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, first my own translation, followed by the original Middle English:
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. 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.)
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.