Literature,  Music

I Syng of A Mayden

“I Syng of a Mayden,” sometimes titled “As Dewe in Aprille” is a Middle English Marian lyric (or perhaps more accurately, a carol) about the virgin Mary, with reference to the Annunciation story in Luke 1:26-38. The Middle English is 15th century, with enough oddities that I hesitate to speculate about the dialect. “I Syng of A Mayden” is preserved in a single British Library manuscript MS Sloane 2593 f.10v, a collection of 71 carols and songs or lyrics on paper, with the exception of a strip of parchment used to mend a folio. The MS. has been damaged; a number of folios are missing from the beginning. The first poem is incomplete, and the foliation has been changed, with 42 crossed out and replaced with 2.

It’s possible the manuscript was created at the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. As the British Library notes the text includes the only medieval carol in regarding St Edmund. There is in addition a reference to Kings Lynn, a prominent market town in Suffolk, in another of the texts contained in Sloane 2593, and the ms. appears to have been in the possession of “Johannes Bardwell or Berdwell, monk of Bury St Edmunds” based on a note in the MS. Sloane 2593 contains a number of lovely Middle English lyrics and carols, including Adam Lay Y-Bounden and I Have A Gentil Cock, I Have A Yonge Suster, Far Beyonde the Sea, Robyn and Gandeleyn (Robin Hood and Gamelyn), among others.

Image of British Library MS. Sloane 2593 f.10v Showing I Syng of A Mayden at the top
British Library MS. Sloane 2593 f.10v I Syng of A Mayden at the top


The first line of “I Syng of A Mayden” makes a pun; makeles means spotless, matchless, and without a mate — a triple pun, using two different words, preserved in Modern English as match and mate.

I sing of a maiden[ref]Lightly edited:

þ replaced with th
l. 1 makelees to makeless
l. 18 che to she
That is makeless:
King of alle kinges
To her sone she chees.
He cam also stille
Ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprille[ref]“Dew in April” is a reference to a common image from the liturgy, but see also Judges 6:36–40 as Wycliffe translated it:

36 And Gideon said to the Lord, If thou makest safe Israel by mine hand, as thou hast spoken, (And Gideon said to the Lord, If thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as thou hast said,)

37 I shall put this fleece of wool in the cornfloor; if the dew is in the fleece alone, and dryness is in all the earth, I shall know, that thou shalt deliver Israel by mine hand, as thou hast spoken. (for me to be certain of that, I shall put this fleece of wool on the threshing floor; and tomorrow, if dew is found only on the fleece, and the ground all around it is dry, then I shall know for sure that thou shalt save Israel by my hand, just as thou hast said.)

38 And it was done so. And he rose by night (And he rose up early), and when the fleece was wrung out, he (had) filled a basin (full) with dew; 39 and (then) he said again to the Lord, Thy strong vengeance be not wroth against me, if I assay yet once (again), and seek a sign in the fleece (and seek a sign with the fleece); I pray, that the fleece alone be dry, and that all the earth (around it) be moist with dew.

40 And (so) the Lord did in that night, as Gideon asked; and dryness was in the fleece alone, and dew was in all the earth (and the next day, the fleece was dry, but there was dew on the ground all around it).[/ref]
That falleth on the gras.
He cam also stille
To his modres bowr
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the flowr.
He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the spray.[ref]spray “(a) A branch, shoot, or twig of a tree, shrub, or vine; a switch; also fig.; also, a branch as a symbol of victory, strength, or prowess” MED s.v. sprai notes that the figurative meaning applies here.[/ref]
Moder and maiden
Was nevere noon but she:
Wel may swich a lady
Godes moder be.

This is a text that relies heavily on the story of the Annunciation in Luke, when Gabrel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would conceive Christ. I’ve always been particularly struck by ll. 3–4:

King of alle kinges
To her sone she chees.

The use of chees or chose, the idea that she choose or consented to the conception isn’t one that I can recall seeing elsewhere.

The key metaphor of April dew falling on the grass, the flower, the spray (a branch, shoot or twig of a tree) refers to the immaculate conception as announced by Gabriel.  The image of dew is used in the liturgy, because of the passage in Judges (see note) about dew on the Gideon’s fleece as a sign of God’s purpose. The Old Testament image of the dew on the fleece was seen as a type of the immaculate conception. The spray in line 9 alludes to the idea that Christ is a descent of Jesse via King David, as prophesied in Isaiah 11:1: “And a rod shall go out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall ascend (out) of the root of it ” (Wyckliffe translation).

Because the conception of Christ was divine, Mary was both mother and maiden.