Play it Again, Sam: Medieval Tunes

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Codex Manesse, fol. 192v, Albrecht von Rapperswil / Albrecht von Raprechtswil

By Danièle Cybulskie

There are some songs and rhymes that are so well-known in our culture that we often wonder where we learned them. I recently discovered that one I’ve heard all my life actually dates back to the fifteenth century. Here it is, in Middle English:

Thirty dayes hath November,
April, June, and September;
Of XXVIII is but oon,
And all the remenaunt XXX and I.

Sound familiar?

This got me thinking about two other familiar tunes which may have come to us from the Middle Ages. The meaning of these “nonsense” lyrics, and their origin, has been hotly debated by historians, with no definite conclusions reached. While I am not a folk historian (and don’t have any conclusive answers of my own), I thought it might be interesting to share a couple of the cases for these songs being medieval.

The first one, “Ring Around the Rosie,” has long been associated with the Black Death (1348), with the part about all falling down being the most obvious connection to plague. People have also thought of the “pocket full of posey” being a bunch of herbs carried around superstitiously to ward off plague, although it could just as easily be herbs carried to mask the smell of death. “Ring Around the Rosie” also contains a lyric about cows being in the meadow (either “eating all the grass” or “eating buttercups”), which could be a simple, pastoral scene or, if we keep on with the plague imagery, could be about the lack of tending to livestock due to widespread death – a real problem in 1348. What I find most interesting about “Ring Around the Rosie,” though, is the reference to “wedding bells” and the couplet “The king has sent his daughter / To fetch a pail of water.” If this is, indeed, referring to 1348, it could be referring to Edward III’s daughter, Princess Joan, who died of plague en route to her wedding to Prince Pedro of Castile (Spain). Wouldn’t that be interesting?




The second song, “Scarborough Fair,” is a song about love being once enjoyed, and now only enjoyed on the condition that the lover performs impossible tasks. The refrain “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” has been given many meanings over the years. It could, for example, be referring to the symbolic traits attributed to plants (bravery, etc.). However, I think the most interesting theory that has been put forth is that the refrain is meant to help illiterate women to remember which herbs they should take if their lovers have suddenly left them. The reason that I believe this to be likely is that all of these herbs have been known since ancient times to be abortifacient; that is, they can cause miscarriage if taken in high doses. There isn’t much else these herbs have in common (except that they taste delicious), and their abortifacient qualities seem to fit in with a song about someone who has been jilted by a lover either absent or so heartless as to offer love only on impossible conditions (most people probably know Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition, which goes: “Tell her to make me a cambric shirt … Without no seams nor needlework”; “Tell her to find me an acre of land … Between salt water and the sea strand”). In an age where the vast majority of people – especially women – were illiterate, it would make sense to make information easy to remember, such as through rhyme.

While I, sadly, can’t prove any of this without the aid of a time machine, the possibilities certainly are fascinating. If nothing else, they add dimension to the songs we’ve known for (literally?) ages.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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Sharan Newman