Middle English Lyrics
Washington State University
MIDDLE ENGLISH LYRICS
Does love exist? How are the lyrics convincing evidence, or not?
3 — “Sumer is icumen in.”
This is one of the most famous medieval secular songs still. It works as a round, like “Row Your Boat,” and celebrates the coming of the pleasant seasons, “sumer” not strictly referring to the godawful months of July and August in the inland northwest. Instead, we have the “reverdie” tradition here — the re-greening in spring — and so some bucolic scenes of plant-growth and lambs and calves. And maybe that’s it.
But a Robertsonian (patristic exegetical) reading of this lyric points out the importance of spring in terms of divine creation and perhaps the rejuvenation in terms of Easter. Creation may be the dominant implication, with the cuckoo known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests (hence: cuckold), and therefore reminding us of Jesus brought up by humans. But “bucke fertheth”? What can a Robertsonian reading do with that? The “bloweth med” may be the pleasanter image, but air and winds tend to be interpreted as the Holy Spirit, believe it or not. Sing cuckoo!
4 — “Lenten is come with love to toune.”
(c. 1314-1325) The “reverdie” tradition launches this alliterative lyric about lovesickness.
6 — “Foweles in the frith.”
(c. 1270) The alliteration in the first two lines indicates harmony among the birds and fish in their own respective natural elements. Although the third line starts with “And” instead of “But,” the human seems out of sync because of the “sorwe,” which we take automatically to mean lovesickness. (So this is a love song with no mention of love in it.) “And I must grow mad” or “And I, man, grow mad”? Is it “best of bone and blood” or “beast of bone and blood”? The final line’s defamiliarization technique captures the bewilderment of lover, perhaps — an attempt to objectify the beloved in physical mortal terms.
11 — Chaucer’s “Complaint to his Purse.”
Henry IV was a big bastard. The record of him renewing Chaucer’s annuity on his coronation day is faked: backdated from much later. And read Terry Jones’ Who Murdered Chaucer? for the real story of, at least, the regime change from Richard II to Henry Bullingbroke.
12 — “Where beth they biforen us weren?”
17 — “All night by the rose, rose.”
(14th century) The lyric reads like a riddle. The solution of course is that the “rose” was given freely.
21 — “Annes, Annes, Annes, Annes, …”
(c. 1390) Identify seven possible reasons for this lyric to end where it does. (And compare this with the Beatles’ “Julia.”)
22 — “Brid one brere, brid, brid one brere.”
(14th century) The first line here should sound imitative of birds chirping. If it doesn’t, your recording is too slow and somber. Lighten up! Medieval stuff is not automatically “Church.” There’s a blur here between “bird” and “bird” (the British slang word for woman.)
23 — “Have good day, now, Mergerete.”
(14th century) The lyric begins very public and open (personal but colloquial), a declaration between pals almost. It becomes clear that more is involved in the potential relationship, but privacy was a scarce commodity in the Middle Ages. See Andreas’ Rule XIII.
24 — “The smiling mouth.”
(15th century) It has become structurally rote to alternate between verses and a repeated chorus in pop songs. This lyric nicely uses the return of the chorus between verses in a logically motivated way. It serves as a sort of self-hypnosis with the obsessive catalogue of the woman’s traits that the poet or troubadour generates for himself. He acknowledges this: “It is my craft when ye are fer away / To muse thereon in stinting of my paine.” And then he lapses back into his meditation. In the first instance, he even had to shake himself out of it: “Youre fetes lite — what shulde I ferther say?”
27 — “Bitwene Mersh and Averil.”
(14th century) The reverdie introduction yields up Alisoun — so we have one of those personal / public love songs. It’s the common name for a woman, like “Mary” for Tin Pan Alley composers, but still, what if you don’t happen to be in love with one of the many medieval Alisouns? The lyric is uneven in structure, diction, and meter. Perhaps this captures the ineptitude and confusion of a new love.
29 — “Most I riden by Ribbesdale.”
(c. 1314-25) This one is built on the conventional anatomical catalogue of the woman’s features: grey eyes, large forehead, arched brows, seemly nose, etc. As we scan down, things seem to get a bit enigmatic. The lyric ends on the verge of blasphemy.
40 — Insulting praise of women.
This early 16th-century lyric I consider my father’s notion of feminism. It takes a stance against anti-feminism, but only because, after all, your mother and the Virgin Mary were women, the latter point having served better if saved up properly, as in the bird debate (see Lyric 59) about the relative value of women. How inept here!
Well, then we are reminded that, besides, women do the laundry and take care of men, so that’s certainly worthy praise if not exactly empowering. Note the last lines of the stanzas and the rhyme; our troubadour runs out of material!
48 — “Thus I complain.”
(c. 1445) Iambic pentameter makes this one more ponderous, with a Lydgatian third line and a pithy fifth. Or is that a silent two feet, indicating the freedom of “relees”?
59 — Bird debate.
(13th century) A thrush and a nightingale debate about women. The nightingale plays the “Mary” trump card finally, which shuts down debate, as always, but of course doesn’t really resolve the conflict.
62 — Antifeminist.
(15th century) An elitist yet cloddish notion of irony comes amid a lyric that goes nowhere and has no perspective.
63 — Grotesqueries.
(15th century) The point is that you can’t trust women, but all the fantastic images in this lyric are so attractive and enchanting that the message is thoroughly undermined.
68 — A rousing interactive drinking song.
(15th century) Crude slapstick music-hall humor is featured in this antifeminist piece.
77 — Smut.
(15th century) Somewhat like Old English riddles, but rather obsessively phallocentric, eh?
105 — Reverdie love lyric, to a man?
Oh, it’s to Jesus!
138 — Much debated marian (?) lyric.
(14th century) Either this is a simple ditty about a maiden who lay around a moor and ate fruit, or it’s a lot more, along Robertsonian lines, with the “mor” being the wilderness of the world under the old law before Christ (Robertson). Or it’s a moor (Donaldson).
165 — The Seven Deadly Sins.
This February 15th dream vision describes a procession of the sins. Pride comes first, but why is Sloth not last? Does the poet have a personal bitch against a glutton?
181 — Marian love song.
(15th century) Only briefly might we take this to be a standard love song before the Marian clues surface.
188 — Courtly love to Mary.
(15th century) This one is subtler and seduces the listener into thinking we’re drooling over a courtly lady before the lyric delivers the twist.
211 — “Abide, gud men.”
Jesus is rarely the speaker in songs. It seems like a more human approach than preaching, but it makes Jesus into one. It always fails to put doctrine into the mouth of God.
Middle English Lyrics. Ed. Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1974.