By Danièle Cybulskie
When I hear people talk about the Middle Ages, I get the impression that most people picture it as a time of mud and dreariness, in which people slogged miserably through their daily lives. While mud would certainly have been a big part of reality, there was also beauty, liveliness, and entertainment.
One of the most famous pieces of music that has survived is a Middle English song about summer: “Sumer is Icumen In”. Like us, medieval people were overjoyed at the coming of warm weather, and all of the loveliness that comes with it. Here are the lyrics (in Middle English, and in my own translation):
Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing cuccu
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu
Awe bleteþ after lomb
Lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc sterteþ bucke uerteþ
Murie sing cuccu
Wel singes þu cuccu
Ne swik þu nauer nu
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!
Summer has come in!
Loudly sing “Cuckoo!”
The seeds are growing, the meadow is blowing,
And the wood is springing newly.
The ewe is bleating after the lamb,
The cow is lowing after the calf,
The young bull is jumping, the buck is farting,
Merrily sing, “Cuckoo!
You sing well, “Cuckoo!”
Don’t ever stop now!
Sing, “Cuckoo!” now, sing “Cuckoo!”
Sing, “Cuckoo!” Sing, “Cuckoo” now!
Now, I do wonder if the whole “farting” thing might have been supposed to be more like “snorting”, but medieval people did like their fart jokes (just watch or read one of their plays, and you can see for yourself!).
The lovely folks at The British Library have digitized the manuscript in which you can find this lovely song (click here to see it). As you’ll see, it’s beautiful in its red, blue, and black ink, and the musical staff is recognizable – pretty cool, considering it was written in the 13th Century. Also interesting is that there are Latin lyrics under the Middle English ones, but the Middle English ones are given prominence; usually, English played second fiddle to Latin, since Latin was the language of the upper classes. Finally, there are helpful instructions which make it possible for YouTube clips like this one to show you how it would have been sung.
Have a listen on these days of summer coming in, and enjoy the celebration so evident in the lyrics. (Just for fun, you can also check out Ezra Pound’s very funny response here.)
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