Adam Lay Ybounden

British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400

Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long

And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.

Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.

Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
Deo gratias!

This Middle English carol is from the British Library’s manuscript Sloane 2593, ff.10v-11, c. 1400, so the carol is roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, though it’s not in Chaucer’s London dialect of Middle English. The thematic core of the carol is the idea that if Adam hadn’t taken the apple, the fruit from the tree of knowledge, then Mary would never have been the mother of Christ. That is, in other words, the fortunate fall, in a nutshell. The large hold in the MS. photo at the top marks the text of Adam Lay Ybounden.

Angelus ad virginem

“Angelus ad virginem” is a Medieval Latin carol celebrating the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel telling the Virgin that she would conceive and bear the Christ child. The Latin lyrics are (here’s a rough translation):

1. Angelus ad virginem
Subintrans in conclave.
Virginis formidinum
Demulcens inquit “Ave.”
Ave regina virginum,
Coeliteraeque dominum
Concipies
Et paries
Intacta,
Salutem hominum.
Tu porta coeli facta
Medella criminum.

2. Quomodo conciperem,
quae virum non cognovi?
Qualiter infringerem,
quae firma mente vovi?
‘Spiritus sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia;
Ne timaes,
sed gaudeas,
secura,
quod castimonia
Manebit in te pura
Dei potentia.’

3. Ad haec virgo nobilis
Respondens inquit ei;
Ancilla sum humilis
Omnipotentis Dei.
Tibi coelesti nuntio,
Tanta secreti conscio,
Consentiens
Et cupiens
Videre
factum quod audio,
Parata sum parere
Dei consilio.

4. Angelus disparuit
Etstatim puellaris
Uterus intumuit
Vi partus salutaris.
Qui, circumdatus utero
Novem mensium numero,
Hinc Exiit
Et iniit
Conflictum,
Affigens humero
Crucem, qua dedit ictum
Hosti mortifero.

5. Eia Mater Domini,
Quae pacem reddidisti
Angelis et homini,
Cum Christum genuisti;
Tuem exora filium
Ut se nobis propitium
Exhibeat,
Et deleat
Peccata;
Praestans auxilium
Vita frui beta
Post hoc exsilium.

The carol appears to have been a popular one, preserved in several mss. It was so popular that in c. 1400 or so Chaucer alludes to it in Canterbury Tales, specifically, in “The Miller’s Tale,” where we are told that “hendy” Nicholas sings and accompanies himself on the psaltry:

And over all there lay a psaltery
Whereon he made an evening’s melody,
Playing so sweetly that the chamber rang;
And Angelus ad virginem he sang;
And after that he warbled the King’s Note:
Often in good voice was his merry throat.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins created a very loose translation that’s perhaps better read as a poem inspired by the Latin hymn) under the title “Gabriel, from Heaven’s King.”

BL Arundel 248 f. 154v

BL MS Arundel 248 f. 154
see detail

In the British Library’s MS Arundel 248, a collection of various texts in several languages from the early 13th century, the Latin text and tune  for “Angelus ad virginem” is immediately followed with a related song in Middle English. This kind of macaronic preservation of songs in multiple languages, side-by-side, is a not uncommon practice in medieval manuscripts, and given that the Church used Latin and scribes used English and or French, or German or Irish or . .  . multilingual songbooks make a great deal of sense. The way this collection of folios are organized, with a brief crudely drawn staff for the tune, followed by the lyrics is very reminiscent of a modern musician’s cheat book.

Gabriel, fram heven-king
sent to þe maide sweete,
broute hir blisfúl tiding
and fair he gan hir greete:
5 “Heil be þu, ful of grace ari3t!
For Godes son, þis heven-li3t,
for mannes love
wil man bicome
and take
10 fles of þee, maide bri3t,
mankén free for to make
of sen and devles mi3t.”

Mildëlich him gan andswere
þe milde maide þanne:
15 “Wichëwise sold ich bere
[a] child withute manne?”
þangel seid, “Ne dred tee nout:
þurw þoligast sal been iwrout
þis ilch þing
20 warof tiding
ich bringe:
al mánken wurth ibout
þurw þine sweet childínge
and ut of pine ibrout.”

25 Wan þe maiden understood
and þangels wordes herde,
mildëlich with milde mood
to þangel hie andswerde:
“Ure lords þewe maid iwis
30 ich am, þat heer aboven is.
Anentis me
fulfurthed be
þi sawe
þat ich, sith his wil is,
35 [a] maid, withute lawe,
of moder have þe blis.”

Þangel went awei mid þan
al ut of hire si3te;
hire womb arise gan
40 þurw þoligastes mi3te.
In hir wes Crist bilok anon,
sooth God, sooth man in fles and bon,
and of hir fles
ibore wes
45 at time.
Warþurw us kam good won;
he bout us ut of pine
and let him for us slon.

Maiden-moder makëles,1)Makëles or “matchless” is a triple pun; she is without peer, without a mate, also used in the Middle English lyric “I Sing of a Maiden.”
50 of moder ful ibunde,
bid for us him þat tee ches,
at wam þu grace funde,
þat he forgive us sen and wrake
and clene of evri gelt us make
55 and heven-blis
wan ur time is
to sterve,
us give, for þine sake,
him so heer for to serve
60 þat he us to him take.

The Annunciation F. 26r from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry MS 65 in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France. C. 1412–1416.

The tune for the Middle English version is usually easily recognized as the Latin hymn. The same Latin text of “Angelus ad virginem”  inspired a Basque Christmas carol “Birjina gaztettobat zegoen” collected by Charles Bordes.2)Archives de la tradition basque, 1895 Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) folklorist, novelist, and poet responsible for several hymns (including “Onward Christian Soldiers”) spent some time in the Basque region of Spain as a child, and translated the carol from Basque to English, in the process reducing the original 6 stanzas to 4.

1. The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

2. “For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

3. Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!

4. Of her, Emanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

This was one of my favorite childhood carols, familiar from a 1963 Time Life record, an album rich with Medieval carols, under the title “The Angel Gabriel.” It’s also been released as “Gabriel’s Message,” and “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came.”

These are all available in contemporary recordings. “Angelus ad virginem” has been recorded by The Tallis Scholars on Christmas with the Tallis Scholars and by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers on the album Christus Natus Est. Anonymous 4 have recorded the Middle English version as Song: Gabriel, fram heven-king on their album On Yoolis Night — Medieval Carols & Motets. Sting on the album If On A Winter’s Night recorded the Basque derivative under the title “Gabriel’s Message.” There’s a video of Sting singing “Gabriel’s Message” here. I particularly favor Sting’s rendition because it’s both simple and complex in the way Medieval music often is, and he doesn’t sing in an artsy pseudo operatic tenor.

References   [ + ]

1. Makëles or “matchless” is a triple pun; she is without peer, without a mate, also used in the Middle English lyric “I Sing of a Maiden.”
2. Archives de la tradition basque, 1895

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Boar Hunt

At this time of year, I always think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because the tale opens and closes with references to Christmastide. It also features a boar hunt, the second of three hunts that Sir Gawain’s host at Haut Desart, Sir Bertilak engages in while, back at the castle, Sir Gawain is pursued by the lady of Haut Desart.

Livre de la chasse
France, Paris, ca. 1406–1407
Morgan Library MS M.1044 fol. 64r

This image from The Morgan Library’s ms. of Gaston Phoebus’ Le Livre de la chasse/The Book of the Hunt (MS M. 1044 (fol. 64r) shows that the lymerer and his lymer, the huntsman with a dog who flushes the boar into the open, have forced the boar into the open. The boar, exhausted by the hounds, is attempting to flee, but one noble hunter (notice the clothing and the horses) has a spear at the ready, another a sword, and there’s also a standing hunter ready with a crossbow. Boars are smart, aggressive, and strong; it pays to be over-prepared.

It’s quite similar in many respects to the boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The boar hunt takes place on the 30th of December, and starts about line 1412.

Schalkez to schote at hym schowen to þenne,
Haled to hym of her arewez, hitten hym oft;
Bot þe poyntez payred at þe pyþ þat pyȝt in his scheldez,
And þe barbez of his browe bite non wolde—
Þaȝ þe schauen schaft schyndered in pecez,
Þe hede hypped aȝayn were-so-euer hit hitte.
Bot quen þe dynteȝ hym dered of her dryȝe strokez,
Þen, braynwod for bate, on burnez he rasez,
Hurtez hem ful heterly þer he forþ hyȝez,
And mony arȝed þerat, and on lyte droȝen.
Bot þe lorde on a lyȝt horce launces hym after,
As burne bolde vpon bent his bugle he blowez,
He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,
Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.
Þis day wyþ þis ilk dede þay dryuen on þis wyse,
Whyle oure luflych lede lys in his bedde,
Gawayn grayþely at home, in gerez ful ryche

of hewe (ll. 1454–1471).

Here’s Jesse Weston’s prose translation:

Then the men made ready their arrows and shot at him, but the points were turned on his thick hide, and the barbs would not bite upon him, for the shafts shivered in pieces, and the head but leapt again wherever it hit.

But when the boar felt the stroke of the arrows he waxed mad with rage, and turned on the hunters and tore many, so that, affrighted, they fled before him. But the lord on a swift steed pursued him, blowing his bugle; as a gallant knight he rode through the woodland chasing the boar till the sun grew low.

So did the hunters this day, while Sir Gawain lay in his bed lapped in rich gear.

In the case of SGGK, after spending all day chasing the boar, the boar makes for a hole by a mound and a large rock. There he turns and faces the hunters and dogs who are on foot and on the other side of the stream from the boar.

Til þe knyȝt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
Syȝ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde;
He lyȝtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȝt bront and bigly forþ strydez,
Foundez fast þurȝ þe forþ þer þe felle bydez.
Þe wylde watz war of þe wyȝe wiþ weppen in honde,
Hef hyȝly þe here, so hetterly he fnast
Þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
Þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
Þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepeȝ
In þe wyȝtest of þe water; þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult, þat þe hert schyndered,
And he ȝarrande hym ȝelde, and ȝedoun þe water

ful tyt (ll. 1581–96).

The lord rides up, dismounts, wades into the stream, and stabs the boar with his sword, in the chest and through the heart (thus providing a porcine instance of the Celtic motif of death at the ford).

The Boar’s Head Carol

There was a Medieval Christmastide tradition of ceremonially cooking and presenting the boar’s head as a main course at a feast. Indeed, Queen’s college still celebrates a notable boar and an alum in “The Boar’s Head Carol.”

Tradition says, or at least William Henry Husk, Librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society, says that the boar’s head tradition of a feast at Queens derives from

Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar’s head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar’s throat, crying, “Græcum est,” and fairly choked the savage with the sage.1)London: John Camden Hotten, 1868. Reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973.

The Middle English version of The Boar’s Head Carol:

Chorus: Caput afri differo2)Latin:The boar’s head I offer.
Reddens laudes domino.3)Giving praises to the Lord.
The bores heed in hand bring I,
With garlans gay and rosemary,
I pray you all synge merely
Qui estis in convivio.4)Latin:As many as are in the feast.

The bores heed, I vnderstande,
Is the chefe seruyce in this lande;
Loke, where euer it be fande,
Seruite cum cantico.5)Latin: Let us serve with song.
Be gladde lordes, both more and lasse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde
To chere you all this Christmasse,
The bores heed with mustarde.

I grew up hearing “The Boar’s Head”carol every Christmas, by way a Time Life album my mom had. But I think my very favorite recording is the one from Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen on the album Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe — Harry Christophers & The Sixteen. It’s a super collection of medieval and renaissance Christmas carols, neither too folksy nor too operatic. You can also just buy The Boar’s Head Carol on iTunes.

References   [ + ]

1. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868. Reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973.
2. Latin:The boar’s head I offer.
3. Giving praises to the Lord.
4. Latin:As many as are in the feast.
5. Latin: Let us serve with song.

Soul Cake and Souling

Soul, soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, anything good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, one for Paul, and three for Him who made us all.

All Souls’ Day is one of the feast days of the Roman Catholic Church. All Souls is observed on November 2. Special prayers are offered for the deceased souls in Purgatory, believed to be waiting. All Souls follows All Saints Day on November 1, the day on which the saints in heaven are commemorated under the assumption that the souls languishing in purgatory should also be remembered and prayed for. All Souls’ was established initially by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049). All Souls’ was widely celebrated by the 13th century. All Souls’ is also known as Soulmas Day or Saumas.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, it was common in England and the British Isles for people to give food and alms to the poor on All Souls’ Day with the assumption that the food was recompense for praying for the dead. In the 17th century John Aubrey (Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23) describes piles of small cakes set out on All Souls’ in Shropshire houses; visitors to the house would take one with the understanding that they would pray for the souls of the departed family members. The idea is that the prayers will assist the departed souls in Purgatory to move on to Heaven. Aubrey offers two lines of a lyric he describes as ‘an old Rhythm or saying’:

A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake,
Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake.

Aubrey’s reference is to a traditional lyric performed by “mummers,” people going house to house on and singing on November 2, the Feast of All Souls, Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, or in Latin commemoratio omnium fidelium Defunctorum in hopes that the mistress of the house would reward them with a soul cake. The soul cake, as suggested by Aubrey’s reference is a small cake that was typically made with oats as well as flour, and seasoned with spices and dried fruits. The mummers or singers would be rewarded for praying with the small cakes. The cakes and the custom of distributing them to visitors date back to the Middle Ages in England. The practice of going house to house and singing is called “souling” and is frequently cited an analogue if not an ancestor of modern day Halloween trick or treat. Souling seems to be a fairly localized custom until the 19th century, and was primarily associated with Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire.

There are genuine medieval recipes for soul cakes but they’re generally not very tasty. Like many medieval desserts, historic soul cake recipes tend to be heavy with respect to spices for modern tastes. Later recipes, especially those from the 18th century are much more like a modern slightly spicy scone with dried fruit.

Here is a modernized version of a recipe from the English recipe compilation referred to as Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. The original recipe from 1604 is as follows:

Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit.

There’s a modern version of the recipe here, one that was featured on The Food Network.

And here’s Sting on the David Letterman Show, singing the Soul Cake song, with the traditional melody, and some lovely but not quite so ancient additional lyrics. The song is from Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night album of seasonal music for Winter.

Nowel nayted onewe

60. Wyle Nw Ȝer watz so ȝep þat hit watz nwe cummen,

61. Þat day doubble on þe dece watz þe douþ serued.

62. Fro þe kyng watz cummen wiþ knyȝtes into þe halle,

63. Þe chauntre of þe chapel cheued to an ende,

64. Loude crye watz þer kest of clerkez and oþer,

65. Nowel nayted onewe, neuened ful ofte;

66. And syþen riche forþ runnen to reche hondeselle,

67. Ȝeȝed ȝeres-ȝiftes on hiȝ, ȝelde hem bi hond,

68. Debated busyly aboute þo giftes;

69. Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden,

70. And he þat wan watz not wroþe, þat may ȝe wel trawe.

71. Alle þis mirþe þay maden to þe mete tyme;

This is the New Year’s day passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It features a mass, and then knights and others entering the hall, and there’s an exchange of gifts, including hondeselle, which most editors suggest refers to the “Christmas boxes” from lords and knights to their subordinates, and then the ȝeres-ȝiftes, the gifts exchanged between equals. There appears to be some sort of a guessing game, along the lines of “handy-dandy, prickly-prandy” involved, wherein the ladies attempt to guess the nature of the gifts, and pay a forfeit in the form of a kiss, given the “Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden, / And he þat wan watz not wroþe, þat may ȝe wel trawe ” reference.

Happy New Year, one and all; may 2011 be full of warmth and goodness and safety for you and yours.

The Cherry-Tree Carol

The Cherry-tree Carol:

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.”

manuscript image of The Flight Into Egypt


Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Miniature of Virgin and Child [Flight into Egypt?], large initial on gold, linefiller, full border design. 1440–1460. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e494-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Cherry-tree 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.

In 1992 the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols (after James Child) described the Cherry-tree 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 of The Cherry-tree Carol 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, in ms. from the fifteenth century featuring a northeast midland dialect.1)The same ms. 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.

You can, if you wish, find numerous versions of the Cherry-tree carol online, including versions from Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, Sting, and the Anonymous 4. Here’s one of the many versions in full:

The Cherry-tree Carol

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.”

References   [ + ]

1. The same ms. also contains one of the versions of Sir Orfeo.

Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse

3

37. Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
38. Wiþ mony luflych lorde, ledeȝ of þe best,
39. Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,

40. Wiþ rych reuel oryȝt and rechles merþes.
41. Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,
42. Justed ful jolile þise gentyle kniȝtes,
43. Syþen kayred to þe court caroles to make.

44. For þer þe fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,
45. Wiþ alle þe mete and þe mirþe þat men couþe avyse;
46. Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
47. Dere dyn vpon day, daunsyng on nyȝtes,

48. Al watz hap vpon heȝe in hallez and chambrez
49. Wiþ lordeȝ and ladies, as leuest him þoȝt.
50. Wiþ all þe wele of þe worlde þay woned þer samen,

51. Þe most kyd knyȝtez vnder Krystes seluen,
52. And þe louelokkest ladies þat euer lif haden,
53. And he þe comlokest kyng þat þe court haldes;
54. For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age,

55. on sille,

56. Þe hapnest vnder heuen,
57. Kyng hyȝest mon of wylle;
58. Hit were now gret nye to neuen
59. So hardy a here on hille.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Luke from Wycliffe

26 But in the sixte moneth the aungel Gabriel was sent fro God in to a citee of Galilee, whos name was Nazareth,

27 to a maidyn, weddid to a man, whos name was Joseph, of the hous of Dauid; and the name of the maidun was Marie.

28 And the aungel entride to hir, and seide, Heil, ful of grace; the Lord be with thee; blessid be thou among wymmen.

29 And whanne sche hadde herd, sche was troublid in his word, and thouyte what maner salutacioun this was.

30 And the aungel seide to hir, Ne drede thou not, Marie, for thou hast foundun grace anentis God.

31 Lo! thou schalt conceyue in wombe, and schalt bere a sone, and thou schalt clepe his name Jhesus.

32 This schal be greet, and he schal be clepid the sone of the Hiyeste; and the Lord God schal yeue to hym the seete of Dauid, his fadir, and he schal regne in the hous of Jacob with outen ende,

33 and of his rewme schal be noon ende.

34 And Marie seide to the aungel, On what maner schal this thing be doon, for Y knowe not man?

35 And the aungel answeride, and seide to hir, The Hooly Goost schal come fro aboue in to thee, and the vertu of the Hiyeste schal ouerschadewe thee; and therfor that hooli thing that schal be borun of thee, schal be clepid the sone of God.

36 And lo! Elizabeth, thi cosyn, and sche also hath conceyued a sone in hir eelde, and this moneth is the sixte to hir that is clepid bareyn;

37 for euery word schal not be inpossible anentis God.

38 And Marie seide, Lo! the handmaydyn of the Lord; be it don to me aftir thi word. And the aungel departide fro hir.

39 And Marie roos vp in tho daies, and wente with haaste in to the mounteyns, in to a citee of Judee.

40 And sche entride in to the hous of Zacarie, and grette Elizabeth.

41 And it was don, as Elizabeth herde the salutacioun of Marie, the yong child in hir wombe gladide. And Elizabeth was fulfillid with the Hooli Goost,

42 and criede with a greet vois, and seide, Blessid be thou among wymmen, and blessid be the fruyt of thi wombe.

43 And whereof is this thing to me, that the modir of my Lord come to me?

44 For lo! as the voice of thi salutacioun was maad in myn eeris, the yong child gladide in ioye in my wombe.

45 And blessid be thou, that hast bileued, for thilke thingis that ben seid of the Lord to thee, schulen be parfitli don.

46 And Marie seide, Mi soule magnyfieth the Lord,

47 and my spirit hath gladid in God, myn helthe.

48 For he hath biholdun the mekenesse of his handmaidun.

49 For lo! of this alle generaciouns schulen seie that Y am blessid. For he that is myyti hath don to me grete thingis, and his name is hooli.

50 And his mercy is fro kynrede in to kynredes, to men that dreden hym.

51 He made myyt in his arme, he scaterede proude men with the thouyte of his herte.

52 He sette doun myyti men fro sete, and enhaunside meke men.

53 He hath fulfillid hungri men with goodis, and he hath left riche men voide.

54 He, hauynge mynde of his mercy, took Israel, his child;

55 as he hath spokun to oure fadris, to Abraham and to his seed, in to worldis.

56 And Marie dwellide with hir, as it were thre monethis, and turnede ayen in to hir hous.

57 But the tyme of beryng child was fulfillid to Elizabeth, and sche bare a sone.

58 And the neiyboris and cosyns of hir herden, that the Lord hadde magnyfied his mercy with hir; and thei thankiden hym.

59 And it was don in the eiyte dai, thei camen to circumcide the child; and thei clepiden hym Zacarie, bi the name of his fadir.

60 And his moder answeride, and seide, Nay, but he schal be clepid Joon.

61 And thei seiden to hir, For no man is in thi kynrede, that is clepid this name.

62 And thei bikeneden to his fadir, what he wolde that he were clepid.

63 And he axynge a poyntil, wroot, seiynge, Joon is his name.

64 And alle men wondriden. And anoon his mouth was openyd, and his tunge, and he spak, and blesside God.

65 And drede was maad on alle her neiyboris, and alle these wordis weren pupplischid on alle the mounteyns of Judee.

66 And alle men that herden puttiden in her herte, and seiden, What maner child schal this be? For the hoond of the Lord was with hym.

67 And Zacarie, his fadir, was fulfillid with the Hooli Goost, and prophesiede,

68 and seide, Blessid be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visitid, and maad redempcioun of his puple.

69 And he hath rerid to vs an horn of heelthe in the hous of Dauid, his child.

70 As he spak bi the mouth of hise hooli prophetis, that weren fro the world.

71 Helthe fro oure enemyes, and fro the hoond of alle men that hatiden vs.

72 To do merci with oure fadris, and to haue mynde of his hooli testament.

73 The greet ooth that he swoor to Abraham, oure fadir, to yyue hym silf to vs.

74 That we with out drede delyuered fro the hoond of oure enemyes,

75 serue to hym, in hoolynesse and riytwisnesse bifor hym in alle oure daies.

76 And thou, child, schalt be clepid the prophete of the Hiyest; for thou schalt go bifor the face of the Lord, to make redi hise weies.

77 To yyue scyence of helthe to his puple, in to remyssioun of her synnes;

78 bi the inwardnesse of the merci of oure God, in the whiche he spryngynge vp fro an hiy hath visitid vs.

79 To yyue liyt to hem that sitten in derknessis and in schadewe of deeth; to dresse oure feet in to the weie of pees.

80 And the child wexide, and was coumfortid in spirit, and was in desert placis `til to the dai of his schewing to Israel.

CAP 2

1 And it was don in tho daies, a maundement wente out fro the emperour August, that al the world schulde be discryued.

2 This firste discryuyng was maad of Cyryn, iustice of Sirie.

3 And alle men wenten to make professioun, ech in to his owne citee.

4 And Joseph wente vp fro Galilee, fro the citee Nazareth, in to Judee, in to a citee of Dauid, that is clepid Bethleem, for that he was of the hous and of the meyne of Dauid,

5 that he schulde knouleche with Marie, his wijf, that was weddid to hym, and was greet with child.

6 And it was don, while thei weren there, the daies weren fulfillid, that sche schulde bere child.

7 And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.

8 And scheepherdis weren in the same cuntre, wakynge and kepynge the watchis of the nyyt on her flok.

9 And lo! the aungel of the Lord stood bisidis hem, and the cleernesse of God schinede aboute hem; and thei dredden with greet drede.

10 And the aungel seide to hem, Nyle ye drede; for lo! Y preche to you a greet ioye, that schal be to al puple.

11 For a sauyoure is borun to dai to you, that is Crist the Lord, in the citee of Dauid.

12 And this is a tokene to you; ye schulen fynde a yong child wlappid in clothis, and leid in a cratche.

13 And sudenli ther was maad with the aungel a multitude of heuenli knyythod, heriynge God,

14 and seiynge, Glorie be in the hiyeste thingis to God, and in erthe pees be to men of good wille.

15 And it was don, as the `aungelis passiden awei fro hem in to heuene, the scheephirdis spaken togider, and seiden, Go we ouer to Bethleem, and se we this word that is maad, which the Lord hath `maad, and schewide to vs.

16 And thei hiyynge camen, and founden Marie and Joseph, and the yong child leid in a cratche.

17 And thei seynge, knewen of the word that was seid to hem of this child.

18 And alle men that herden wondriden, and of these thingis that weren seid to hem of the scheephirdis.

19 But Marie kepte alle these wordis, berynge togider in hir herte.

20 And the scheepherdis turneden ayen, glorifyinge and heriynge God in alle thingis that thei hadden h
erd and seyn, as it was seid to hem.

21 And aftir that the eiyte daies weren endid, that the child schulde be circumcided, his name was clepid Jhesus, which was clepid of the aungel, bifor that he was conceyued in the wombe.

22 And aftir that the daies of the purgacioun of Marie weren fulfillid, aftir Moyses lawe, thei token hym into Jerusalem, to offre hym to the Lord, as it is writun in the lawe of the Lord,

23 For euery male kynde openynge the wombe, schal be clepid holi to the Lord; and that thei schulen yyue an offryng,

24 aftir that it is seid in the lawe of the Lord, A peire of turturis, or twei culuer briddis.

Medieval Fairies as Other

MacAllister Stone has been posting a series about the roles of the other in spec fic. You can find Part I Magical Negroes, expendable queers, and other well-worn tropes here, Part II here, and Part III, or, The Magical Other here. Part IV is likely to appear some day in the future. I wanted to pick up on two observations MacAllister makes that particularly intrigued me because they deal with the role of fairies as the øther in medieval literature. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot.

First, MacAllister Stone defines Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

The best example of medieval fairy Other I know of is the c. 1400 Middle English anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s hall on New Year’s day, while the court is at table. He rides a horse that, while elaborately caparisoned and saddled, is entirely green, as is the equally expensively garbed and very large knight. The knight has green hair, green skin, and green clothes, bears a giant axe in one hand, and a holly bob in the other, and is shockingly uncanny, and Other.

The courtiers recognize the Green Knight for what he is, immediately:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene
He ferde as freke were fade (ll. 147-49).

[Cawley translates line as 149 “He behaved like an elvish man” (Everyman 1962, 56). Vantuono has “He acted like an elvish knight” (12 l. 149). Tolkien’s translation reads “as a fay-man fell he passed” (1982, 23). Garbáty glosses “were fade” as “were fey”-“He fared as man (that) were fey” (Garbáty 1984, p. 260).]

The courtiers identify the Green Knight, quite correctly, as an otherworld intruder, clued in to his origins in part by his color. Keep in mind that other than being large and very green, the Green Knight is in no way monstrous; he is in fact quite a handsome figure. Having identified the intruder as what Professor Carnicelli called “a big green fairy,” they then begin to contemplate the meaning of his arrival “For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene myȝt / Þat a haþel and a horse myȝt such a hwe lach, / As growe grene as þe gres” (ll. 233-35).

Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre
Wyþ al þe wonder of þe worlde what he worch schulde.
For fele sellyez had þay sen, bot such neuer are;
Forþi for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed (SGGK ll. 232-240).

To the courtiers and serving folk, waiting in the hall, the Green Knight is not just clearly Other, he’s fairy Other. They’re not an unsophisticated audience, either; they’ve seen other sellys, other marvels, but he is very very different, and quite clearly a magical creature; so much so that “for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed” (SGGK l. 240).

image from the British Library's Cotton_Nero_-AX_f.90v showing the Green Knight on his green horse holding his severed head in one hand and Gawain with the axe, standing before the dais where Arthur, and the Queen sit

Britiish Library MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v. Used with permission

The courtiers are cautious and silent, wary of risking the dangers of speech with something so different. Consequently, they’re not terribly surprised when the Green Knight issues his bizarre challenge and invites any of the knights to take the axe he carries and strike off his head, in return for the promise to allow the Green Knight to return the favor a year and a day later.

After some back-and-forth, Gawain takes the fairy knight up on the challenge, hefts the Green Knight’s axe and whacks off his head. When the Green Knight picks up his severed head where the courtiers have been kicking it around under the table, and rides off, they’re pretty sure that Gawain is for it when he has his rendezvous to receive the Green Knight’s return blow in a year and a day at the mysterious Green Chapel.

The court watches on All Souls Day the following November 1 as Gawain departs in search of the Green Knight and the Green Chapel. They lament that Gawain is to be “Hadet wyþ an aluisch mon, for angardez pryde” (l. 681 ). The courtiers have good reason to assume the worse; not only because the Green Knight can happily survive decapitation, but because, well, he’s a fairy.

Fairies and otherworld folk in general are dangerous in the extreme, prone to kidnap mortals simply because the mortals were in the wrong place at the right time, like Hereudis in Sir Orfeo. She falls asleep under an ympe tree, a grafted fruit tree, in her own orchard around noon, and sees the fairy king and his knights. The king tells her:

“Loke, dame, tomorwe þatow be
Riȝt here vnder þis ympe-tre,
& þan þou schalt wiþ ous go
& liue wiþ ous euermo;
& ȝif þou makest ous ylet,
Whar þou be, þou worst yfet,
& totore þine limes al {f.300vb}
Þat noþing help þe no schal;
& þei þou best so totorn
Ȝete þou worst wiþ ous yborn” (Sir Orfeo ll. 165-74).

Notice that the king explicitly threatens her; if she does not make the assigned rendezvous, and go with the king to the fairy otherworld, she’s to be torn limb from and will still be taken by the fairies.

Despite the best efforts of King Orfeo, and his hundred knights, the next day Heurodis is taken from them by the fairies. Despondent, Orfeo resigns his crown, turning his reign over to his steward, and exiles himself as a wanderer with a harp in the wilderness. In his exile he manages to see the fairies engaged in fairy pursuits, including a group of women hawking, with Heurodis a silent member of the party. He follows them “in at a roche,” into the otherworld. There, in the otherworld, he sees a chamber of horrors, filled with other mortals taken by the fairies.

. . . Of folk þat were þider ybrouȝt
& þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt.
Sum stode wiþouten hade {f.302ra}
& sum non armes nade
. . .
& sum lay wode, ybounde,
& sum armed on hors sete
& sum astrangled as þai ete
& sum were in water adreynt
. . .
Wiues þer lay on childbedde,
Sum ded, & sum awedde;
& wonder fele þer lay bisides
Riȝt as þai slepe her vndertides.
Eche was þus in þis warld ynome,
Wiþ fairi þider ycome.
(ll. 389-92; 94-97; 99-404).

These are mortals taken in various liminal states. They were not quite dead, nor quite alive, not quite sanctified, not quite unfit. These are explicitly, despite the assertions of some, not dead people; they are, the poet tells us, “folk þat were þider ybrouȝt / & þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt” (ll. 389-90). They are maimed, and wounded, headless, armless, some bound and mad, some armed on horseback, some strangled, some drowned, or burned. There are examples of special liminal cases, too, like wives taken in childbed, as well as those, like Heurodis, taken as they slept in the heat of the day.

Keep in mind that these fairies are the same fairies that, when Heurodis first sees them,

“Al on snowe-white stedes;
As white as milke were her wedes,
Y no seiȝe neuer ȝete bifore
So fair creatours ycore” (ll. 145-48).

The fairies who abduct Heurodis are no more monstrous than the Green Knight is, yet they still threaten Heurodis, and take mortals at will. Indeed, their strikingly beautiful appearance marks them as other just as much as the Green Knight’s color does. The actions of the fairies, however motivated, or rule-based they may be, appear arbitrary and unmotivated to the mortals of the communities where the fairies intrude. Fairies are capricious, unknowable, and, given the threats made to Heurodis, and the Green Knight’s ability to suffer decapitation in good cheer, quite possibly malicious in intent. Certainly they are ”other,” with all its connotations of dangerous, incomprehensible, and alien. Both the fairies who kidnap Heurodis, and the Green Knight fit MacAllister Stone’s definition of Other: they are outsiders, and they represent a threat to the community.

I’m going to skip forward about fifteen hundred years in my next post, to look at a fairy otherworld intrusion in nineteenth century Tipperary, Ireland, in 1895, and the burning of Bridget Cleary. My third post is about Bridget Cleary, too, in the context of fairies, sex, death and the Other.

In the meantime, here are some links for the curious: