plays, depending on the edition and editor. Here, in Play 15, the Nativity, the Egyptian date has been transformed to the much more English fruit, the cherry, unseasonably bearing fruit in Winter. The cherry tree, at Mary’s request, bows down that she might pick and eat of its fruit.
MARIA A, my swete husbond, wolde ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?
JOSEPH Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre.
In tyme of yere, ye myght fede yow theron youre fylle.
MARIA Turne ageyn, husbond, and beholde yon tre,
How that it blomyght now so swetly!
JOSEPH Cum on, Mary, that we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd, I telle yow lythly.
MARIA Now, my spowse, I pray yow to behold
How the cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have therof ryght fayn I wold!
And it plesyd yow to labore so mech for me.
JOSEPH Youre desyre to fulfylle I shal assay, sekyrly.
Ow! To plucke yow of these cheries—it is a werk wylde
For the tre is so hygh, it wol not be lyghtly!
Therfore, lete hym pluk yow cheryes begatt yow with childe.
MARIA Now, good Lord I pray thee, graunt me this boun,
To have of these cheries and it be youre wylle.
Now I thank it, God—this tre bowyth to me down!
I may now gaderyn anowe and etyn my fylle.
JOSEPH Ow! I know weyl I have offendyd my God in Trinyte,
Spekyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I beleve wel it may non other be
But that my spowse beryght the Kyngys Son of Blys!
He help us now at oure nede.
Of the kynrede of Jesse, worthely were ye bore:
Kyngys and patryarkys gow beffore.
All these wurthy of youre kynred wore,
As clerkys in story rede.
There’s a strong association of miraculous cherries and the nativity in medieval English drama. In another of the cycle dramas, the Secunda Pastorum or Second Shepherd’s Play of the Wakefield master, the poor shepherds each provide a gift to the infant Christ. Coll, the eldest of the shepherds, brings the miraculously unseasonable fruit as his gift.
Hayll, yong child!
Hayll, maker, as I meyne,
Of a madyn so mylde!
Thou has waryd, I weyne
The warlo so wylde:
1030 The fals gyler of teyn,
Now goys he begylde.
Lo, he merys,
Lo, he laghys, my swetyng!
A wel fare metyng!
1035 I haue holden my hetyng;
Haue a bob of cherys.
Other shepherds offer the babe holly and a ball, instead of the myrrh, frankincense and gold of the Bible.
Last of all, we see the story transformed to the bare motifs of the miraculous fruit in the Middle English romance of Sir Cleges, seen here from Oxford MS Bodleian 6922 (Ashmole 61). Fols. 67b-73a, a northeast midland dialect ms. from the fifteenth century that also contains one of the versions of Sir Orfeo. This late Arthurian romance has nothing to do with Chretien de Troye’s Cliges, at all; it is rather the story of a knight whose generosity and lavish public feasts, especially at Christmas, have paupered him. Cleges is presented with a miraculous cherry tree, bearing fruit out of season in his garden, when he kneels and prays. His wife suggests that Cleges and his son take the cherries as a Christmastide gift to King Uther in Cardiff.
As he knelyd onne hys kne
Underneth a chery tre
Makyng hys praere,
He rawght a bowghe in hys hond
To ryse therby and upstond;
No lenger knelyd he ther.
When the bowghe was in hys hond,
Gren levys theron he fond
And ronde beryes in fere.
He seyd, “Dere God in Trinyte!
What maner beryes may this be
That grow this tyme of yere?
“I have not se this tyme of yere
That treys any fruyt schuld bere,
Als ferre as I have sought.”
He thought to tayst it yff he couthe:
One of them he put in hys mouthe;
Spare wold he nought.
After a chery it relesyd clene,
The best that ever he had sene
Seth he was man wrought.
A lytell bow he gan of slyfe,
And thought he wold schew it hys wyfe;
In hys hond he it brought.
“Lo, dame, here is a newylte:
In our garthyn upon a tre
I found it, sykerly.
I ame aferd it is tokenyng,
Because of our grete plenyng,
That more grevans is ny.”
His wyfe seyd, “It is tokenyng
Of more godnes that is comyng:
We schall have more plente.
Have we les or have we more,
Allwey thanke we God therfore;
It is the best, treulye.”
The lady seyd with gode cher,
“Late us fyll a panyer
Of the frute that God hath sente.
Tomorow when the dey do spryng
Ye schall to Cardyff to the Kyng,
Full feyre hym to presente.
Sych a gyft ye may hafe ther
That we schall the beter fare,
I tell you, verament.”
Syre Clegys grantyd sone therto:
“Tomorow to Cardyff I wyll go,
After your entent.”
Uther, having recognized Cleges as a knight he thought long dead, rewards Cleges and the knight’s son, thus ending their poverty.
Joseph and Mary walked
through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries,
as thick as might be seen.
O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.’
O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.’
O then bespoke the babe,
within his mother’s womb:
‘Bow down then the tallest tree,
for my mother to have some.’
Then bowed down the highest tree
unto his mother’s hand;
Then she cried, See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command.
O then bespake Joseph:
‘I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
and be not cast down.’